We’ve launched the ‘Researcher Spotlight’ series to shine a light on the work and varied career journeys of the researchers who publish with us. We want researchers to be able to share their own personal stories and help others draw inspiration and extract learnings that can serve as a guide for the next steps in their own careers. These interviews will provide insights and advice from researchers in different career stages and fields, from those who are just getting started in research to more experienced researchers.
In this interview, Dr. Kenneth R. Chien, doctor and medical scientist with an expertise in cardiovascular science, shares tips on finding the right journal for his research, how he is reaching the right audience with his work and discusses some of the projects and highlights of his remarkable scientific career.
While this is a simple question, relates to the growing diversity of scientific information platforms. First, there is a growing number of on-line journals that offer open access, rapid publication, stringent- fair-efficient review, and brand name gravitas. Nature Communications (NC) is a prime example of this trend. The sheer volume of papers in NC precludes random browsing, as direct author or subject searches are the only efficient way to find articles of interest. Second, the pre-print journals, like bioRX and medRX, are becoming an early source for preliminary studies, as they appear months before final formal peer review and publication. Often, these online observations are accompanied by a tweet, press release, or a press conference, leading to widespread dissemination on social media. This trend has impacted the need to attend scientific conferences to hear breaking scientific findings, although the networking component of conferences still has value. Third, some of most exciting technological breakthroughs are coming from the biotech sector, where companies are always the first to highlight any advance to maintain investor confidence. There has been an enormous growth in capital investment in early, pre-clinical biotech ventures, particularly in high-risk-potentially transformative new technology platforms, e.g., mRNA vaccines and therapeutics, and most of the advances are announced widely in the lay media and social networks long before peer review. Finally, the COVID-fuelled Zoom-based webinars have become de rigeur during the pandemic, and likely will remain fixtures after we reach the goal of herd immunity. In light of the above, the only way to highlight a new journal is to publish work that is sufficiently significant to a core scientific, medical or biotech constituency, even if it only appeals to a narrow sliver of the general readership audience. In short, I find myself using Google, Pubmed, and LinkedIn searches to learn about new findings of direct interest to our own work. The downside is that often innovation occurs at the interface of two non-intersecting fields, and it remains important to stay abreast of outside developments that may, at first, seem far afield.
Quite frankly, I do not see an urgent need for new journals. I would rather see an increased effort to make the existing journals more responsive, improving editorial oversight (particularly in highly competitive fields) to insure accuracy and fairness, and editorial expertise that is more interdisciplinary. The latter is particularly needed to assess the increasing number of clinical studies that are being published in traditionally pre-clinical journals, where seasoned judgment lies at the intersection of biotechnology, medical therapeutics, and human biology. Currently, the expertise in this arena largely resides in the private sector.
In my view, scientific journals are akin to museums for scientific discovery. If you accept this type of thinking, the challenge is to align the core findings with a journal that has a matching track record and readership. Editors are sort of like curators of the “museum”, deciding which “canvasses to hang on the walls” so to speak. Just like MOMA, the Whitney, and the Met have established their distinct artistic niches, so too have scientific journals.
"In my view, scientific journals are akin to museums for scientific discovery... Editors are sort of like curators of the “museum”, deciding which “canvasses to hang on the walls” so to speak."
If you are a young investigator, trying to make your mark, having a paper in a branded journal is absolutely essential, although I openly admit this is due to an inherent bias in granting agencies and the hierarchical academic system. A superficial survey of Nobel-level scientific advances reveals that many ground-breaking discoveries are published in relatively obscure journals, as their full implications are out of fashion, challenge existing dogma, or decades ahead of their scientific peers.
See above. The most important audience for your work is yourself. Eventually, people will find your work if you can maintain scientific focus on an important biological question by attacking barriers to discovery with new technology. Often, it is required to invent new technology or to take an unconventional experimental approach, e.g., trying to make mRNA a drug. Highlighting technical or biological novelty is essential.
I consider myself to be a physician-scientist, a hybrid of sorts. We use all available tools (genetics, mouse-pig-primate-human model systems, stem cells, mRNA-DNA vectors-recombinant proteins, single chain VHH antibodies, etc.) to address our core interests in cardiac biology and disease. Increasingly, I am moving towards biotechnology, as we now have an incredible arsenal of tools to not only understand human disease, but to actually “take it out”. For this reason, I am the most excited about our ongoing efforts to push forward with mRNA beyond vaccines and towards a therapeutic drug, and to intersect the technology with stem cells and regenerative medicine. I think there will be a convergence of the two fields in the coming years, which is a direction we are pushing aggressively on multiple fronts, in my lab and in the private sector.
There has never been a more exciting time to be a physician-scientist. The tragedy is that the number of clinically and scientifically well-trained physician scientists is dwindling due to “habitat extinction”. There are few “homes” or safe harbors for dual trainees in a hospital or medical school setting, where increasingly the emphasis is on delivery of clinical care, and every physician is “on the clock”. Perhaps this trend can be reversed by intersecting the private sector with academia in unique ways, as many of the most talented physician-scientists have already left academia for biotechnology, e.g., Jeff Leiden, Andy Plump, Dean Li, David Altshuler, Gary Nabel, etc.
This is the toughest question to answer. Where the balance is set very much depends on personal values. Early in my career, I assumed that putting in more work hours would automatically yield increased productivity, setting up a disequilibrium with family and life balance. Over the years, I have learned that the best ideas often come in quiet times of reflection. Science can be like a jigsaw puzzle and you need time to think alternatively and ultimately figure out how to fit the pieces together. The daily burden of emails, zooms, texts, admin mumbo-jumbo, etc. can make this challenging, and it is in the fun times with family and friends that new approaches to old problems can sometimes arise.
"Science can be like a jigsaw puzzle and you need time to think alternatively and ultimately figure out how to fit the pieces together."
From my cardiology training, I am reminded of the story of the development of the Swan-Ganz catheter. Although it is no longer widely used, at the time of its invention, this pulmonary arterial device played a central role in monitoring cardiac function and pulmonary pressure in an ICU setting. As noted earlier, Jeremy Swan came up with the idea for the catheter from initial “observation from the Laguna Beach CA shore of sail boats on the water on a relatively calm day. Boats with conventional slot sails were still; one with a spinnaker was able to make reasonable headway.” And so, he set out to put a “spinnaker” inflatable balloon on the end of a catheter to allow it to float into the pulmonary artery without the need for direct visualization. Perhaps we all need more time at the beach.
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Kenneth R. Chien is an American doctor and medical scientist who has been a research director at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, since 2013. His area of expertise is cardiovascular science, and he has been credited with the discovery of the multipotent heart progenitors which build the human heart (1).
Professor Chien is a third generation Harvard alumnus, following his father and grandfather (2), and earned a BA from Harvard College in Biology in 1973. He earned his PhD and MD from Pennsylvania's Temple University, and continued to study internal medicine and cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Chien became a member of the faculty at the University of California at San Diego, acting as director of the Institute for Molecular Medicine from 2000 to 2005, with an adjunct appointment as a Professor of the Salk Institute. Chien then worked as Scientific Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital from 2005 to 2012, concurrent to directing the Cardiovascular Program of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute from 2007 to 2013. In 2013 Chien received a Presidential appointment as Professor of Medicine and Cell and Molecular Biology and Director or the Wallenberg-Cardiovascular Initiative at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden (1).
He has over three decades of experience as a senior advisor-SAB member in the biotechnology sector (2), and his work as Director of the Cardiovascular Program of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, led to his co-founding, in 2010, of Moderna Therapeutics. In 2011, the Chien Lab made the discovery of the high efficiency expression of VEGF mRNA in heart muscle, resulting in a patent on the discovery that triggered mRNA towards therapeutic applications. In 2013, Chien and his associates documented the ability of VEGF mRNA for coronary vascular regeneration and to reverse the onset of heart dysfunction, thereby opening the potential of using synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) to produce therapeutic desired effects in a patient's muscle cells. In February 2019, AstraZeneca and the Chien lab reported the first in human study of an mRNA therapeutic, noting reversal of vascular dysfunction in diabetic patients by VEGF mRNA (3). At Karolinska, the Chien lab documented the ability to generate large numbers of human Islet ventricular heart progenitor cells from human embryonic stem cells, which resulted in a partnership with Astrazeneca to move the project toward clinical application (4).
For his work, Professor Chien has received several awards (1). Chien is a recipient of the Walter Bradford Cannon Award of the American Physiological Society and the Pasarow Award. He is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and has received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Edinburgh.