Hospital Hill’s dynamic research duo
WHAT COULD BE better for research at the School of Medicine and Hospital Hill than to hire a powerhouse researcher with extensive international experience and success in securing research funding?
How about hiring two?
That’s what occurred in the summer of 2016. Paula Monaghan-Nichols, Ph.D., was announced as the School of Medicine’s new associate dean of research. Her husband, Mark Nichols, Ph.D., was hired for the same post at the School of Nursing and Health Studies.
“Mark and I were impressed by the wealth of research opportunities at the school and the many research institutions throughout Kansas City and the region, and by the collaborative atmosphere,” Monaghan-Nichols said.
After a year on the job, they can report progress toward their goals of increasing federal and foundation research funding for faculty; increasing peer-reviewed published manuscripts and conference presentations; and involving fellows, residents and students at all levels in research and scholarship activities.
In pursuing those goals, they help faculty members through all stages of launching a research project, from framing an idea and identifying possible collaborators to finding the best funding mechanisms and then writing the most competitive application possible.
As they support and encourage research, they draw on experience and perspectives gained across the United States and overseas, both as researchers and as administrators helping others.
“I have met and worked with people from all over the world and with many personalities and talents,” Nichols said. “I have also seen what works well at each of the institutes where I have worked, as well as what some of the limitations were. With this experience, I can observe and suggest process and content changes that should streamline and improve results.”
Monaghan-Nichols brings cultural awareness and experience in building networks. One achievement she pointed to from her years at the University of Pittsburgh was helping to start the National Institute for Mentoring Early Minority Faculty in Neuroscience, which has established a nationwide mentoring network for minority researchers.
The Nicholses were recruited from Pittsburgh, where Monaghan-Nichols was on the neurobiology faculty, was the director of courses in human genetics and neurobiology, co-director of a postgraduate T32 training grant, and vice chair of the curriculum committee. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland; her Ph.D. at the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh, Scotland; and did post-doctoral work in Edinburgh and at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.
Nichols earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of California-Berkeley and his Ph.D. at Yale. At Pittsburgh, he was on the pharmacology faculty and ran his own lab for 12 years, focusing on clinical and basic research mechanisms in breast and uterine cancer signaling pathways and therapeutics. He also took business courses, fostered research collaboration and helped develop grant proposals.
“After working on 73 funded grants totaling about $116 million, I realized that I can help acquire funding for far more and broader research than I could ever perform in my own lab,” Nichols said.
Their post-doctoral resumes, and lives, first overlapped in a crowded lab in Heidelberg. Monaghan-Nichols was new and took the only vacant space, a desk in the corner. Nichols was home writing a paper for a couple of weeks, and when he returned “she was sitting at my desk.”
Monaghan-Nichols said the lab’s research crew was “from all over the world—the British Isles, France, Germany, Greece, Australia. Mark introduced me into the group, and we became an international family.”
After their successes at Pittsburgh, the couple said, the dual opportunities at UMKC’s medical and nursing schools seemed like a good challenge.
Monaghan-Nichols makes it clear that she knows the players across the region. In rapid fashion she lists contacts with many of those institutions — the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, MRIGlobal, Children’s Mercy Hospital and Truman Medical Center, the Center for Behavioral Medicine, UMKC’s school-wide Research Advisory Council, and several affiliated with the KC Animal Health Corridor, whose research on drug pathways has implications for human drug research.
And for the School of Medicine and the rest of UMKC, she details five areas of unique strengths and future research interests, from the opioid crisis and smoking cessation work to bioengineering and a variety of infections and trauma research.
A wealth of possibilities
“There are great opportunities in every school, every department,” she said. “We are identifying experts and available resources, and connecting people who are interested in collaborating.”
One School of Medicine faculty researcher who has benefited from their help is Gary Sutkin, M.D., a gynecologist, surgeon and researcher who is associate dean of women’s health and the Victor and Caroline Schutte Chair in Women’s Health. He already has received one substantial grant with the Nicholses’ help.
“I had never applied for a major research grant before,” said Sutkin, who relied on the Nicholses’ advice throughout the process. “Their help was invaluable.”
Besides helping others get funding, Monaghan-Nichols is excited about getting her own lab up and running at the School of Medicine. She hired a research assistant in September and started her first experiment in October under a National Institutes of Health grant to study the prenatal basis of neurological abnormalities that occur when steroids are administered to mothers at risk for preterm birth, to promote fetal lung maturation.
Another result of the Nicholses’ efforts is the Health Sciences Deans’ Seminar Series, an interdisciplinary series aimed at highlighting research from local and national leaders. Faculty from ophthalmology, pediatrics, nursing, bioinformatics, pharmacy, dentistry, Saint Luke’s Hospital, Children’s Mercy Hospital, KU Medical Center and the Stowers Institute have presented in the series’ first 10 months. In a one-hour seminar, Nichols said, researchers across Hospital Hill can become aware of what others are working on and make vital connections.
The Nicholses also are on the School of Medicine faculty, she as a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, and he as an associate research professor in the Department of Biomedical & Health Informatics. Monaghan-Nichols also is the new chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, taking the reins from Chris Papasian, Ph.D., who is retiring after leading the department since 1998.
Besides fostering research collaborations and juggling two careers, the Nicholses’ have three important collaborations at home — their two high-school-age daughters and a son in middle school. Monaghan-Nichols made it clear that they were the couple’s top priority.
“My first mission when I came here was personal, to get my family settled, integrated into the community,” Monaghan-Nichols said.
After a year their children are doing well, she said, involved in their schools, keeping in touch with friends back in Pittsburgh and making new friends here.
“It helps that Kansas City has been so welcoming, and has so much to offer culturally and in the arts,” she said.
Her husband agreed: “It’s a great place for discovery.”