If you have been involved with the Alliance in any way, no doubt you have interacted with Maggie Miller, IHSI research development specialist on some level. Maggie is the main contact on the Illinois end of the collaboration. She co-coordinates the Alliance along with Chris Schad, the Mayo Clinic primary contact, to ensure all aspects of the Alliance are running smoothly and effectively. Here’s a bit of insight into Maggie’s background and how she supports Alliance students and researchers in the clinical research space.
Before your start at IHSI and the Alliance, you were a U of I student. What does your educational background look like?
My scientific background is in microbiology. Technically, my degrees are in animal sciences, but I did microbiology research while I was a student. I came to U of I as an undergraduate, went to graduate school here, then stayed on for a post doc, all with Bryan White. I moved into the health space when I started my post doc because I was more focused on human microbiology projects. I was a year or two into my postdoc research when I was presented with the opportunity to co-coordinate the Mayo Alliance. Since I had been looking for a change from bench work and lab research, I basically jumped at the chance. I began work to get programs moving, helped Bryan (who was named Director in 2012) organize the steering committee, and tackled various administrative duties.
Describe what you do within the Alliance, and give us an idea of your day-to-day role.
My role is to be the person who implements programs and ideas from UI faculty and makes sure faculty are interfacing with Mayo Clinic clinician researchers. For instance, I coordinate all the administrative components of the Computational Genomics Course the Alliance hosts each summer. I don’t create the course curriculum, but I handle everything from meeting room logistics, participant registration, advertising the course, updating online resources and tools, and participant follow up. It’s a lot of operational, behind the scenes work.
I’m the point person for students involved in any of the educational areas of the Alliance. The Alliance has also provided seed funding for research project collaborations between UI faculty and Mayo Clinic researchers, so I support those projects. I’m the first point of contact for any Illinois faculty looking to start a new collaboration with a Mayo Clinic researcher through the Alliance. The Alliance holds focused workshops for its researchers, and much of my time is spent organizing those events as well.
What can you say about the Summer Undergrad Research Fellowship (SURF) Program?
This 10-week summer program was created by and is completely run by Mayo Clinic, and is open to undergraduate students across the nation. But because of the University of Illinois’ ties to Mayo Clinic through the Alliance, a certain number of spots are reserved specifically for UI students. This year, seven SURF spots were allotted and the Alliance ran a pre-selection application process from a pool of UI students. Any students not chosen in the SURF pre-selection process were encouraged to apply through the nation-wide, general Mayo Clinic advertisement, because they could also be chosen. But the Alliance’s pre-selection process is a great opportunity for students because they're competing with a much smaller pool of applicants. Over the years we’ve had excellent feedback from staff at Mayo Clinic about the quality of our undergraduate students’ knowledge and work.
What do you think the Alliance means for the U of I and why do you believe it has been successful?
For UI researchers invested in health-related work, having a strong connection to a clinical institution like Mayo Clinic is a huge advantage. The opportunities for collaboration with Mayo Clinic researchers are nearly endless. And conversely, people at Mayo Clinic want to work with UI faculty and research staff because they’re dealing with some of the best minds in science and technology, who can access resources not widely available, like Blue Waters (supercomputing). The Alliance provides students with educational opportunities not found otherwise, too. There are not many undergraduate students who can say they spent a summer at a world-class research center, for instance.
What do you see in the future for the Alliance? Is there anything new and exciting on the horizon?
Specifically, I think there will be opportunities coming up in cancer research. Illinois has yet to work extensively with the Mayo Clinic’s cancer center, and we are very excited to begin. There was a workshop in March to outline grand challenges, with upcoming seed funding available. In general, I want to see the Alliance grow into clinical areas beyond precision medicine. I want to keep doing what we’re doing well, and move forward to create more partnered opportunities for students and researchers alike.