Q&A With Director of UCSF's K Scholars Program

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD, MAS

UC San Francisco is working across disciplines to develop collaborative and creative leaders, and one example its K Scholars program, which brings together junior faculty from all UCSF schools who are committed to building careers in clinical and translational research. View current K Scholars and program faculty.

Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, MD, PhD, MAS, an associate professor at the UCSF School of Medicine and director of the K Scholars program managed by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), further explains the program and highlights what sets it apart.

Q: What excites you about the CTSI K Scholars program and what differentiates it from others around the country?

A:  Each year the K Scholars program attracts 50-60 outstanding junior faculty engaged in clinical and translational research. What I’m most excited about is the transformation that occurs when you bring together these top-notch junior investigators whose research spans the entire range of the translational spectrum. The program offers amazing potential for creative clinical and translational research that makes a real impact on health.

What distinguishes this program is that these K scholars meet weekly for works-in-progress sessions and other didactic and one-on-one methodological and career development activities. Many researchers don’t have the opportunity to regularly interact and share ideas with peers from different disciplines, so bringing together so many outstanding investigators in one place on a regular basis is truly remarkable.

Through these meetings, a strong support network emerges allowing scholars to share scientific ideas, learn from one another about building a career in clinical and translational research, and foster new collaborations and that help to develop innovative ideas. K Scholars represent the next generation of top clinical and translational scientists at UCSF, and this model for nurturing multi-disciplinary interactions is transformative. It’s not uncommon for me to come across a new study or abstract and note that not one, but several K Scholar graduates are continuing to collaborate even after leaving the program.

Q: What are some things people may not know about the K Scholars program?

A: Many people are surprised by the range of research conducted by K Scholars. This includes research that spans early translational inquiry exploring disease mechanisms, studies that combine quantitative and qualitative approaches to addressing a research question, and studies of policy-level population interventions.

Q: How do you define the success of the program?

A: In some ways, we define success using standard academic metrics. We expect that our scholars engage in high-quality research, that they lead manuscripts that are published in leading journals in their fields, and that they will obtain grant funding that allows them to be independent investigators.

However, we also encourage them to have an impact on their fields. We expect them to strive to pursue rigorous research questions that will influence the scientific and clinical discourse in their areas of expertise, and we urge them to broadly disseminate their work within their scientific communities, as well as to policy makers and the general public. We also encourage and support their efforts to take on leadership roles within their fields.

As the leading university focused exclusively on health, we are also extremely fortunate to have an outstanding group of UCSF faculty who work with the K Scholars. They include faculty biostatisticians who help K scholars apply new methods to their research questions. Several are successful researchers themselves and help K Scholars on build careers in clinical and translational research.  We also have experts in paper and grant writing, and our seminar series brings in faculty on diverse topics.

Q: What is your vision for the long-term impact of the K Scholars program?

A: We want to be the destination for all promising junior faculty who engaged in clinical and translational research and seeking to become successful independent investigators. By providing career development awards and support in research methodology, writing, and career development, as well as fostering a cadre of peers from a wide range of disciplines, we are providing an environment that nurtures tomorrow’s health care leaders. 

The K Scholars program complements mentoring efforts that are already taking place across campus and are so vital to nurturing the early careers of faculty. Our work to expand the number of fields and disciplines on campus that are engaged in clinical and translational research may also be particularly important to smaller departments or those without a long track record in this type of research.

Ultimately, what is most transformative about the K Scholars program is the outstanding cadre of junior investigators who are well-trained, pursuing innovative research, and importantly well-connected with like-minded peers from across the university. These junior faculty are developing innovative multi-disciplinary collaborations and thinking in novel ways about how to transform the institution and how their work can have the greatest impact. They are the future of research at UCSF, and our future looks very bright!