“You know, if you’re successful in doing this, you wont have anybody to take care of. You’ll put yourself out of a job!” These words were spoken to me by a colleague, in response to an early decision I made to pursue injury and violence prevention as my nonclinical interest in trauma surgery. Injury prevention, while always a part of the mission of trauma surgeons and the Committee on Trauma, continues to move from the periphery of surgery into the mainstream, an exciting prospect for myself and others who are interested in the intersection of trauma surgery and public health.
There are many buzzwords in academic surgery: basic science, health services, quality, outcomes. There is much work to be done to improve patient care and continue to use science to inform the practice of surgery. And while the traditional surgeon scientist operates, teaches and studies a disease process or problem in their laboratory, a more recent subset of academic surgeons have built careers around innovative and sometimes tangential topics in surgery. I am encouraged by these pioneers, and with the “if you can dream it you can do it” attitude that I see being encouraged in today’s academic medical centers.
Not so many years ago, it was unheard of to build an academic presence around the study of gender equity, global surgery, injury prevention, surgical palliative care, disparities research or even surgical education. Many of these ideas are now in the mainstream, and are no longer met with a “hmm..never heard of that” when mentioned as an academic interest. New ideas such as implementation science and precision medicine are providing exciting new pathways for surgeons.
So what do you do if you have an idea that’s brilliant, innovative, and maybe just a bit crazy?
- Identify how your idea will help patients. The endpoint of all research is the improvement of patient care, whether its by development of a new therapy, process improvement, or improvement in quality of life. How will your idea change the way we care for patients to improve their lives?
- Want it more than anyone around you. You have to want to build your idea with the knowledge that it might be risky. If you don’t love and believe in what you’re doing, you won’t be able to convince others that it’s important.
- See if you can find other people who are doing something similar, even if they aren’t at your institution. Surgical societies or other medical societies can help you out here.
- Cast a wide net for collaborators. You might find that you are trying to take an existing field and apply it to surgery. Look for collaborators in other schools in your institution, such as the school of public health, the school of engineering, the undergraduate university or the school of nursing.
- Look for innovative funding sources. Many private foundations, and even some centers at the NIH, want to fund high-risk, high reward seed grants for individuals with ideas outside the mainstream. The American College of Surgeons and other organizations have traveling fellowships that might help you take a course or go elsewhere to learn a new skill.
- Get the support of your boss. Have an elevator pitch for your idea, but also discuss at length with your immediate supervisor and make sure your idea will be supported in your department.
- Run with it! The sky is the limit. Innovative ideas keep our field exciting and fresh.
In academic surgery, we stand on the shoulders of giants, but there is no reason you cant be a giant someday too. Good luck!