IMPACT Program Connects Mayo Clinic with Minnesota Undergraduates to Create Innovative Ideas for Patient Care

IMPACT Symposium Participants. March 18, 2017. Photo courtesy of IMPACT Program.

IMPACT Symposium Participants. March 18, 2017. Photo courtesy of IMPACT Program.

The Mayo Clinic Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies (IMPACT) Program seeks innovative solutions to pressing healthcare issues by partnering Mayo Clinic with Minnesota undergraduate students. Since its inception in 2014, the program has expanded in size and capability yearly. Founder and director Katie Campbell says the competition is a “platform that engages students in idea generation,” bringing fresh minds to issues that can directly impact patient care.

Katie Campbell has a passion for teaching. Midway through her PhD training in Molecular Pharmacology at Mayo Clinic, she was challenged by mentor Dr. Tim Nelson to create a program that would engage undergraduate students and integrate them into the innovation process at Mayo. The IMPACT Program developed as a direct result.

The IMPACT Program is a crowdsourcing competition with the goal to “encourage creative solutions to critical health questions through collaboration between Minnesota undergrads and Mayo Clinic.” Campbell sees the program as the first step in learning new concepts and generating ideas as an “innovative complement to the traditional research experience.”

During the competition, teams of two to four students select one of three narrowly defined challenge questions, which are directly applicable to patient health. The questions are, ideally, areas of active investigation at Mayo. Over the course of three months, students take a deep literature dive into their topic. By February, teams develop a three-page proposal describing their hypothesis to address their challenge question. A panel of judges ranks the submissions and selects the top groups for each question to give an oral presentation at the IMPACT Symposium in March.

All teams are invited to give a poster at the symposium regardless of where their proposal ranked, allowing students to interact with each other and gain conference experience as an undergrad.

The winning team for each challenge question is awarded $1,000 per student and offered a paid summer internship at Mayo, usually in a lab studying their challenge question. Silver and bronze winners receive plaques to hang in their home institutions.

Cash prizes are certainly a motivator to participate, but the students’ experiences and scientific contributions are the real value adds of the program. The IMPACT Program engages a fresh set of innovators, bringing potential solutions to biomedical issues from all different angles. The program may have strong value for rare disease research where there’s a “low cost to high yield investment opportunity to access a huge platform of innovative ideas for diseases with less national visibility or funding,” Campbell said.

Campbell hypothesizes that the competition increases student’s scientific confidence, helps them identify as valuable contributors to the scientific community, and hopefully encourages them into further science education. Over the course of the competition students research their challenge question so extensively, they become experts in that defined topic.

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“One of the things that comes up over and over again in student feedback is how surprised they are that Mayo Clinic values their ideas. I think they come to Mayo thinking they’ll be impressed by us. But we’re just as impressed by them, if not more,” she said.

Campbell wants to keep barriers of entry to the program as low as possible. No actual experiments are required for participation; students propose their hypotheses purely from literature analysis. “It’s much more accessible to smaller liberal arts schools and smaller community and technical colleges who might not have the capacity to do some of these research projects in the lab,” she explained.

The IMPACT Program first began in 2014, with 52 students participating from 4 Minnesota colleges. This year in the competition’s fourth iteration, 240 IMPACT students and 60 faculty mentors from 23 different private colleges and universities, state universities, and community and technical colleges in Minnesota participated.

Campbell says that funding has increased the capacity of the competition. In the early stages, she received an Endowment for Research Education Award from Mayo Clinic, bringing in $100,000 over two years. She was also awarded grant funding from Regenerative Medicine Minnesota to expand the program statewide. Now, she’s seeking funding from the National Science Foundation to expand the IMPACT Program nationally.

Photo courtesy of the IMPACT Program.

Photo courtesy of the IMPACT Program.

“Our goal is really to expand the program throughout the country and in doing so not only increase the visibility of education and research here at Mayo Clinic, but also tap into what I think is a huge potential audience of undergraduates who don’t think about [these issues] every day and begin posing these questions beyond the state limits,” she explained.

The IMPACT Program increases accessibility of Minnesota undergraduate students to Mayo Clinic regardless of their GPA, home institution, or major. Campbell has even had an IMPACT student take an internship at Mayo right after freshman year, something that’s rare through other programs at the clinic.

She also sees immense potential of the IMPACT Program to expand the visibility of Mayo Clinic beyond the reach of the local college and university system.

The IMPACT Symposium this year took place on March 18th. Challenge questions examined underlying causes of hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), effects of obesity and type 2 diabetes in increasing the risk of pancreatic cancer, or approaches in surgical residency programs to improve patient outcomes after inguinal hernia repair.

Winning teams included: Achai Biong, Vivian Ma, Brian Nguyen, and Kurt Schwieters (University of Minnesota-Rochester); Kaitlin Chrastek, Salar Kadhium, Jagneet Kaur, and Rupinder Kaur (Northwestern Health Sciences University); and Rebecca Martin, Kali Weiss, Jessica Pakonen, and Shannon Holder (St. Olaf College).