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August 2010 Education Column

Scholarly Pairings for Academic and Research Collaboration: Getting the Most Out of the Academic Environment 

By Christopher Morley, PhD, Department of Family Medicine, SUNY Upstate Medical University

Conducting research from within departments of family medicine is getting trickier by the year. This is true regardless of the type of research, and it applies to evaluations of medical education programs as much as any other form of research. Keeping medical programs funded, however, often requires the generation and analysis of data to demonstrate effectiveness, track impact, and identify areas for improvement.

To develop the research and educational evaluation capacity of the Department of Family Medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University, we have initiated a program designed to match graduate students from the region with relevant research interests and skills with various endeavors within our department. The program, which we call "Scholarly Pairings for Research and Academic Collaboration," or SPARC, has significantly enhanced our department's capacity to design and evaluate its own educational programs and projects since its inception in 2008. The program began with departmental seed funding for a SPARC associate. It was subsequently funded by an HRSA AAU Title VII grant, which continues to support SPARC activities today. 

SPARC has directly led to the collection of data from several of our educational programs and also to new research experiences for medical learners. For instance, a SPARC research associate helped conduct a formal literature review of practice management curricula in residencies, which in turn contributed to the improvement of such a curriculum at our affiliated family medicine residency.1 Another SPARC research associate conducted focus groups of students undergoing a new, biopsychosocial standardized patient encounter.2 Two other graduate students currently support the development of a family medicine/pediatrics collaboration to educate clinicians, patients, family members, and educators about facilitation of healthy transitions from pediatric to adult medical care for developmentally disabled teens and young adults. Several medical learners have been paired with existing research projects or have facilitated pursuing their own scholarly interests through the program, as well.

In seeking graduate students to pair with various endeavors within our department, it is important to clarify that we are not seeking free or cheap labor, nor are we looking to pilfer “trainees” from other programs. Rather, the key to the successes of the SPARC program so far has been a focus on identifying motivated collaborators with research and evaluation skills novel to our department and to provide content and context for their work. By treating the graduate student as a collaborative junior partner, we benefit from their skills, and they benefit from the content they gain access to. 

Rather than fix the relationships into defined, time-constrained, paid research assistantships, we work with each potential SPARC associate to determine what collaborative structure works best for all parties. Some are interested primarily in working toward their first publication; others seek practical research experience; in some cases, we negotiate a payment structure for services, whereas in other situations this is not necessary. Flexibility is key, paired with proactive identification of shared interests. 

There are a number of challenges to setting up such a program. First, funding is not always available. However, skilled graduate students who are interested in co-authoring publications have motivations beyond the purely financial. Additionally, it is important to tend to relationships with faculty from "feeder" graduate programs, who might refer good candidates to the program. Disciplines that offer great intrinsic skill sets to family medicine include education, sociology, anthropology, public health, public administration, information technology, and many others. By fostering and tending to such relationships with these non-medical disciplines, and by reaching out to skilled graduate students with opportunities for publication, gaining experience, and supplemental funding, family medicine can increase its capacity to evaluate its own educational programs, create scholarly opportunities for learners, and incorporate novel research skills into their midst. 


References
1.

Kolva DE, Barzee KA, Morley CP. Practice management residency curricula: a systematic literature review. Fam Med 2009;41(6):411-9.

2.

Manyon AT, Morley CP, Arthur M, et al. A mixed method evaluation of a pilot biopsychosocial integrated standardized patient exam in a family medicine clerkship. Presented at the 2009 North American Primary Care Research Group Annual Meeting, Montreal, Quebec.


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