By Tonia Twichell
(November 2016) When Kristin Jensen was a girl, she watched her busy biochemist
mother balance her home and work life and wondered why she couldn’t take
a break from her job.
“She always told me that she couldn’t do that because she would never be able to get back in,” Jensen says.
as a mother of two and a clinical researcher at Children’s Hospital
Colorado studying medical care inequalities for patients with Down
syndrome, Jensen understands.
“Now I say the same thing,” she says. “If I want to be successful in research, I can’t go less than fulltime.”
for Jensen and other young clinical researchers who are balancing
personal and professional challenges, relief has come in the form of a
grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Fund to Retain Clinical Scientists seeks to reverse a national decline
in both male and female research clinicians. The Association of American
Medical Colleges has reported that 40 percent of physicians with
fulltime faculty appointments at medical schools leave academics within
10 years. Women and minorities are hit hardest, according to the AAMC.
Declining research dollars are one reason for the drop. But the
stress young professionals endure just as their careers are just taking
off and many are starting families also takes a toll, says Judith Regensteiner, PhD, professor of medicine, founder and director for the
University of Colorado Center for Women’s Health Research, and the
Judith and Joseph Wagner Chair in Women’s Health Research.
physicians know they can go into clinical medicine and stop doing
research, that is not a good choice for those who love research,” says
Regensteiner, who mentors young faculty and is principal investigator of
the grant. “Clinicians can bring a special perspective to research
since they are seeing patients.”
The five-year $540,000 grant provides annual funding for early-career faculty.
thought there would be only a few medical schools applying for the
grant,” Regensteiner says. “It turns out almost every school in the country applied.”
schools including CU were awarded funds, and School of Medicine Dean
John J. Reilly. Jr., MD, matched CU’s award. The first three grants went
out in January; the next group of three in July.
“This grant shows these young researchers that someone cares,” she says. “It shows them that it’s not a heartless world.
“It is an innovative idea to support the personal needs of a scientist, and I hope the idea spreads to other granting agencies.”
Three of the awardees describe the effect the grant has on their career.
Melanie Cree Green, MD, PhD
Green started her research career in high school by studying the effect of roller
coasters on blood pressure and heart rates at Six Flags Magic Mountain
in southern California. The daughter and granddaughter of physicians,
Green wondered if roller coasters caused a bump in blood pressure and
heart rate or if the bump occurred in anticipation of the ride.
“It turns out that blood pressure and heart rate were much higher if you’d never been on a ride before. But every ride made them go up.”
But mainly what she learned is “‘research is complicated” and she was hooked.
mother of children ages 10 and 6, Green is an assistant professor in
pediatrics and endocrinology. She is the founder and director of the
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) Clinic at Children’s Hospital
Colorado and collabo-rates on studies examining insulin resistance in
children with diabetes, the effect of exercise in adults in with type 2
diabetes and the effect of gestational diabetes on glucose metabolism in
older adolescents. In 2016 she was awarded a Boettcher Foundation grant
in the Webb-Waring Biomedical Research Awards program for her work in
fatty liver in adolescents with PCOS.
Two years ago, a rheumatoid arthritis flare-up put her career and her family’s stability in jeopardy.
a very active and involved person and to have to throttle back meant
that the first thing I did was cut back on my family life to keep up on
all the research,” she says. “It was super hard on my children and now
they need additional care.
“This grant allows for better balance. I
am backing away from being hands-on for all the research time but not
having any falloff in productivity. The grant gives you enough money to
hire another research assistant so you can take time away from lab to
deal with personal caregiving.”
She’d already proved her
commitment to research through two pregnancies that required bed rest.
So she was reluctant to allow the family disruptions from two rheumatoid
arthritis-related hip reconstructions end her research career and push
her entirely into clinical care.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no,” she says. “I’m a total science nerd to the core. I love the whole process of discovery.”
has since founded Facebook groups for mothers balancing research and
clinical careers and for physician mothers with rheumatoid arthritis.
She finds the support fortifying.
“I’ve had all this training and it drives me nuts seeing how many of my MD/PhD classmates are doing just clinical now. In my class of six, just three of us are still doing research.”
Kristin Jensen, MD, MSc
Jensen entered medical school knowing that she wanted to help people with intellectual disabilities as they transition into adulthood and beyond.
witnessed inadequate medical care for disabled adults first hand when
she was a young medical student acting as guardian to her uncle who had
“He developed severe gastroparesis. As the medical
team was working him up they kept saying ‘It’s just his Down syndrome.
It’s a behavioral thing. He eats too quickly.’ I said ‘Well, I don’t
think so. He’s been eating quickly for 60 years, but has only been
throwing up and losing weight for the past several months. Something
changed and you need to figure it out.’ They just didn’t know how to
“Maybe I was naïve but I thought I’d try to dive in and fix the problem.”
Jensen, a mother of two girls ages 5 and 3, is an assistant professor in the Adult and Child Consortium
for Health Outcomes Research and Delivery Science with appointments in
the Department of Pediatrics and the Division of General Internal
Medicine. Prior to her arrival in Colorado, she received advanced
training in health services research through the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation Clinical Scholars program. Her research focuses on improving
the care of persons with Down syndrome through evaluating health care
patterns and implementing strategies to improve delivery of their care.
She sees patients in the Special Care Clinic at Children’s Hospital
Colorado and in the General Internal Medicine Clinic at the University
of Colorado Hospital.
The personal and professional balance she had carefully constructed crumbled after the birth of her second child.
youngest was very sick in the first year of life, so I worked hard and
got very little sleep,” she says. “It’s hard to be successful as a good
mom and a clinical researcher.”
Despite the struggle, Jensen says she was uncertain whether she should apply for the Duke grant.
are trained to be self-reliant and not ask for help. I really struggled
with whether or not it was appropriate for me to apply. I wondered if
there was someone who needed it more.”
She needed little
convincing when, for the 10 days prior to submitting her application,
both her children were home with high fevers.
Jensen uses the Doris Duke funding to pay for analytical and biostatistical research support.
had been considering reducing my research time to improve my balance,
so it’s really been a blessing,” she says. “I feel like a lot of young
women have to make that decision. I’ve seen brilliant young women who
have training in research and have really great ideas, but they reached
enough barriers and gave up on research.”
Lilia Cervantes, MD
Cervantes spent the first six years of her medical career happily focusing on clinical
and educational goals. But when a young patient, a homeless woman with
two young sons, died because her immigration status wouldn’t allow for
dialysis treatments until she was critically ill, her career suddenly
Cervantes began by imploring state lawmakers to
make changes to the law, but quickly realized that research findings
would make her arguments more persuasive. And so, two years ago, her
research career was born.
Cervantes, an associate professor in the
Division of General Internal Medicine, is a hospitalist at Denver
Health Medical Center, associate director of Denver Health’s new Center
for Population Health and founder and director of both the Healthcare
Interest Program and the Health Equity Lecture Series. In 2015, she was
awarded the four-year Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Award from
the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for her research discerning the
palliative care needs of Latinos with end-stage renal disease.
applied for the award thinking I’d never get it because 99 percent of
people accepted have an MPH (master’s of public health) or some kind of
research fellowship. But I think I got it because I walked into the room
and was passionate about changing palliative care outcomes among
Latinos in dialysis.”
She has since interviewed dozens of Latinos
suffering from end stage renal disease to understand their palliative
care preferences. Next, she plans to develop a program using navigators
to improve those patients’ quality of life.
But her research
began to suffer when her grandmother fell ill in 2015, and Cervantes and
her mother became caregivers. She also is working on her master’s
degree in clinical science and has two daughters ages 8 and 6.
was waking up at 5 a.m. and working late at night after the girls went
to bed while still taking care of my grandmother and mom.”
the grant money, Cervantes hired a part-time research coordinator, who
within two weeks had organized her institutional review board material.
“No way would I have completed this in two weeks,” she says. “It would have taken me six months.”
also employed a social worker for her pilot intervention to provide
mental therapy for Latino patients. Next, Cervantes would like to hire a
statistician to support her research analysis and a writing coach
because English is not her first language.
“It’s been hard. There are days when I’m in tears, and there are days when I love what I’m doing.
“This grant has totally rocked my world.”