Research Conversations is released every three months and provides a unique opportunity to gain insight into the field of research.
Featured Researcher: Naji Abumrad, MD
Academic Institution: Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Title: Professor of Surgery/Executive Medical Director, Surgery Patient Care Center
Because if I had a two-way ticket, I would have left. And I needed to survive, and $140 wasn’t going to take me a long way. So we stayed, I finished my training and looked for a few jobs in the private world. I was telling folks earlier, there was one incidence, I looked at the job and lovely person outside Pittsburgh was telling me that he has a very thriving practice and wanted to take me as a partner and he has done over 2,000 hernias, so I said what about 2,001? What’s different, in 2002 and 2003, and then I went home and thought to myself you know, you become a technician and that’s not what I wanted to do. So I stayed on the faculty for a couple of years and I left and I took a job at Vanderbilt with no pay to learn how to do research. It was the department of medicine. And then, eventually, they paid me. And I loved what I did, I still love what I do and to this day…
I just stepped down in July as the Chair of the Department of Surgery in Vanderbilt. You know what, the only reaction I had was, why on earth didn’t I do this 10 years ago? It’s just been fun, and have had a great time. Particularly when you are with young, smart, particular, hungry investigators, and some smarter than me, how can it not be fun?
The last one was when I came back to Vanderbilt, as I presented the case today of a 16-year-old lady, who is very obese, was diabetic and admitted to the hospital. This is when we petitioned the medical school to allow us to do a bariatric procedure. I am not a bariatric surgeon or an obesity surgeon, but I have an incredible team. What surprised me is this young lady left the hospital after three days, never ever to take medications. …..I thought to myself if the pharmaceutical company developed a drug that can cure 10% of the population of diabetes overnight that would be a huge success. So that’s where it started, it started around 11 years ago when we put in an application to the NIH to follow a cohort of people overtime. Vanderbilt has always been incredibly strong willed, so I collaborated with a significant number of people that I knew and got to know and we got funded. We started systematically going at this and every single time another barrier appears, I am blessed to have phenomenal young people around me, every single one of them has developed his/her own academic career. And once they do that, I leave that field and we move to another barrier within the same overall umbrella. Why does this bariatric surgery cure diabetes? If we can learn from that, look, I am the first to tell you bariatric surgery is surgery, there are certain inherit complications (not much), but it is an intervention. Can we do a lesser intervention and take the messages we learn from there and apply. That’s how I like to do research. Somewhere along the line we developed a lot of new ideas and products. I've learned some entrepreneurial skills. It’s just been a “blast.”
Once they fly, I make sure the edges they are going to hit are not sharp so they don’t hurt themselves. There is nothing wrong with letting them fly. I will support them so every single individual I have dealt with has started from their innate abilities and the challenge for me was to take that innate ability and let it explode, to let their passion develop.
Over the years we have moved to an earlier stage of development, and with Vanderbilt and colleagues, Vanderbilt applied for a NIH grant where we allow high school students to come spend 6 weeks during the summer (they are paid) and we get them from all over the United States and accommodate around 50 students a year and they spend 6 weeks in Nashville. And they are distributed to various investigative labs and its surprising how many of these have gone on into medical school and academia.
In surgery, we interposed two years of research into the program. Initially I thought it would be a way to get smart kids into Vanderbilt and it was a major attraction. Into the 3rd year, they step out into the lab and we nourish and nurture them and find out what their interests are and make sure they have good mentoring committees and good mentors and apply for independent funding. It has been incredibly successful, if anything it has strengthened our residency program. They come out of the research years thinking differently, they are more analytic about where they end up and which lab they end up and their residency. My job right now is to see how they transition into independent funding and academia. 60% of our graduates go into academic programs, and a fair number of them have gone on to lead departments of surgeries around the country. The other 40% have become leaders in their own communities, either in private practice or in academic centers, where they become superb teachers. So our job now is to develop the leaders in surgery, and it doesn’t matter if they become the chairmen of the department of surgery at some other University. So that is basically what I do, I train as many pediatric fellows, GI fellows as I train surgeons in my lab. So I noticed something today about Marshall. The collaboration is a very friendly environment, it is the same as Vanderbilt. You can knock on anyone’s door and say “I heard you were doing this can we collaborate.” Two minds, the sum and output of two individuals is much bigger than the sum of the independent individuals here. My feeling about it is, environments like this at Marshall, you should set your goals to the moon. That’s where the goal has to be.