Coalition putting Abilene on the map for research

It started with a phone call.

Pearl Merritt, Ed.D., MSN, regional dean for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) School of Nursing in Abilene, fielded a friendly inquiry from Kathryn Norton, M.D., a surgeon for Hendrick Health System. Merritt met Norton several years earlier through TTUHSC’s important partnership with Hendrick. Now Norton, a TTUHSC alumna, was seeking advice about how she could become involved with research at her alma mater.

Researchers at TTUHSC-AbileneAfter the phone call, Merritt admits she wasn’t quite sure how to help her colleague. Then, as it often does, fate stepped in and provided a solution. At that time, Philip Wicker, TTUHSC’s Abilene development officer, was hosting monthly luncheons at the Abilene Country Club that featured various speakers from the Texas Tech University System and the Abilene health care community. TTUHSC researcher Maciej Markiewski, M.D., Ph.D., was the guest speaker on the day Merritt attended.

“As Dr. Markiewski was speaking, I realized immediately that I needed to set up a lunch meeting with him and Dr. Norton,” Merritt recalled. “Our first lunch meeting was in my office and we had a great conversation. I could visualize something much larger coming of this after listening to them speak, but I knew from experience if we did not schedule a monthly meeting, the ball might eventually get dropped.”

Prior to their third monthly lunch discussion, Norton asked if she could bring a researcher from Hardin-Simmons University (HSU), a request Merritt readily accepted. Word continued to spread, and soon researchers from McMurry University (MM), Abilene Christian University (ACU) and Cisco College joined the group.

The Abilene Research Coalition was officially underway.

Today, the coalition meets once a month in TTUHSC’s School of Nursing offices on Pine Street. Those meetings typically include Merritt, Norton, Markiewski, Wicker and Sara Brouse, Pharm.D., regional dean, School of Pharmacy (TTUHSC-Abilene); Diana L. Flanagan, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology (ACU); Magdalena Karbowniczek, M.D., Ph.D., professor of immunotherapeutics and biotechnology (TTUHSC-Abilene); Dawn Kochanek, Ph.D., professor of biology (Cisco College); Elyse Lewis, coordinator of women’s services and community initiatives (Hendrick Health System); Malaney O’Connell, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology (McMurry University); Megan Roth, Ph.D., director, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ACU); Heather West, RNFA, surgical nurse for Dr. Norton; Candace Wicks, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology (HSU); and Marta Collier-Youngblood, director of grants development (TTUHSC-Abilene).

Merritt said the coalition is seeking to provide cutting-edge research and educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students from each of Abilene’s local colleges and universities. Because of the level of expertise demonstrated by TTUHSC’s cancer researchers in Abilene, and the state-of-the-art research equipment housed in their laboratories, Merritt was certain TTUHSC could help the other Abilene universities and their students.

“In fact, Dr. Markiewski has let all of the coalition researchers know that their students can tour our labs and even assist in research,” Merritt said. “This is a great way to share our expertise and resources with other local universities. Ultimately, it’s the students who will benefit.”

Researchers at TTUHSC-AbileneMarkiewski said the group is also trying to improve early detection and quality care options for Big Country breast patients through a long-term collaboration with the Hendrick Breast Cancer Institute, and by obtaining prevention grants through the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas. He believes the Abilene Research Coalition can be an important tool in reaching those long-term objectives.

“This coalition represents perhaps the best example of how the efforts of the world-renowned scientists from the TTUHSC-Abilene campus, through facilitators like Pearl Merritt, can synergize with the local community in creating a vibrant 21st century environment for young people to develop their talents and skills,” Markiewski added. “We want to transform a kind of walled-off part of America into an Abilene community to which people are attracted because of its growing professional opportunities.”  

In early September, Merritt was introduced to Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., a noted cancer biology researcher from TTUHSC’s School of Pharmacy in Amarillo. Srivastava recently moved to the Abilene campus to chair TTUHSC’s Department of Immunotherapeutics and Biotechnology (DIB). He is also associate dean for the School of Pharmacy’s Office of Sciences. He and Merritt are now serving as co-chairs for the Abilene Research Coalition.

In addition to building and expanding the research enterprise in Abilene by involving faculty scientists from each local university, Srivastava said the coalition’s research can be published and grants can be acquired because this is a time when collaborative research is being promoted and appreciated by the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies.

“With the help of prolific and outstanding researchers from our DIB, external grants from the NIH and others and the continued support from TTUHSC partners like the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health, we can bring all the biomedical researchers from Abilene to a common theme so that collaborative research can thrive and everybody benefits,” Srivastava explained. “Organizing symposiums and inviting distinguished researchers from other famous institutions will get us recognition and appreciation from the scientific community. My vision is to get Abilene nationally and internationally recognized for cutting-edge biomedical research, especially in the molecular oncology and immunotherapeutics fields.”

Merritt said the Abilene Research Coalition is indeed planning a research conference for Abilene that should take place in 2018. Though still in the planning stage, she said the symposium would include presentations by scientists from all area universities. For Merritt, it will represent a significant milestone for a group that was started by several well-timed phone calls and lunchtime discussions.

“I guess I am a connector and I have a lot of contacts in Abilene, so when someone asks for help, I want to help them,” Merritt said. “I also know that research in Abilene at the level of these experts is rare, and this cancer research is wonderful for Abilene. I also realize that it was Abilene’s community foundations and other individuals that came up with the money to build our TTUHSC buildings and pay for much of the start-up operations, so we need to pay the community back and help people through collaborative projects like the Abilene Research Coalition.”

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