Game Changer: CCTS Professional Development Scholar Gains Confidence to Pursue advance Career in Health Disparities Research

By: 
Lauren Walsh
Post date: 
February 4, 2015

When Heather Prendergast was encouraged by her mentor to apply for the Professional Development Award issued by the Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), she believed a successful, federally funded career in clinical research was an insurmountable goal.  What she discovered was a foundation in clinical translational science that provided the confidence to take ownership of her research career.

Dr. Prendergast joined UIC’s Department of Emergency Medicine in 1998 as a tenure track faculty member. As an emergency room physician she was exposed to a variety of medical conditions and had dabbled in many areas of research, but she had not yet identified her area of expertise.

She stated, “One of my early mentors said if you want to have a long career in emergency medicine you need to find your niche.”

Prendergast found her passion in studying health disparities in hypertension, specifically in the emergency room setting.  “I’ve had family members struggle with and die from heart failure,” said Prendergast.  “I have always been interested in cardiovascular health, and there are a large number of minorities in our patient population.”

Like many junior faculty, not knowing how to launch her research career was Dr. Prendergast’s greatest challenge.  She spent her early time at UIC applying for grants and receiving rejections letters because she lacked the necessary skills and background to carry out the project.  After over a year of rejection letters, she stepped back to work on smaller studies and build a successful track record.  It was then that Prendergast’s department chair, Terry Vanden Hoek, encouraged her to apply for the CCTS Professional Development Award.

 “That was a game changer for me,” Prendergast emphasized. “Not only did I develop my foundation through the Masters in Clinical Translational Science program, but I finally felt legitimate.  It was the first step in taking ownership of a research career.”

Through the Professional Development program, Prendergast had access to the complimenting expertise of two dedicated mentors: cardiologist, Samuel Dudley, MD, PhD, and Martha Daviglus, MD, PhD, Professor and Executive Director of the Institute for Minority Health Research.  While Dr. Dudley helped address the gaps in Heather’s cardiovascular knowledge, Dr. Daviglus provided insight into the field of health dispar

ities as well as access to a network of minority health investigators.

Prendergast explained, “I wanted to do things that were innovative but also feasible and practical. If I wanted to solve the world’s cardiovascular problems, Dr. Dudley helped me reign in and fine tune my ideas. Dr. Daviglus helped with my grantsmanship, and the things you won’t find in a textbook. The intangibles are just as important.”

Now a mentor herself, Dr. Prendergast encourages other young health investigators to seek out people who will help propel their career forward at an early stage.  Whether she is working with emergency department trainees or lecturing at the CCTS summer program for clinical and translational research methods, Prendergast stresses the importance of building a mentor network.

Photo courtesy of UI Health, Emergency DepartmentShe stated, “If you do not know how to get from point A to point B, the road could be a lot easier with a good mentors who are invested in you and believe in you.”

More recently, Dr. Prendergast’s training and mentorship lead to a submission for a National Institutes of Health R01 grant, “A Hypertension Emergency Department Intervention Aimed at Decreasing Disparities (AHEAD2).”

By actively engaging patients in the emergency department thru non-invasive bedside tests, physicians can see any reversible damages that uncontrolled hypertension is having on the heart.  The patient is then encouraged to consult with a primary care physician with the goal of controlling and changing the course of the disease’s progression.  In the preliminary study, understanding that they have control over their condition became a significant motivator for the patient.

Said Prendergast of her grant application, “[Submitting a R01] is something that, as a young faculty member, I didn’t think was practical for me. Now I feel more than prepared to do this- the light bulb went on.”

Heather Prendergast was supported in part by the University of Illinois Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences KL2 Scholar Award via the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health  (KL2TR000048).  The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.