The People of HHRI
HHRI researchers are experts in their fields, tackling our biggest healthcare challenges, including COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, substance use disorders, life-threatening and time-sensitive conditions, chronic diseases, and access to care. They conduct basic, translational, clinical and epidemiologic research with a focus on four areas – Acute Care/Trauma, Addiction, Health Services and Infectious Diseases – with the priority throughout being to better understand and address factors that contribute to health equity and the concerns of the patient population served by Hennepin Healthcare. Below, some of HHRI's 250+ HHRI investigators and research staff share their stories and experiences working at HHRI.
Meet Melissa Adkins-Hempel. She is the Senior Research Coordinator in the Behavioral Health Equity Research Group. Her journey with HHRI began in 2016 when she applied to HHRI on a whim after casually searching for some research areas.
Melissa started as a part-time research assistant with Dr. Kate Diaz Vickery in August 2016. Melissa said she was fresh out of community college with no experience and her time with Dr. Vickery shaped the next few years academically and professionally. After graduating in January 2019, she accepted a full-time position with Dr. Andrew Busch and subsequently Dr. Sandra Japuntich in the Behavioral Health Equity Research Group. Given her undergraduate degree is in Psychology and Drs. Busch and Japuntich are both clinical psychologists, the role was a great fit. Melissa said she enjoyed learning first about medicine and health equity from Dr. Vickery and then about behavioral clinical trials and smoking cessation from Drs. Busch and Japuntich.
Melissa said that things have changed since she has been at HHRI, such as a noticeable increase in investigators interested in health equity focused on the population we serve at Hennepin Healthcare and Minneapolis’s greater community.
“I really love my job. I think HHRI is a unique place to work because it’s a smaller research organization doing important work. Many people have been at their jobs a long time and are passionate about their work. I like that I have a personal relationship with people across the organization, from HR to accounting, grants administration, and more. It’s nice to feel like you know the people you work with even peripherally. In my role, I like the opportunity to work on such a wide variety of projects and collaborate with many partners from community health centers to universities and research institutions nationally. I also love my team; everyone cares deeply about their work, and it is easy to collaborate. We all support one another,” Melissa said.
Melissa also really enjoys hearing feedback from their participants who have seen a benefit from their interventions and when patient comments are published in the Scanner through HCMC.
Each day, Melissa looks forward to making an accomplishment at work. “I really think the fun part of research is that it’s a bit like a puzzle from the bottom to the top. Some days, I’m piecing together a mystery of a lost package or file, and other days I’m working on writing about treatments that could help people. To make a project work well, you need a team that collaborates well and has a love of learning,” she said. Melissa said her role has expanded to be a bit more behind the scenes because they have added some talented Research Assistants to their staff. Her advice for those coming into her role or something similar is that they should take notes and figure out what they are interested in. With such a wide range of projects, she said you can sometimes spend more time on projects within your area of interest. She also advises watching a bunch of YouTube videos on Excel.
Meet Dr. Jason Baker. He is the Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine Division Chief at Hennepin Healthcare. Dr. Baker is also the PI for a translational research program at HHRI. He started his journey here in 2007.
Dr. Baker chose his area and role of science because “Being a physician-scientist provides an incredible opportunity to both deliver care as well as influence and shape the care,” he said. Dr. Baker said this had shaped the type of research he conducts, which involves identifying and testing therapeutic strategies that improve health. He said, “I focused on HIV as that was a disease that influenced my life early on, and then expanded to include COVID more recently as it presented emergent and pressing needs.”
According to Dr. Baker, things have changed over time. He said the name changed, and the leaders have changed, but the spirit, open-minded collaboration, and commitment to research have only grown. Dr. Baker enjoys his area and role of science, even though there can be a few challenges. He said, “I find great reward and fulfillment from working within focus areas that are dynamic. While challenging to manage within changing landscape, the questions always change, and the knowledge generated is fast paced.” Dr. Baker sees growth as the future of his area and role in science. He said, “The dynamic nature of infectious disease research is unlikely to slow, even as we move out of the current COVID pandemic. I envision a future of evolving challenges to known diseases as well as more new/novel pathogens emerging over time.” Each day, Dr. Baker looks forward to making an accomplishment. “I am motivated by the long-term wins or accomplishments, so if I can move the needle even a little each day, that is a win for me,” he said.
A quote Dr. Baker feels makes a positive difference is, “Live your values.”
Meet Dr. Kristina Burrack. She is an Investigator in the Infectious Diseases Division of HHRI. Her journey here started in 2018.
Dr. Burrack chose her area of science because she wanted to study malaria.
“It is a disease that disproportionately affects young children and pregnant women in areas of the world where they are already disadvantaged. Moreover, we still do not understand the role the immune system plays in preventing disease (and, potentially, sometimes, in causing disease),” Dr. Burrack said.
Her favorite part of research is learning something new every day. Although it is challenging, she also enjoys translating that knowledge to enhance human health.
When it comes to what Dr. Burrack sees for the future of her area/role in science, she said, “broadly speaking, I think the impact of climate change on human health and disease will be an incredibly important area for researchers.” Each day she looks forward to analyzing data and then translating that information to improve human health.
Dr. Burrack’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Clear is kind.”
Meet Dr. Andrew Busch. He is a Clinical Investigator here at HHRI.
Dr. Busch started his journey here in 2017.
He started researching because he has always been fascinated with the science of testing medical treatments. “Running clinical trials allows me to be a part of that process,” Dr. Busch said. Dr. Busch said things have changed over time at HHRI, “New name. New leaders (Mary to Kim and Paul to Ajay). I feel like the HHRI has grown a lot in size in the past five years,” he said.
It is no doubt that Dr. Busch loves his role and area of science. He said, “As a “soft money” researcher, I get to choose what I investigate next. The challenge is that I need to convince NIH that something I want to do is worth funding.”
Dr. Busch is hopeful for the future of his role/area of science. “Our group (the Behavioral Health Equity Research Group) has been growing rapidly for the past year. We hope to keep growing with a focus on training the next generation of diverse investigators through postdoctoral fellowships,” Dr. Busch said.
Meet Dr. Andy Harris. He is a Senior Investigator here at HHRI. Dr. Harris started his journey here in 2005. “I originally came to HHRI (then MMRF) as a postdoctoral fellow with Drs. Paul Pentel and Mark LeSage. I had just completed my PhD in Psychology and was looking for a postdoctoral position where my prior research experience would be relevant but which could also provide me with new skills and expose me to new ideas. I definitely came to the right place. I became an HHRI investigator in 2008 under the Translational Addiction Research Program and have continued as an Investigator ever since,” Dr. Harris said.
According to Dr. Harris, there have been changes here at HHRI. “A lot of faces have changed over years, of course, although there are some that have stayed the same. COVID has changed things – there are still generally fewer people around, and several places at HCMC where I used to go (coffee stands, etc.) have shut down. Hopefully, things will go back to what they were sooner than later,” he said.
Dr. Harris enjoys his area of science and role here. He said, “I love doing research and have always been very interested in my area of study (drug addiction), so it is great being able to focus on that. Other high points include getting exciting new findings, getting papers published, and having grants funded. The biggest challenge is maintaining NIH funding, which is very competitive and often unpredictable. Maintaining a good work/life balance can also be challenging, especially with three kids!”
Dr. Harris is hopeful for his future area and role in science. “I hope that our research group continues to expand, including having some new graduate students and postdoctoral fellows come aboard who could bring in new skills and ideas. I do think that a group of people who work well together becomes greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.
Each day, Dr. Harris looks forward to making an accomplishment. He said, “It always feels good to make significant progress on writing projects such as grants or manuscripts. I am also always excited to go over the data collected in the lab that day and think about what to do next.”
Dr. Harris is all about making a positive difference. He decided to share the first stanza of a poem called “Don’t Quit” by Edgar A. Guest.
“When things go
wrong, as they
When the road
seems all uphill,
When the funds
are low and the
debts are high,
And you want to
smile, but you
have to sigh,
When care is
down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.”
Dr. Harris said he also has a printout of this poem hanging in his office and has often looked to it for inspiration.
Meet Dr. Allyson Hart. She is the IRB Chair and a Senior Staff member at the Chronic Disease Research Group (CDRG).
Dr. Hart started her journey here in 2013. She started doing research to positively impact the lives of patients beyond those she saw in clinical practice.
“With that goal in mind, equity and community engagement have become increasingly front and center, both in what research we do but also in how we do that research. While I would not have guessed that I would become the Chair of the IRB committee, I am honored to have a position now where I am able to help our research community work towards the highest ethical standards, both with regards to individual human subjects protections but also in how we engage and learn from the communities that our researchers ultimately serve,” she said.
Dr. Hart loves collaborating with and learning from her colleagues. She said there is so much energy and enthusiasm, and those connections keep her going when challenges look daunting. “When we are challenged to take a hard look at what we have been doing that needs to change when making those changes, we will inevitably be uncomfortable. Our relationships will see us through that discomfort,” said Dr. Hart.
When it comes to what Dr. Hart sees for the future of her area/role in science, she said the work of human research protection is moving beyond individual subjects protection into consideration of the impact of research on communities. Dr. Hart also said that this work requires forging and maintaining community connections and reimagining how “traditional” research has been conducted for decades. “The work is not easy and requires daily effort on the part of everyone at HHRI,” she said.
Each day, Dr. Hart looks forward to feeling like she did enough and letting at least one person know that she appreciates their work. She also said, “I look forward to strengthening our partnerships and doing the work to make HHRI a trusted research partner with our communities.”
Dr. Hart’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual.” -Rachel Naomi Remen
Meet Dr. Sandra Japuntich. She is a Clinical Psychologist Researcher at HHRI who works in the Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology Department. Dr. Japuntich started her journey here in 2019.
The health equity focus of HHRI/HCMED is what led Dr. Japuntich here. “My research is on how to get health systems to address tobacco use better, so access to the HCMED patient population was important to me,” she said.
Dr. Japuntich said she has seen growth over time at HHRI. “We are growing and working on increasing the representation and diversity of our faculty,” she said.
Dr. Japuntich also enjoys her role and research at HHRI.
“I love being with many amazing tobacco researchers tackling the problem through different methods. I also love being able to mix clinical work with research. Sometimes it is challenging to be primarily a researcher working within a clinical system designed for clinicians. We have the best grants administration and research administration team. They work creatively to help us solve many problems,” she said.
Dr. Japuntich is hopeful for the future of her role. She would like to see behavioral researchers at HHRI collaborate more and share resources. Each day, Dr. Japuntich looks forward to making progress. She said, “I look forward to making progress on my research and sharing my results with others. However, mostly I answer emails, complete paperwork, and put out fires.”
A quote Dr. Japuntich feels makes a positive difference is an AA saying, “nothing changes if nothing changes.”
Meet Nicole LaBerge. Nicole is a Researcher at HHRI and a Physical Therapist in the Clinic and Specialty Center at Hennepin Healthcare. She started her journey here in 2019.
Nicole helps patients with disabilities obtain complex wheelchairs, and she advocates for them to receive equipment that insurance/funding sources still see as not ‘medically necessary’.
“I wanted to complete research and have the actual data to help with this advocacy effort with the plan to change funding policies,” she said.
Things have changed over time, Nicole said. “When I first started my research, so many processes were still completed on paper! It has been refreshing to see things move to digital access,” she said. Nicole enjoys her role and is passionate about patient advocacy. She feels that her personal research has a direct effect on this effort. Nicole said one of the biggest challenges is that everything takes time. “The process of getting published this past year required much learning and navigating a system that isn’t anything like working in the clinic,” she said.
Nicole is hopeful for the future of her role. “I am excited to continue my role as a researcher. I know that each project will add to the end goal of getting patients the equipment they need to be safer and more independent,” she said. Her advice is to ask questions - lots of questions! “That is how you learn, and everyone is so helpful and supportive,” she said.
Nicole said each day provides an opportunity to make a little progress on her projects. “It won’t all be accomplished at one time but eventually, you look back and see how much work was put in. It’s exciting,” she said.
Nicole’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Learn to love the journey, not just the destination. Sometimes what you never wanted or expected turns out to be exactly what you needed.”
Meet Dr. Warren McKinney. He is a Research Investigator and the VP for Equity in Research here at HHRI. Dr. Mckinney started his journey here in 2018 after completing his PhD in Sociology. He was interested in pursuing a career outside of a traditional academic Sociology appointment and applied for a position conducting qualitative analyses for Dr. Ajay Israni's lab. Dr. McKinney said he had no prior experience in medical sociology or transplant nephrology but was excited by the opportunity to learn more about the field and explore the possibility of building a career around qualitative research in health. "I found the work to be very engaging, and the investigators in the field were very welcoming and supportive. I was encouraged to pursue mentored postdoctoral training to become more accustomed to clinical research and to adapt my academic training for the applied setting," he said.
Dr. McKinney said that even though he expanded his research focus beyond transplant nephrology, he felt that he kept returning to the field because of a personal connection. "I have a family member with chronic kidney disease who has been seeking a kidney transplant for over five years. Prior to my work at HHRI, I often struggled with gaps in knowledge around the severity of my family member's health condition, as well as a general lack of understanding about how the waiting list operates. In retrospect, I realize that I vastly underestimated the very real possibility that my family member might die or become too sick to receive a transplant. Working at HHRI and conducting applied research in transplant nephrology has allowed me to answer many of my questions while simultaneously supporting my family," he said.
According to Dr. McKinney, there have been some changes over the years at HHRI. He said, "In the time since I first came to HHRI, it feels that there has been considerable effort to change how the institution positions itself relative to the communities served by Hennepin Healthcare. Most of these efforts have highlighted community-engaged and participatory research approaches centered on building long-term and reciprocal relationships. Likewise, HHRI has expanded its commitment to supporting diversity in research through fellowship opportunities and supporting local investigators to create new pathways into the field."
When it comes to Dr. McKinney's area and role in science, there is no doubt about how he enjoys his job. "As a qualitative researcher in transplant nephrology with broader interests in health equity, I enjoy being able to speak with patients and family members to gain insight into their perspectives and lived experiences. Even though the topic of conversations may be difficult, the information and perspectives that participants provide are essential for understanding patient- and systematic-barriers. At the same time, study sessions can be quite exciting. With focus groups, in particular, each session creates its own dynamic. In the best of times, groups will flow organically, and participants will even motivate one another to contribute to the discussion. These sessions often create the impression that patients and family members may be isolated from one another but are eager to share their experiences and learn from others who are dealing with similar health issues," he said.
Dr. McKinney said one challenge that all researchers face is coping with rejection. He said thankfully, there are increasingly more resources available to help researchers create strategies to constructively manage anxieties and build support systems.
When it comes to what Dr. McKinney sees for the future of his area/role in science, he sees growth and is hopeful about it. "In the near future, I see qualitative and community-engaged approaches gaining a more prominent role in transplant nephrology and health services research. As investigators, providers, and policymakers seek to shorten the translational timeline and develop interventions that are generalizable yet responsive to local conditions, approaches that create rich and descriptive data will be in higher demand. While it is less clear how professional boundaries may shift or whether we will see more institutions like HHRI develop qualitative or community-engagement cores, I feel that anyone considering a career in health services research should include some training in qualitative methods in their career development plans," he said.
Each day, Dr. McKinney looks forward to making an accomplishment. He said, "As transitioning to a career in health services research was fairly unexpected, I enjoy being able to genuinely learn something new each day. I am slowly making my way through a growing list of groundbreaking publications and background in the clinical decision making and considerations relevant to kidney transplantation."
Meet Kim Miller. She is the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Operations for HHRI. Kim joined HHRI in 1996 when the Investigator she was working for at the time transferred his research activities from the University of Minnesota to HHRI to establish a new clinical research unit. During the transition of those activities, Kim made a strong connection with Mary Bergaas (her predecessor), which blossomed into a collaboration that spanned more than two decades.
Kim has seen a huge amount of change in her years with HHRI, watching it more than double in size, integrate with HHS, and adopt a new name. One thing that has remained the same over these years is the HHRI mission of investing in research and education that serves the community.
For Kim, research is about self-determination because she believes knowledge is power. For the best health outcomes, she believes we need providers empowered with data and evidence ready to collaborate with patients who understand their options. The mission at Hennepin of taking care of whoever comes in the door, without judgement, is what keeps Kim inspired. She says,
“It’s a privilege to serve the faculty and providers that choose to serve the patient population that relies on HHS.”
It is this combination of evidence-based medicine coupled with a commitment to access that for Kim, makes Hennepin special.
The best advice Kim would share is this - when you feel overwhelmed, just keep moving. Don’t allow circumstances to paralyze you, and pick up the next thing that needs doing, and do it. A quote that motivates Kim is from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Meet Carey Nadeau. She is HHRI’s Director of Operations. Carey has been with HHRI since 2010. Her love for working in the non-profit world led her to HHRI.
Although Carey has enjoyed working for a non-profit before working at HHRI, she was discouraged by the constant cuts to grants and funding in the music education world. So, she started having some informational interviews with development contacts who also had a foot in healthcare and thought this might be a natural next step. Not long after, Carey began her journey at HHRI in the Grants Administration department. Her continued learning and taking on new responsibilities led to her current position as the Director of Operations, a new role for the organization and one that she was excited to fill.
Carey said that over the years, things have changed at HHRI. “I remember staff talking about when we didn’t HAVE a grants department; it was basically Mary Bergaas and Kim Miller. Now we’ve grown to the point where we have entire departments devoted to the various administrative aspects of the institution,” she said. Carey said it’s fun to watch the growth happen; sometimes hard to navigate the growing pains, but overall exciting. Another change Carey explained was how when she started at HHRI, it was still part of HFA (Hennepin Faculty Associates), and she had her orientation/training with HCMC HR.
Carey enjoys working at HHRI.
“I love my boss and my coworkers, and I love that every day is different and constantly varies. I also love being in a “background” role--we may not be directly patient-facing or pipetting samples, but the work we do helps facilitate the exciting research that’s taking place here,” she said.
Carey sees a change in her future area/role. She said the pandemic helped HHRI move from paper to electronic forms, which is something she has been wanting for ages.
Carey said she would love to see research become more well known on campus and throughout HHRI’s community. As a 200 personnel-strong organization within a 7,000 personnel-strong entity, HHRI does not have as large of a presence. She would also like to see continued growth and evolution of all research programs so that HHRI can be more of a destination research facility. Carey also explained that she would like to see continued expansion of HHRI’s diversity/equity/inclusion work, which she thinks is very important in our world today.
When it comes to what Carey looks forward to accomplishing each day, it is solving a problem, completing a task or a project. “There are some days (weeks) where it feels like all I’m doing is spinning wheels trying to solve a challenging problem. I really enjoy once a project is achieved, and I can finally file all the emails away to their folder and out of my inbox. I try to keep active inbox emails to less than 200,” she said.
Carey’s advice for anyone in her field is to always be kind. She said she interacts with many people throughout the day from all corners of the campus, country, and globe, and she always remembers interactions where she was treated with kindness and respect. A favorite quote Carey feels makes a positive difference is, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it, and eventually the confidence will follow.” -Carrie Fisher
Meet Dr. Martha Nance. She works in the Neurology Department. Dr. Nance leads the Huntington’s Disease Center’s research efforts and is an investigator in many Huntington’s Disease trials. Dr. Nance’s history with Hennepin Healthcare is unique. She started her journey as a second-year resident in 1985. In 1991, she became the director of the Huntington Disease Clinic (HD). By 1997, research began in a more serious way, she said.
Dr. Nance has always had an interest in her area of science and it is what led her to choose her role. “The Huntington Disease Clinic was started in 1978 under the leadership of Dr. Milt Ettinger and a community member, Sally Hogan. I was interested in genetic neurologic diseases and spent a year of fellowship putting together the family trees of 250 Minnesota HD kindreds. In 1991, the HD clinic director left, and I stepped in as the clinic director. I led a national group involved in HD genetic testing for a while, and later joined and became a leader in the Huntington Study Group, through which we have been involved in about a dozen HD clinical trials over the years,” she said.
According to Dr. Nance, things have changed over the years. She said, “It seems more impersonal--I used to know and enjoy meeting with the IRB members, but don’t get to do that anymore!” Dr. Nance enjoys her role. She said,
“We are (we hope) on the brink of major breakthroughs, using gene-related therapies to treat HD, a dominantly-inherited genetic disorder. If we can show that one or another of these treatments work, it would be a major stride forward in the treatment of adult neurodegenerative disorders.”
Dr. Nance said the challenges are getting the treatments to the cells of interest (brain cells). In the meantime, keeping the HD patient and family community engaged in the midst of COVID has been challenging as well, she explained. Dr. Nance said, “We have also had a unique, world-class clinical team for the management of HD over the last 43 years.” Dr. Nance looks forward to making each day a little bit better for each patient than it might otherwise have been.
Dr. Nance hopes that they have that breakthrough in treatment for the future of neurology. She reflected, “But what if we don’t get there any time soon, or what if the treatment turned out to be prohibitively expensive? There will still be work to do with HD patients and families, and the things that we learn from them are/will still be relevant for other patients and aspects of neurological care. We cannot get better answers for the patients of tomorrow without partnering with the patients of today, who are uniquely qualified to help us push back the frontiers!”
Dr. Nance believes in making a difference. She said in the context of HD care, the thing she says all the time is, “Remember, there is never nothing-I-can-do for a person with HD.”
Meet Tara Nash. She is the Research Manager in the Neurosurgery Department. Tara began her journey at HHRI in 2021 where she took on the role of research manager because she loves research and constantly learning something new.
Tara loves the idea of making things better for everyone.
“As a nurse, I get to put my compassion for people into my appreciation of science. Research is a wonderful blend,” she said.
Tara enjoys most things about her role here at HHRI, even the challenges. She also enjoys diving deep into topics. Tara has lots of curiosity and is constantly thinking about how to improve things. She says there are two challenges to research: selling the topic and recruiting participants.
According to Tara, things have positively changed at HHRI. She said the Neurosurgery research team added more studies since she began working at HHRI. Tara said she would like to see continued growth in neurosurgery research.
Tara hopes she can be a Co-PI on a study and give presentations one day. She looks forward to supporting the Principal Investigator on the journey of the studies. Sometimes that support is paperwork; sometimes it is leading patient appointments. Her advice to others is to keep asking questions and learning about how everything is connected.
Tara says, “There is a place for everyone, you just need to find your niche.”
Meet Guillaume Onyeaghala. He is a Postdoctoral fellow in the Israni Lab who works in the Nephrology department at HHRI. Guillaume started his journey here in 2020.
Dr. Onyeaghala has always had an interest in his area of science. He said, “I have always been drawn to interdisciplinary research during my undergraduate and graduate training. Working with Drs. Israni and Dorr created a perfect opportunity for me to expand my analytical skillset in genetic and molecular epidemiology, as well as contribute to the setup of an anaerobic instrumentation core to study the gut microbiome in kidney transplant recipients.”
Dr. Onyeaghala said that since he joined HHRI, he has witnessed the amazing resilience of his colleagues. “We have found new ways to support one another by accommodating various work-from-home conditions, social distancing to keep one another and HCMC patients safe on campus, and keeping our research labs running despite global supply shortages,” he said. Dr. Onyeaghala loves his role here at HHRI. “In my current role, I enjoy collaborating with scientists from different backgrounds. I also appreciate that our lab is focused on translational research where we are intentional about understanding biological mechanisms that could affect the clinical outcomes of kidney transplant recipients. This is particularly important as HCMC serves a diverse population, and we are aware of the persistent disparities in the community we serve,” he said. Dr. Onyeaghala said he is thankful to be part of a team dedicated to addressing these disparities in their research.
When it comes to his future area and role in science, Dr. Onyeaghala is hopeful about it. He said, “I truly believe that by improving our understanding of the microbiome in kidney transplant recipients, researchers will be able to provide clinicians with better tools to optimize the care/improve the quality of life of kidney recipients post-transplant.” Dr. Onyeaghala is determined when it comes to making daily accomplishments. “Each day, I look forward to being a good team player to everyone in our lab and creating a more inclusive environment,” he said.
A favorite quote Dr. Onyeaghala feels makes a difference is, “Race your strengths, train your weaknesses.” He said it is a reminder that he can lean into his strengths to contribute to his team but that he should also be open-minded about his potential weaknesses and be willing to improve himself.
Meet Dr. Mike Puskarich. He is the Director of Research and an Emergency Physician at Hennepin Healthcare. Dr. Puskarich started his journey here in 2018.
Dr. Puskarich’s decision on his current role began in medical school. He said, “I chose emergency medicine in medical school for a few reasons. First, I enjoyed the process of working up truly undifferentiated patients and the opportunity to diagnose all kinds of diseases and conditions. That breadth of knowledge really appealed to me and still does. Second, I enjoy caring for the acutely critically ill patient – the ability to rapidly identify and stabilize a life-threatening problem gives me a significant amount of satisfaction. Finally, it was important to me to be able to serve a diverse set of patients in need, regardless of their background or ability to pay. Emergency medicine met all those conditions.”
After medical school as a resident, Dr. Puskarich’s initial intent was to practice community emergency medicine. He said, “As fortune would have it, I overlapped with a couple of the rare NIH-funded investigators in my field during residency.” Dr. Puskarich said he had the opportunity to complete some secondary and meta-analyses related to some rapidly evolving emergency care treatment paradigms for sepsis and assist in designing and conducting some really innovative work trying to manipulate metabolism to improve organ failure in sepsis, which remains a passion of his. “I got hooked on the idea of really pushing the boundaries of our understanding and treatment of critically ill, infected patients, and it sent me down the road I am on today,” he said.
According to Dr. Puskarich, things have changed over the years. He said, “I have developed additional skills in clinical trial leadership. I had the opportunity to develop and lead two multicenter clinical trials testing the effect of a common blood pressure medication (losartan) on the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system in COVID-19, which some early data suggested may be a key contributor to the host-response to the virus.” Dr. Puskarich said this also gave him the opportunity to serve on the steering committees of two large platform trials (ACTIV-4d/NECTAR and REMAP-CAP RAS domain) also investigating these mechanisms.
Dr. Puskarich said COVID-19 disrupted routine acute care research operations across the board and forced them to reconsider some of their approaches to emergency care research. He said, “This meant moving the needle on remote teleresearch capacity, including things like electronic consent, mobile phlebotomy, and coordination of outpatient care – things we do not always do well in emergency care research. This led to better integration of research across the continuum of care, and I think it has informed my research moving forward to try to tackle bigger questions that matter to patients.”
Dr. Puskarich enjoys his area and role in science. He said, “I love conceptualizing a project that can disrupt the way we conceptualize certain disease and care paradigms. For this reason, I am really interested in phase II, adaptive, and precision clinical trials because you can push the envelope on really innovative questions and study designs and incorporate mechanistic type questions into your trial design that are not necessarily an option when you design large, pragmatic phase III trials.” Dr. Puskarich said the challenges of the work involve designing studies that consider constantly evolving clinical care, particularly in the era of COVID.
According to Dr. Puskarich, keeping up with evolving perceptions about what emergency care research is and should be is another challenge that takes a lot of engagement. “This involves some really deep questions about how to ethically conduct meaningful and impactful clinical trials in settings when patients lack the capacity to consent to research (such as in the setting of cardiac arrest or in delirious sepsis patients) and making sure to balance the Belmont Principles of Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice. Finally, maintaining sufficient pipeline projects to ensure adequate infrastructure exists when you need it (like when a pandemic arises out of nowhere) is a constant struggle,” he said.
Dr. Puskarich is hopeful for the future of his area and role and sees great things. He said, “I foresee an evolution in emergency sepsis care beyond just rescue of the patients near-death with multi-system organ failure, towards prevention of progression to sepsis via earlier identification and treatment, potentially with novel agents that prevent the dysfunctional inflammatory immune response that causes the collateral organ damage that characterizes the syndrome.” Dr. Puskarich said, “As emergency physicians, we need to remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure - exemplified by the highly successful work of early emergency care and trauma surgeons to move beyond surgical management of trauma towards trauma prevention strategies, such as safety belts and helmets.”
Each day, Dr. Puskarich looks forward to making an accomplishment, especially when it comes to clinical trials. He said, “Every time we enroll a patient in a clinical trial – either one I helped design or a national trial in which we participate – I feel proud of the knowledge that the patient who chose to participate and our team helped to generate to better inform and serve other providers and patients.”
Meet Mona Shater. She is the Marketing & Communications Director for the Chronic Disease Research Group (CDRG). Mona began working at HHRI in the CDRG division in 2016.
Mona chose her area before it morphed into what it is today. Her journey is unique because she started as a business major, but the nuances of interpersonal communication spoke to her during her coursework. So, she decided to switch gears sophomore year and focus her energy on organizational and interpersonal communication in her undergraduate and graduate studies.
Over the last decade, Mona has been teaching media literacy and language arts, learning and refining her understanding of social media, engagement, and how it fits within public health. She has also been applying what she learned over the years to her division’s goals. Mona said that CDRG has grown as a division. They now run not one, but two federal government contracts. The pandemic has also impacted their working style because they are now almost exclusively remote.
Mona loves her role at CDRG and enjoys helping patients understand complicated information. Her challenges include red tape and working across departments to get that done sometimes.
“I think my area is constantly changing, which makes it interesting for me. Because of that, my advice for anyone in my field is to have a learner attitude. Stay humble, and always be open to learning new things.”
When it comes to what she looks forward to achieving each day, she hopes to make a difference for someone in some small way. Mona’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”
Mona said, “It’s been an absolute ride working here. I love it, I’m here for it, and can’t wait to see what the next year brings.”
Meet Dr. Jack Smethells. He is a Researcher here at HHRI who works in the Pharmacology and Toxicology Department. Dr. Smethells started his journey here in 2016.
Dr. Smethells interest in his area of science began when he was completing his undergraduate studies, which led him to choose his current role. “When I was in college, I had a close friend spiral into drug abuse. I just could not wrap my head around how much this person had changed and how completely different they would become. In seeking the answers, I came upon the psychological field of behavior analysis and found out it was used as a tool to understand and develop treatments for drug abuse. I found the application of the scientific method to understanding behavior to be fascinating and full of potential to understanding the development of this behavioral disorder,” Dr. Smethells said.
According to Dr. Smethells, things have changed over the years. He said, “I have gone from never writing a complete grant to getting my first R01 funded, it has been fun to learn the process and imagine the possible research we can conduct.”
Dr. Smethells enjoys his role. He said it is because of the “freedom to do meaningful research that will impact the regulatory public policy of nicotine, which, if we are successful in reducing combustible tobacco smoking, will be a massive healthcare victory for society,” he said.
When it comes to what Dr. Smethells sees for the future of his area/role of science and the advice he would give, he said that “bringing in grant funding is hard and often disappointing. However, if you believe in the project and work at improving it, then the study section will finally get it right and fund it.”
Dr. Smethells looks forward to making daily accomplishments. He said, “Thankfully, I love numbers and writing, so I like updating data to see where the research is heading and writing up the work we have conducted.” A quote Dr. Smethells feels makes a positive difference is, “All boats rise with the tide.” It reminds him that as a research team, they can all accomplish more working together than working individually.
Meet Dr. Kate Diaz Vickery. She is a Clinician-Investigator and Principal Investigator at HHRI, who is also the Co-Director of the Health, Homelessness, and Criminal Justice Lab.
Dr. Vickery started her journey here in 2014. She began working on Medicaid health plans called Accountable Care Organizations. Her interest was in how these plans integrated support for behavioral (mental health & substance use) and social needs (e.g., housing) into their health coverage. It was hard to measure this after the programs were up and running. This led to a pivot in her work to design behavioral trials to test these same ideas. Dr. Vickery is now working on developing the Diabetes Homeless Medication Support (D-HOMES) program.
According to Dr. Vickery, HHRI has changed over the years. “HHRI has grown, renamed itself, and made many adaptations since I began. Getting rid of the paper forms and adopting an online IRB! I am proud of the new interest in community engagement and health equity,” she said. Dr. Vickery enjoys her role at HHRI. She enjoys the chance research gives her to look for solutions to problems she sees in the clinic. She also enjoys partnering with the community to lift up their voices and design programs that will work for them.
Dr. Vickery is hopeful for the future of her role.
“I’m hoping I can deepen the community’s role in my research and the work of other researchers at HHRI. I’m hoping to listen a lot to the strengths and solutions our homeless and broader community think are needed to build more health equity,” she said.
Dr. Vickery’s favorite quote that she feels makes a positive difference is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Gandhi. She also added, when faced with clinical and health systems challenges, Dr. Linzer says, “don’t get mad, get data.”