March 9, 2023

Joanna Kountanis, M.D., serves as an inaugural research scout

The program, funded through the U-M Medical School Office of Research, provides funding for researchers to invest in the bold, novel ideas of others.

Joanna Kountanis MD

How do you uncover the bold ideas that may be hidden in plain sight, awaiting opportunity and funding? A new University of Michigan Medical School Office of Research program predicts that researchers within the institution may be able to help. 

The Research Scouts Funding Program is intended to offer a low-burden funding opportunity by providing $150,000 to medical school faculty (or “scouts”) to invest in other scientists’ early-stage ideas — as the website puts it, “ideas that can transform our current understanding of a scientific concept or field, challenge common dogma, or are wildly new and imaginative.”

Joanna Kountanis, M.D., clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology and clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, was one of 24 investigators selected as an inaugural scout this winter. We spoke with her about her interest in the program and how department investigators can get involved.

What interested you in the research scout program?
I was interested in the program because I received this type of support from Dr. Mashour early in my career. I approached him years ago wanting to study PTSD after childbirth and hospital encounters, which had not previously been studied in the field of anesthesia. He gave me the seed money to start that project, and that project subsequently led me to obtaining two grants and put me on my current career trajectory. Without his initial support, I wouldn't have been able to accomplish what I have done so far. I felt very excited to have the opportunity to do the same for someone else.

What excites you about searching for new ideas?
I like the idea of finding a project that can really push forward our medical knowledge and investigate something in a way that has not been done before. It can be challenging to get a novel idea funded since often reviewers want to see initial pilot data for a project. However, to get that pilot data, usually a researcher will need funding, and it can cost a considerable amount to conduct an initial exploratory study for an idea that has never been tested before. What is exciting about the Research Scout program is that we are specifically looking for an idea that has a lot of potential promise but it does not need to have been proven yet.

Research scouts can divvy up funding how they want. You chose to award your entire $150,000 to one proposal — tell us about that.
When I was searching through the different proposals, I was struck by Dr. Rami Khoriaty’s, an associate professor of internal medicine and associate professor of cell & developmental biology,  project for many reasons. While he already has an established lab, he needs a substantial amount of funding to run his exploratory study on sickle cell disease. He mentioned that sickle cell disease primarily impacts black individuals and is underfunded comparatively to equally or more rare conditions, such as cystic fibrosis. There are inequities and disparities regarding investigational research as well as funding as it relates to sickle cell disease. Dr. Khoriaty proposes to take sickle cells and expose them to a very large catalog of medications and natural products to see if any can prevent the cells from sickling. It is a risk given that a lot of resources and effort will go into running all the tests and validating any results, however it may be the start of identifying a novel use for an existing medication.  

Research scouts are discouraged from funding projects from within their own departments. Why do you think that is?
While not stated explicitly, I assume that it is discouraged to fund people within your own department to ensure that I do not have any self-interest in the project and that I am not funding my friends. Also, I believe the idea is to get a different and fresh set of eyes on a proposal. When you are looking at projects within your own field, you review it with a certain set of biases and background knowledge that can hinder your ability to fund or see the potential in a project that is trying to push the envelope. Picking a project that is completely out of my area of expertise probably affords an investigator an opportunity to get their project off the ground that they might not have otherwise had.

Reading through proposals with these big ideas — has that challenged you in your own research?
Definitely. It has renewed my interest in searching for unconventional research ideas. I was reminded of how I started my first project by combing through psychiatry and midwifery journals and collaborating with researchers in psychiatry, family medicine, and obstetrics. After I read all these great proposals, I began to look again through non-anesthesia journals to get inspired for a new project.

Michigan Medicine’s strategic plan includes a “Bold Science” objective. Do you see this program helping to achieve that objective? 
Yes, I really applaud the Office of Research for this program. I was impressed when I saw this program because they were offering a generous amount of money for a project compared to the more commonly seen $5,000-$10,000 grants. They also wanted to remove barriers from researchers applying. The application process is incredibly easy and simple, and there is not a list of requirements or conditions tied to the grant that would prohibit anyone from applying. It was very freeing to see that the medical school entrusted us to make the right decision and also trusted the investigators.

I hope they see value in this project and offer it again. It was such a rush for me as a scout — I felt like I was giving someone the winning lottery ticket. Dr. Khoriaty was so excited and thankful, and I was really happy to be part of that moment.

While you’ve awarded your funds, other research scouts may still have funds available. How would you encourage anesthesiology faculty members to take advantage of the program?
I have already spoken to a few faculty members who have asked about the process. I encourage faculty on all tracks to submit — and to submit as many of their ideas as possible. This is not your typical grant; there are not a lot of rules and regulations. You need to write a short paragraph about your idea and then if a scout is interested, that scout will reach out to have you tell them a little bit more about your idea. This is a rolling application and distribution of the funds, so it is important to submit your ideas sooner versus later.