Enabling Science Advances at UCSF

CTSI Consultation Services: Expert Advice for Investigators, from Investigators

By Kate Rauch

Mark Pletcher, MD, MPH, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics, works with Alice Fishman, MS, senior program manager, in the Clinical and Translational Science Institute's consultation services.

In his pursuit of better ways to treat and prevent heart disease, Mark Pletcher, MD, MPH, associate professor in the UCSF School of Medicine, admits that he had a key advantage over his colleagues in one important way.  

As a member of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics department, top-notch biostatisticians were always right down the hall. When stymied by a vexing data problem, he would pick the brains of office colleagues, he says. 

Now the director of Consultation Services, a program of UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), Pletcher is helping other UCSF investigators get similar help by connecting them with experts in fields ranging from global health and biostatistics to study design, regulatory knowledge and participant recruitment

“When I asked others for advice, I always felt like I needed to be very careful not to take too much of their time,” says Pletcher. “Now I can submit a consultation request and they get paid to help me. It's really a win-win situation.”  

Impressed by how well the service works, Pletcher not only runs the program but is also a user and a consultant, offering his skills to colleagues he can help.  

The service is designed to support investigators at UCSF and affiliated institutions in all fields and at all stages of research, from brainstorming a grant application to running an advanced statistical test to pulling together a cogent conclusion.

More than 50 UCSF faculty and senior staff serve as consultants, who aim to respond to requests for support within a few days.

“People are trying to do research from all corners of the university with all types of backgrounds and training, and they often need help and don’t know where to go,” Pletcher says. “Consultation Services is actively looking for the choke points in translational research, and trying to develop the resources researchers need to overcome those challenges.”

Benefits for Clients and Consultants

Expanding in scope over the past several years, Consultation Services has assisted thousands of investigators with needs ranging from setting up massive databases to writing patient questionnaires.

The first hour of consultation is free for UCSF faculty, residents and post-docs; which is often enough to work through a question, Pletcher says. Beyond this, hourly charges range from $85 to $175. For complex projects, researchers often build the expense into their grant funding.

But the benefit isn’t only to those who receive services. Consultants receive either salary support or an hourly stipend, as well as an opportunity to receive support for methodology research.

Active consultants, who have been on the job for a while, can apply to conduct a research methodology project of their choice. Awardees receive support equal to 10% of a regular faculty salary, covered by CTSI, which frees them up from other work to pursue the methodology project. The goal is a methodology publication, which can be valuable to consultants as they go up for promotion, Pletcher says.

Easy, Quick Access Online

  • First hour of consultation is free for UCSF faculty, residents and post-docs.
  • Consultations in community engagement and health policy as well as mentoring generally at no cost.
  • 50+ consultants, UCSF faculty and senior staff, provide expert advice.
  • Areas of expertise include study design and implementation, biostatistics, data management, bioinformatics including analysis of next generation sequencing data, global health, regulatory knowledge, dissemination science, digital health, participant recruitment, and more.
  • Open to researchers at all UCSF schools and Affiliates
  • Request a consultation online
  • Interested in becoming a consultant? – Contact Alice Fishman, Consultation Services senior program manager

“Methodology light” offers more limited support on a small methodology project in exchange for 20 hours of consultation. “We’re trying to professionalize the discipline of consultation,” says Alice Fishman, MS, a senior program manager with Consultation Services.

The biggest challenge is finding consultants, especially in biostatistics, which is in hot demand, Fishman says. “Some faculty are simply too busy, but others may not be aware of the opportunity.” 

The flow of clients, however, is steadily increasing. Last year, over 40 consultants provided services for nearly 500 clients.

Aside from the practical benefits, Pletcher notes that “it’s rewarding to talk to people about their research projects and to be able to offer advice.” He encourages faculty “with valuable advice to give” to consider serving as a consultant.

CTSI is a member of the National Institutes of Health-funded Clinical and Translational Science Awards network focusing on accelerating research to improve health. The Institute provides services for researchers at every stage, and promotes online collaboration and networking through UCSF Profiles.

Photo by Susan Merrell