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William F. Connell School of Nursing

Creating a culture of collaboration

the harvard catalyst offers a multidisciplinary approach to improving human health

by Alex Cohen  |  Photographs by Lee Pellegrini

In a chemical reaction, the catalyst is the element that speeds the process, creating an end result far more quickly than would have been possible without it. The Harvard Catalyst, a new interdisciplinary initiative that supports translational science research in health care, aims to do just that. The Catalyst has a straightforward mission—speeding the reduction of human illness—but brings together an impressive variety of partners to achieve it, including Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing.

These efforts could not come at a more critical moment. As basic science becomes more and more specialized, and negotiating access for clinical research increasingly complex, the time and effort it takes to translate basic science into patient care—a process called translational research—is increasing. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) cautions, “These challenges are limiting professional interest in the field and hampering the clinical research enterprise at a time when it should be expanding.” To counteract these dynamics, the NIH has funded translational and clinical research centers across the United States, including nearly $120 million to fund the Harvard Catalyst. With these resources, the Catalyst brings together Harvard University, Boston College, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Cambridge Health Alliance, and the Harvard teaching hospitals including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital Boston, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Together, the Catalyst partners are beginning to break down barriers between academic and clinical institutions. 

Each aspect of the Catalyst works to speed and foster collaboration. Educational programs provide research skills training and offer a setting for researchers to meet across disciplines and institutions. An extensive website makes it easy for people to connect by providing information about individual researchers as well as often-overlooked logistical necessities. Once teams come together, seed funding is available to jump-start these interdisciplinary collaborations.

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(L-R): PhD candidate Ann Cousins and undergraduate research fellow Ariana Chao assist associate dean for research Barbara Wolfe with her work examining the psychobiology of eating disorders.

In order to facilitate a more personal approach to building teams, the Catalyst also staffs research navigators, full-time experts in leveraging the program’s resources. The research navigators act as intermediaries between junior and senior investigators, directing them through the vast network of collaborators brought together under the Catalyst umbrella. Zeke Bernstein-Hanley is one of these navigators. “We serve as networking gurus, providing information and helping to identify resources and collaborators,” he explains. “I think it’s important for researchers to see us as a resource. We welcome inquiries, and I would encourage people to engage us if we may be helpful.”

The Catalyst’s support for collaboration not only makes it easier for seasoned researchers and junior investigators to link up, but also facilitates the process for those new to Boston, as is the case for assistant professor Lichuan Ye. She and her research partners used the Catalyst network to bring together a collaborative team for their work on sleep apnea. But as Ye explains, the Catalyst does much more than just put together teams: it helps to create a welcoming and team-oriented environment where it is culturally accepted that collaboration enhances research. On an individual level, this allows new researchers to find their place quickly and seamlessly. “It’s very difficult in the beginning to jump into a research team and say, ‘Hey guys, I want to work with you!’” laughs Ye. “But with a structure to facilitate this kind of collaboration, it becomes easier to fit in.”

This past November, the Catalyst sponsored a week-long training course titled “Introduction to Clinical Investigation” in which Ye and Connell School faculty members Susan Kelly-Weeder and Allyssa Harris participated along with over 100 people from a variety of clinical and basic science backgrounds. Ye believes that opportunities like these are incredibly important for her own work and the work of her colleagues. Throughout the week, Ye made a number of contacts with whom possible future collaborations may take place. And, she says, ambitious researchers value the expertise of Boston College nurses. “Whenever I tell them I’m doing clinical research and from the Boston College school of nursing, I strongly feel they are interested in us because we bring a different lens for them to see the patients. For some studies, the researchers can’t work with actual people, so they see us as an opportunity to fill a gap in translational research.” The chance to make these kinds of connections is just one of the advantages of Boston College’s role as a Catalyst partner. “If Boston College were not part of the Harvard Catalyst, we wouldn’t have access to courses like this. But Boston College is part of the big team,” says Ye.

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Connell School PhD candidate Patricia Underwood conducts research at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, examining genetic markers for insulin resistance in patients with hypertension. Her work served as an opportunity to pilot the Catalyst approach to collaboration.


As Connell School associate dean for research Barbara Wolfe explains, this is not the first collaboration between Harvard Medical School and the Connell School faculty. Previous partnerships helped inform and mold the way in which the Catalyst relationship evolved. Wolfe says, “Catalyst co-director Steve Freedman and I had already worked together at Beth Israel, where my research studies are done. Because of this experience, he was aware of what kinds of work nurses do, not just in the role of bedside nursing, but as scientists. I was one of the people who worked with him on the application to the NIH to fund the Catalyst, and we did some pilot activities to demonstrate what we could accomplish together.”

As the front line of health care, nursing has a unique perspective to add to health science research. Freedman emphasizes the value of including nursing and other health disciplines in health research: “In order to truly have an impact on illness, the research team needs to be multidisciplinary. The NIH has acknowledged that this team cannot just be physicians and basic scientists, but must include nurses, ethicists, pharmacologists, etc. There is no question that nursing is a key partner, and Boston College has one of the top nursing research programs in the country.”

The Connell School filled a void when it signed on to the Catalyst. Wolfe explains, “Harvard Medical School does not have a school of nursing—for that reason, Boston College brings added value. Our discipline provides a different perspective; nurse scientists bring grounding in clinical nursing, research skills, and scientific knowledge.” Wolfe notes that the NIH traditionally looks for teams that have track records in scientific rigor. “Boston College has a great reputation, with faculty who are funded clinical researchers, and a long history of mentoring our students—particularly at the doctoral or post-doctoral level—who are involved in clinical, patient-oriented research.” Ye also emphasizes the importance of including the nursing viewpoint in translational research. “I think as a profession, we are very proud to be closest to the patient. We see things, and even think about research questions, from the patients’ perspective.” 

Boston College faculty members are actively involved in research projects supported by the Harvard Catalyst, even though the program is only a year old. Assistant professor of nursing Katherine Gregory received Catalyst pilot funding for her work on necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in preterm infants. Her team includes Dr. Linda van Marter at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dr. Allan Walker of Harvard Medical School. “From my perspective, working together with Dr. Gregory brings a practical component to the study and is a wonderful collaboration,” says Walker. “The Catalyst has used its resources wisely.” Gregory suggests that the funding has accelerated their research, and has also strengthened their team in a way that, without the Catalyst, may have taken a far greater amount of time. As van Marter notes, the partnership also shows great promise for the future. “Through clinical training and practice, nurses acquire a great deal of knowledge of the individual variation among patients with a single disease and an in-depth appreciation for the important clinical questions in a given field. Dr. Gregory is a natural leader in translational research, and will not only make significant research contributions but will serve as a role model, mentor, and guide to the next generation of translational nurse scientists.”

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Katherine Gregory works with a one-day-old baby boy, born at 33 weeks gestation, as part of her studies on necrotizing enterocolitis. Gregory is the first Connell School faculty member to be awarded a Harvard Catalyst pilot grant.

The Catalyst contributed to getting Gregory’s work off to a running start, especially in gathering data from infants in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Gregory is studying the microbiome aspects of prenatal stool samples, and as she notes, it is a costly venture. “We collect samples seven days a week, so the time, labor, and resource-intensive nature of this work means that we need serious funding. The Catalyst has been able to do that.” With the funding they received, Gregory’s research team has been able to quickly analyze extensive data, effectively and efficiently getting through the first step in translational science: taking samples from the bedside and analyzing them in the lab. She hopes that within six months, the results of this work will point to the next step in identifying warning signs of NEC.

Gregory’s Catalyst-supported work has also opened doors to undergraduate and graduate student research assistants. School of Arts and Sciences undergraduate biology and pre-med student Guru Shan and Connell School graduate student Christine DeForge are both part of Gregory’s research team. Shan sees this as an unbelievable opportunity. “Being an undergraduate and being at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at Dr. Walker’s lab is unheard of. The fact that Dr. Gregory opened the door for me to get to those kinds of places is incredible.” DeForge sees this opportunity as preparing them for the intricacies of a constantly evolving health care profession. “The Catalyst is really encouraging people to pull from all different fields. Health care is so collaborative these days and working on this research team with people from all different areas and backgrounds is very beneficial to my own training.” By creating a multidisciplinary team that includes members in the early stages of careers in health care, Shan, who hopes to pursue medicine, and DeForge, a clinical nurse scientist, are able to work on the same project from different angles, demonstrating that the Harvard Catalyst has already begun to socialize the next generation of researchers into a culture where interdisciplinary work is highly valued.

While the strength of the Catalyst is in its multi-institutional partnerships, it remains strongly tied to the mission of Boston College. Barbara Wolfe explains, “I think the Catalyst is focused on translational science to, in essence, help other people. It’s not just helping people locally, it can also have a community and global focus. It’s certainly well within the mission of Boston College both in terms of the motto ‘Ever to Excel’ and with respect to the Jesuit tradition of service to others.” Susan Gennaro, dean of the Connell School of Nursing, believes that the partnership strongly relates to her vision for the school, grounded in preparing nurses to improve human health. “As a school, we are developing leaders for the 21st century who will make a difference in advancing knowledge and translating that knowledge into practice,” Gennaro says. “Part of making that happen is getting the right people together to think about things in ways that they wouldn’t have if they were working alone.”

The Harvard Catalyst collaboration—and Boston College’s unique contributions—will help to improve human health and health care more broadly. “I think we’re going to continue to be advantaged by working with partners whose values we really share,” says Gennaro. “It’s all about health. We are ensuring that knowledge is being developed and then moved into health care systems. The future of this program is extremely bright.”