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The Front Line
The Front Line: Charles D. Blanke, MD, SWOG Chair


Young Investigators Get an Improved Training Course – and a New Leadership Program

May 20, 2016 - Each year for more than two decades, SWOG has offered the Young Investigator Training Course, a web-based training followed by three days of intensive in-person sessions on clinical trial development. Setting, structure, and instructors have changed over the years, but the goal has remained the same: Give engaged young researchers the tools they need to develop a SWOG protocol from scratch. Young investigators come out of the course with something tangible – a rigorous, relevant, and feasible trial concept.

The course has made a big impact over the years. Two notable recent examples of successful participants and trials include Dr. Sarah Goldberg (S1403) and Dr. Ken Grossmann (1404).

Unfortunately, our last few rounds of the Young Investigator Training Course have not resulted in a bumper crop of activated trials. Why? We tasked a team to find out. The group was led by SWOG Vice Chair for Translational Medicine Dr. Lee Ellis, Group Statistician Dr. Michael LeBlanc, and Director of Operations and Protocols Dana Sparks, who spoke with several investigators and training course alumni to identify problems and suggest solutions.

The team reported out at the spring meeting in San Francisco. The course itself isn’t broken, they concluded. The topics of trial development, group operations, and statistical analysis are correct and complete. The small group setting and one-on-one mentoring are effective. The three-day time slot is just about right given busy schedules, and the faculty is adequate and engaged.

The trouble is at the front end.

Development and activation of a trial is extremely complex, and carries no promises of success. Some young investigators came into the course with a trial idea that wasn’t sufficiently well developed or strongly endorsed in their committee. Other young investigators were assigned trial ideas (by committee chairs or mentors) that didn’t suit their skills or interests. Getting the right young investigator matched to the right trial – before he or she heads to Seattle for training – rose to the surface as a key solution.

We’re going to work more closely with executive officers, committee chairs, and other senior investigators prior to the application process to help put the best young investigators and ideas together and move both forward. We might wind up with fewer course applicants – four to six are selected each year – but SWOG leaders felt that was a fair trade-off. The outcome of the course, not the number of participants, is what matters.

In addition, we agreed in San Francisco that, as soon as they’re selected, course attendees get more contact time with instructors and mentors, so they can hit the ground running in Seattle. By working through questions and challenges in advance, young investigators have a better shot at leaving the training course with a viable and well-developed trial idea.

We also discussed the need for additional young investigator training opportunities – and got an update on our new SWOG/National Clinical Trials Network Leadership (NCTN) Academy. Created by Drs. Cathy Eng and David Gandara, the three-year program will provide long-term mentorship and training for investigators interested in a career in cooperative cancer research with the NCTN. Through group workshops and one-on-one sessions, academy members will learn about the organizational structure of SWOG and the NCTN, resources available through the NCI and The Hope Foundation, leadership possibilities within SWOG and NCTN, and more. The first rendition will be held this fall.

I’m pleased with this work because it reflects our culture of continuous improvement. This commitment will pay off. Some of our most active investigators – like Drs. Jason Zell, Monty Pal, and Sarah Goldberg – are products of the Young Investigator Training Course. We invested in them, and they are certainly giving back.

Last chance! Our digital engagement survey closes Monday, May 23. Go to Survey Monkey to fill one out.


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