Success stories of inspiring clinical researchers

Draw inspiration from successful clinical researchers and discover different career tracks that can allow you to pursue a fulfilling professional activity while combining research activities and clinical duties.

Oriol Manuel

Developing a broad collaboration network and being flexible, adaptable, and a good listener while motivating all my collaborators are key elements and skills that have advanced my career in clinical research.

How did you decide to pursue a clinical research career?

Engaging in clinical research was a stepwise process and a collection of different opportunities. After obtaining my MD from the University of Barcelona in 1995, I specialised in internal medicine since it was the best option to pursue my main interest: infectious diseases. In 2002, I was able to do a clinical fellowship in infectious diseases at the University Hospital in Lausanne (CHUV) . A couple of years after my arrival in Lausanne, I joined the newly created Transplantation Centre as a specialist in infectious diseases and had the chance to become involved in clinical research. 

What facilitated your progress as a clinical researcher?

I had supportive mentors to start with, but having a good theoretical background was also important. In 2004, I attended a certificate of advanced studies (CAS) course in clinical research methodology while performing my first own research projects within the Transplantation Centre. Another important milestone was my two-year clinical research fellowship in Canada (University of Toronto and University of Alberta, Edmonton) between 2006 and 2008. Being able to fully dedicate my time to research enabled me to go step by step through all the stages of clinical research projects and to acquire the necessary basis to design and manage solid clinical research projects.

How do you balance clinical duties and research activities?

In 2008, I came back to the CHUV as a senior registrar and had a tacit agreement that provided me with some limited protected time for research while I was mostly worked in the clinic. Later, I managed to get a local grant for protected research time from the Leenaards Foundation, which allowed me to move a step forward and to start building my own research group. Finding protected time for research is clearly important, but it is just as important to continue clinical activities. I am convinced that having good experience in clinical activities and carrying on with them helps researchers to better understand the challenges of patient-oriented clinical research and to design feasible and realistic research projects.

What advice would you give to young clinical researchers?

Make sure to establish many good collaborations. As a specialist in infectious diseases of transplanted patients, I am in a highly multidisciplinary setting. This helps me to constantly increase my network. Likewise, getting actively involved in the Swiss Transplant Cohort Study (STCS) enabled me to extend my network within and beyond Switzerland as well as to participate in many interesting research projects using the very well-structured dataset and biobank of the STCS. To balance your career and private life, it is important to secure protected research time, set priorities, and be efficient and well-organised. 

Mira Katan Kahles

The most important is to keep a lifelong curiosity and interest in what is not yet understood, perseverance to get to the bottom of things, fun with guiding younger colleagues in their career and, above all, not giving up when things get a bit bumpy.

How did you decide to pursue a clinical research career?

I am naturally curious, which, to me, is an important prerequisite for pursuing a research career. I have always been interested in understanding the underlying mechanisms that may lead to a certain disease; it fascinates me to logically work out where patients’ problems originate from. Moreover, becoming a physician was an ideal way for me to combine a broad range of interests, including the natural sciences as well as aspects of the humanities. Unravelling the mysteries of the mind, working with patients, helping to discover what has led to their suffering, and figuring out how I can best treat them – these are the challenges that have always fascinated me. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I took my first step into the world of research when working on my MD thesis in a basic neuroscience lab. Through this experience, I realised that I wanted to pursue an academic career. Yet it was more the clinical application that fascinated me because it has the potential to directly improve patient outcomes, which is directly rewarding/tangible. Indeed, there are still so many open questions that, once answered, can result in direct applications such as the optimisation of diagnostic procedures or treatment options. Moreover, it somehow felt natural to me to combine daily clinical activities with clinical research.

When starting my specialist training in neurology at the University Hospital Basel (USB), I decided to work on clinical research projects at the same time. Since interesting research topics often lie at the intersection of different disciplines and I was interested in neuroendocrinology, I was very lucky to come across a very dynamic, supportive, and motivating clinical research team in endocrinology led by Professor Mirjam Christ-Crain. One of the challenges of clinical research is to ensure access to relatively large populations, which generally leads to more robust research results. Thus, focussing on patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, a common neurological disease with a clear-cut diagnosis, was also a good decision in retrospect. 

What has facilitated your progress as a clinical researcher?

Being part of an interdisciplinary research project with mentors from a different discipline gave me a lot of freedom and allowed me to define my own research niche early on. Yet with time, I felt that finding an additional mentor in my specific research field would benefit my academic career path. It required some courage to directly start up conversations with potential future mentors while attending conferences, but it was worth the effort. From 2010 to 2012, I pursued a research fellowship at Columbia University in New York (USA) with an excellent mentor (Prof. Michel Elkind) and attended a master’s programme in epidemiology and biostatistics to gain better theoretical knowledge of research methodology. This two-year experience abroad really advanced my career as a researcher. The combination of the research fellowship and the master’s programme gave me the formal skills to better manage and lead my own research projects and to become more independent. Thus, making your way in clinical research is also clearly influenced by your mentors. In the middle phase of your career, you may also want to seek out so called "sponsors" who help support you but, unlike mentors, there is no direct interdependence. My mentors and sponsors always provided good advice and helped me to increase my visibility in the world of clinical research. But ultimately, I think to succeed you need to be persistent and enjoy the work you do most of the time. 

How do you balance clinical work, research activities, and your private life?

Clinical activities, contact with patients, and research activities are all important elements, and their combination undoubtedly helps to raise the right questions and to find disease-oriented solutions. For me, finding a good balance between these activities was greatly supported by protected research time. I managed to have some protected time throughout my career: first as a resident at the USB, then through an Ambizione grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) after my fellowship in the USA, then as a senior registrar at the University Hospital Zurich (USZ). Now in my role as also as chair of the research board of the Department of Neurology at the USB I can help to provide the young rising stars with this opportunity. Protected research time also helped me be a bit more flexible about how I organise my working hours (not the amount though ;-), which in turn is often more compatible with some family responsibilities. I am also very lucky to have a lot of support from my husband and family; this is probably the most important aspect since without their support it wouldn’t work.

What advice would you give to young clinical researchers?

To engage in research, you have to be naturally curious, eager to keep on learning, keen to find solutions to problems, and you certainly need to be resilient. Finding interesting research teams you can develop a good working spirit with and being confident in your mentees and in yourself is also crucial. Furthermore, I would also advise students and/or young researchers – and especially women, who are often a bit shy – to invest in networking. Visibility is important for advancing your research career. Of course, along with optimising your networking and soft skills it’s also essential to develop specific know-how in research methodology and statistics as well as good writing skills.

Philipp Kohler

Having a good clinical background and keeping a tight link to clinical activities helps researchers to identify relevant clinical problems and to define good research projects.

How did you decide to pursue in a clinical research career?

After my studies in medicine at the University of Zurich, I went on to pursue a clinical specialisation in internal medicine and infectious diseases. My interest in research really grew as I was pursuing my clinical specialisations at the Cantonal Hospital St.Gallen (KSSG) and at the University Hospital Zurich (USZ). I felt that engaging in research projects would bring added value to my clinical specialist training. In this regard, my two years as a resident at a university hospital, the USZ, was key to developing my interest in research. Once I earned my specialist titles, I decided to pursue this dual career and applied for a Postdoc.Mobility grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). I was able to go abroad for an 18-month research fellowship at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada.

What facilitated your progress as a clinical researcher?

Three elements helped me to advance my research career. First of all, my research fellowship in Toronto enabled me to dedicate my time to research and gave me the chance to pursue a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology. This master’s programme was highly interesting as it focused on clinical perspectives. It provided me with the relevant tools to carry out solid research projects. The support from different mentors has also been essential to my research career. Over time, I have found good support from direct supervisors as well as from non-hierarchical mentors outside my field of activity. This combination of hierarchical and non-hierarchical mentors is very useful, especially when it comes to getting advice on specific decisions such as whether to embark on a given research project. Finally, getting protected time for research clearly gives my clinical research career a boost. After returning from my research fellowship, I applied for an SNSF Ambizione grant. This funding provides a large amount of protected time, which allows a lot of flexibility and enough time to develop my research team and projects.

How do you balance clinical work, research activities, and your private life?

I enjoy the synergy between clinical and research activities. To me, combining both activities are essential to formulating relevant research questions applicable to clinical settings. Moreover, this combination helps researchers to increase their credibility and acceptance by clinicians who don’t perform research. Here again, protected research time facilitates the combination of clinical duties and research activities. It allows flexibility in my time schedule and thus helps me balance my career and private life as well.

What advice would you give to young clinical researchers? What skills should they develop?

Your attitude towards research contributes to success as much as developing relevant skills. It is fundamental to keep up your curiosity and genuine interest in learning new things and raising new questions. Being able to have fun and enjoy the step-by-step progress rather than looking at the final achievement is an important quality for preserving the impetus to go forward. Finally, being resilient is also helpful: funding is not always granted for the first application, and projects do not always run as planned. There are still important skills to develop, such as acquiring a good epidemiological background as well as statistical and writing skills. Another piece of advice would be to take the opportunity to pursue a research fellowship abroad. The best timing is when it best suits your private life.

Gregor Hutter

Being able to focus on research or clinical activities in a modular way in the early years was very beneficial for my career development, both in terms of research and clinical activities.

When did you decide to pursue a clinical research career?

Very early on, when I was studying medicine at the University of Zurich, I knew I wanted to specialise in neurosurgery and was also deeply interested in translational research. Indeed, understanding the molecular mechanisms behind diseases is fundamental to finding new treatment options and to improving medical care. By the end of my studies, I was well along the research career pathway because I had already performed experimental lab work and had attended additional courses in molecular biology. As the logical next step along my career path, I pursued an MD-PhD that focused on immunopathogenesis of brain diseases and managed to combine it with some part-time clinical work as a resident in neuropathology. In 2008, with my MD-PhD degree in hand, it was time to get trained as a neurosurgeon. I did my clinical training as a resident in neurosurgery at the Basel University Hospital and the Luzern Cantonal Hospital and obtained my board certification in 2013.

What allowed you to progress as a clinical researcher?

It was very beneficial to have longer periods of time during which I could mostly – or even exclusively – focus on research: first as an MD-PhD student and later as a research fellow at Stanford University in the USA from 2014 to 2016. This postdoctoral experience abroad allowed me to focus on publishing my work, which further helped me to obtain research funds.

In addition, securing research time through funding for specific protected time while I was performing my clinical specialisation was helpful for being able to continue my research activities. And today, the SNSF professorship funds that I obtained in 2018 provide me with protected time to continue diving deeper with my projects and to set up my own research team.

Finally, the support from my MD-PhD supervisor as well as from my supervisors during my clinical training was essential. Throughout the years, my mentors helped me to preserve my motivation for research and were good sources of advice, especially at more challenging times.

How do you combine clinical duties and research activities?

Becoming a good surgeon requires a lot of clinical practice, so remaining involved in enough clinical activity is very important. Moreover, maintaining a direct link to patients is crucial and allows physicians to concentrate on clinically relevant research questions. Throughout the years, I’ve managed to find a good balance between clinical and research activities, either by doing them in alternate years or through different protected time grants. 

In your opinion, what is the best timing for a fellowship abroad?

Going abroad is a great opportunity. Acquiring some research and clinical experience before such a fellowship is surely a good idea. Timewise, it really depends on the person, and it needs to be balanced with one’s private life. Going abroad might be easier before having children or when children are young rather than when they are older.

What advice would you give to young clinical researchers?

Both having an intrinsic interest in research and being perseverant are important when aiming to pursue a research career. When I encounter medical students or young clinicians who are interested in research, I usually advise them to take some time to look at different research groups and find opportunities to discuss their interests with them in order to find the best fit. And finally, developing good analytical skills is important. This is becoming more and more important in the era of big data.

Selma Aybek

Being a clinical researcher is exciting and rewarding. The combination of clinical and research activities makes my work highly interesting and brings satisfaction and flexibility. This flexibility helps to balance my various activities, including my private life.

When did you decide to pursue a clinical research career?

My interest in research appeared very early, even before starting my studies of medicine at the University of Lausanne. Still, I only engaged in research with an MD thesis towards the end of my clinical specialisation in neurology at the University Hospital in Lausanne (CHUV). I was fascinated by neuropsychiatric disorders. The diagnosis of functional neurological disorder is often tricky to establish, and treatment options are clearly lacking. Investigating the mechanisms behind this disabling disorder was a captivating field of research to explore. I thus decided to apply for a mobility fellowship from Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) which allowed me to pursue my career with a three-year research fellowship at King’s College London (UK) from 2007 to 2010.

What facilitated your progress as a clinical researcher?

Anyone pursuing a research career should take the opportunity to perform a research fellowship abroad. My time in London surely advanced my research career and it was a privileged moment during which I could only focus on research. Later, I also participated in various mentoring programmes that were very helpful. For instance, the Réseau romand de mentoring pour femmes was an interesting experience. Taking advantage of the advice of a mentor was precious and the networking with other female researchers from different disciplines was a good and interesting sharing experience. Mentors do not only help in very pragmatic ways, for example by reviewing and improving funding applications, but also by providing more general advice on the difficulties you may encounter during such a career.

But more generally, it is the funding of protected research time I obtained through various grants that have enabled my steady progress as a clinical researcher. For example, I obtained the local Pro-Femmes grant when coming back as a senior registrar at the CHUV. This grant provided me with 50% protected time during which I managed to finalise the last publications of my previous fellowship and developed local research activities. In 2013, I moved to the University of Geneva where I also obtained several protected time grants and, even today, as an associate professor at the University of Bern, I benefit from protected time through an SNSF professorship grant. This type of funding provides clinical researchers with enough time to pursue research activities while keeping the link with patients and clinical activities.

How do you balance clinical work, research activities, and your private life?

The disorder I investigate varies greatly from patient to patient and its mechanisms are still partly unknown. This makes the link to clinical activities crucial. It is through regular contact with patients that I can formulate relevant research hypotheses. Protected research time allows me to combine clinical and research activities. It provides me with a lot of flexibility which also helps me to balance my private and family life. I certainly wouldn’t have as much flexibility if I was only doing clinical activities.

What advice would you give to young clinical researchers?

Being passionate about a specific research area helps you to be persistent and determined when pursuing a career in clinical research. For example, I did not adapt my research field to where I was working, but rather changed universities in Switzerland to find the best environment to progress in my research field.

If students or young physicians identify an interest in research, they should prepare themselves and plan as early as possible. Today, there are more opportunities for performing a PhD in clinical research. Of course, you can obviously have a good research career without a PhD, but it can be very useful from an international point of view. 

Mauro Manconi

Meeting other researchers, remaining open to their advice, and being ready to listen to their points of view will help you to accumulate knowledge, open your mind, and improve your own research.

When did you decide to pursue a clinical research career?

Halfway through my medical studies at the University of Bologna in Italy, I identified an interest in research, particularly on sleep disorders because they are a research field with many open questions to be explored. My first research experience was my MD thesis on sleep research. I then pursued a clinical specialisation in neurology at the University of Ferrara in Italy from 1997 to 2002. These five years as a resident allowed me to consolidate my knowledge and clinical expertise in neurology and to continue exploring sleep research while adding a research project on migraines, which included some training in basic research. Animal experiments are generally more structured and easier to control than studies involving human beings. Performing such experiments provided me with important methodological tools and a better understanding of the physiological and molecular mechanisms behind the symptoms a physician can observe. Overall, my experience as a resident in neurology confirmed my strong interest in research and especially in sleep research. At this point, I was offered a faculty position in San Francisco in the field of migraine research. I was torn between accepting this stable research position and pursuing my initial interest in sleep disorders. Indeed, I was still fascinated by the vast and mysterious field of sleep research, which would allow me to broaden my knowledge and travel from one disease to another. I decided not to accept the position, which was a difficult choice to make.

What facilitated your progress as a clinical researcher?

Looking back at my career path, I can say that having chosen a specific yet broad research field early in my career helped my step-by-step progress. Rather than accepting the position in San Francisco, I finally decided to continue with a PhD in sleep medicine through a joint programme of the Universities of Milan and Bologna. I spent three beautiful years during which I could exclusively focus on sleep disorders and was able to spend half of my time on clinical research and half on clinical work. I gained additional experience by seeing patients with various sleep issues. Since my PhD thesis focused on a specific disorder, I decided to explore it in depth and spent over a year in a basic research lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin in the USA. During this time, I developed an animal model to bridge the gap between basic and clinical research. This research fellowship abroad was an excellent opportunity to improve my English, my writing skills, and thus my future publication output. It also allowed me to expand my network to include clinical and basic researchers with complementary skills to my own. For example, while attending a conference, I met a researcher who helped me to translate my ideas into well-designed projects with solid methodology and statistics, which are two fundamental skills to acquire when performing research. This person first became a kind of mentor and is now someone with whom I still collaborate regularly.

With my PhD in hand, I joined the sleep laboratory at the IRCCS Ospedale San Raffaele, a university hospital and scientific institute in Milan, Italy, for the next ten years. It was a magical place where clinical duties and clinical research really came together as if there was no difference between them. All of my colleagues were, like me, involved in both clinical care and research. Having all of us under one roof created a good spirit of communication and a constructive, stimulating working atmosphere. After a first unsuccessful attempt, I obtained substantial funding in 2011 for a large, multicentre clinical project, which I was to coordinate. Soon after, I had an opportunity to work at the Ente Ospedaliero Cantonale (EOC) in Lugano and establish my own research team. Returning to more general neurology and setting up my research team has not been an easy task, but over time my team has grown. It has structured itself with its own areas of expertise, and I am now facing the difficult task of being a good group leader: feeling responsible for the careers of my team members and training them while allowing them to become independent. Overall, my progress as a clinical researcher has been supported by my research fellowship in the USA, opportunities to explore basic research in addition to clinical research, the positions in which I have been able to combine research and clinical activities, and a good network of collaborators.

How do you balance clinical work, research activities, and your private life?

First, I would like to point out that the combination of these activities also includes teaching activities, which usually go hand in hand with clinical care and research. Teaching activities often take up a lot of time and are important for motivating the future generation of clinical practitioners and researchers. When you start your own research group, the balance can be difficult to find. But over time, your group becomes stronger and you can involve your group members by delegating some of your tasks, including teaching activities. Throughout my career, I generally managed to find positions with tacit agreements that included protected time for research. Such positions surely help to balance clinical duties, research activities, and your private life.

What advice would you give to young clinical researchers?

Being curious, enthusiastic about discovering something new, and open to new learning opportunities and ideas from others is certainly important when pursuing a career in clinical research. Do not focus on what you already know but identify what you can learn, improve your skills throughout you career, and when the level of complexity becomes too high, find the right collaborators to help you move your projects forward. Also, look far ahead and plan your career and research projects over several years. This will help you to develop a real research strategy.

Sophie de Seigneux

I feel very lucky because I can combine both taking care of patients and research activities. It makes every day busy but very interesting at the same time.

Sophie de Seigneux completed her medical studies in Geneva (diploma in 2001 and MD in 2004) and then complemented her curriculum with a specialisation in internal medicine. From 2004 to 2008, she pursued a PhD in renal pathophysiology in Aarhus, Denmark. She then pursued her specialisation in nephrology in Geneva and Paris. Since 2009, de Seigneux has been combining clinical medicine and basic research. From 2011 to 2014, she was part of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research Kidney Control of Homeostasis (NCCR Kidney.CH).

In 2014, as a privat-docent at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and a senior consultant within the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) Division of Nephrology, de Seigneux was awarded a professorship grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). She was then appointed Assistant Professor in 2015 and set up her own research group that focuses on the pathophysiology and monitoring of chronic renal failure. She is particularly interested in the role of tubular cells as therapeutic targets as well as the diagnosis and non-invasive monitoring of renal disease. 

Sophie de Seigneux combines her research activities with her clinical and managerial duties while being actively involved in teaching and mentoring. She is a talented researcher who has received competitive funding several times, including the Ambizione and Eccellenza grants from the SNSF. In 2020, she was awarded the Stern-Gattiker Prize by the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences, a distinction that rewards women with an outstanding career in clinical research. de Seigneux has long been identified as the next generation of UNIGE-HUG medical management. She is Head of the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension since October 2021, at which time she was also appointed Full Professor in the Department of Medicine at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine.