Upon joining CHOC as vice president and chief scientific officer – the hospital’s first – Dr. Terence Sanger organized a strategic planning retreat to assess where research was at CHOC and where it was headed. That event was held in late February 2020.
What followed is well known to us all.
On June 10, 2023, the CHOC Research Institute held its first in-person Research Strategic Planning Retreat since the pandemic, with Dr. Sanger leading a panel of leaders from CHOC and its academic partners, University of California, Irvine and Chapman University. The number of studies underway and the number of personnel at the institute have both grown dramatically in those three years.
Meanwhile, buzz is building for the new Southwest Tower, which will open in phases beginning in mid-2025. In Fall 2026, the Research Institute is scheduled to open on the entire top ninth floor of the outpatient building, with 50 wet lab benches – doubling current research space – and family-friendly exhibits and an “Exploratorium” to demystify research for patients and their loved ones.
“CHOC has a spectacular hospital, and we have the opportunity to lead not just the West Coast but the country,” Dr. Sanger said in opening remarks at the seminar, attended by 150. “We really need to aim for that. We need to aim to do something no one else has done in a way that’s going to help our kids.
“We are lean, we’re fast, we’re creative,” he added. “By working together, we can create something unique that will leave a lasting impact on our kids and future generations. We must leverage our strengths and make sure that our efforts are combined in the most efficient way possible. We must remain focused on our goal and never give up.
“We are not held back by traditions that are bogging us down. We’re free to do what we want. And to harness that freedom, I need everybody’s best. Together, we can bring about positive change for our children and future generations.
“And I don’t want the small, crazy ideas. I want the big, crazy ideas.
“There are no bad ideas when they come from people who care about children. We care about children and are trying to improve our impact.”
Top leaders gather
Kimberly Cripe, CHOC president and chief executive officer, was joined by fellow CHOC leaders Kim Milstien, executive vice president and chief operation officer; Dr. Sandip Godambe, senior vice president and chief medical officer; Paul Van Dolah, executive vice president and chief transformation officer; and Dr. Coleen Cunningham, senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief as well as chair of the UCI Department of Pediatrics.
Participant partners of CHOC included Dr. Michael J. Stamos, dean of the UCI School of Medicine; Dr. Laura Glynn Chapman, associate dean for research, Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, Chapman University; Dr. Jan Hirsch, founding dean, UCI School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; Dr. Mark Lazenby, dean, UCI Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing; Dr. Andrew Lyon, dean, Fowler School of Engineering, Chapman University; Dr. Marios Papaefthymiou, dean, UCI Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences; and Dr. Ian Williamson, dean, UCI Paul Merage School of Business.
“What do we do now?” Dr. Sanger asked the assembled.
Before that answer was discussed, the presentation included a look back since 2019.
And in her opening remarks before she introduced a patient video featuring Liliana Paez Gallardo, Kim expressed her gratitude for CHOC’s academic partners as she reminded all of the mission of the Research Institute:
To nurture, advance and protect the health and well-being of children by finding the answers each child needs to thrive.
“Our relationships run deep,” Kim said.
She mentioned CHOC’s growing and evolving pediatric residency program with UCI, the partners’ more than a dozen fellowship programs, and the maternal/fetal joint venture launched two years ago.
For more than a decade, Kim said, CHOC has collaborated with Chapman University. She cited the work the partners have done concerning pharmacies, CHOC’s movement disorder program, the Thompson Autism and Neurodevelopment Center, and Seacrest Studios.
“When I look around this room,” Kim said, “I’m very optimistic about the work we do together.”
CHOC Research Institute growth
The Research Institute has nearly doubled in the last three years to 140 employees and has hit a key milestone of $6 million in annual revenue, said Phuong Dao, executive director.
The number of research interns has increased dramatically to 112, she added, and there are almost 600 active human subjects studies – up from around 350 three years ago. A total of 2,100 CHOC patients are enrolled in research projects.
In addition, the Research Institute has 220 active investigators, a total of 26 visiting scientists, and $2.7 million in donor support.
At only 18 months old, the Computational and Data Science division, led by Louis Ehwerhemuepha, Ph.D., is involved in more than 20 Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)-related studies and a total of more than 120 research projects, Phuong noted.
‘A culture of research’
Dr. Sanger discussed the institute’s four strategic initiatives: Leverage Clinical Excellence, Empower
Discovery, Always Learn, and Lead and Educate.
At CHOC Research, mentorship never stops regardless of a person’s position, he said, and researchers are more than scientists.
“Researchers can be nurses and parents,” Dr. Sanger said. “They are the people who ask the questions.”
He added: “Why does a hospital do research at all? Universities do research. Well, hospitals do research. Because we have to – our patients count on us to do this research.”
According to Dr. Sanger, measuring research results is crucial to asking questions that will help patients.
“We don’t want to confuse activity with progress,” he said. “Are we doing well? You can’t improve something you’re not measuring.”
He added: “I want to create a culture of research. I want people asking questions. The easiest way to not having people asking questions is to tell them we don’t care about the answer.”
New opportunities for research collaboration
A “Dean’s Roundtable” portion of the program discussed new opportunities for collaboration between CHOC and partners UCI Health and Chapman University to drive the future of pediatric healthcare.
The panel included Dr. Chloe Christensen, a CHOC metabolic research scientist; Dr. Dan Cooper, UCI distinguished professor of pediatrics and executive director of the UCI Institute For Precision Health and associate director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science; Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Godambe.
“In order to achieve prominence as a Research Institute, our researchers need all the tools and opportunities to keep up with a constantly evolving field,” Dr. Christensen noted. “When a new technique is published or presented, we need to have the ability to rapidly act to adopt it.”
Dr. Christensen also suggested expanding CHOC researchers’ online presence, with a hyperlink to their labs and stories about their research as well as job postings to help attract talent and boost collaboration.
Dr. Cooper echoed the importance of mentorship and said CHOC, UCI, and Chapman need to work together to recruit pediatrician scientists to be more competitive nationally. He also suggested the idea of establishing an endowed chair in pediatrics.
“We need more hires,” Dr. Cunningham agreed. “While we have excellent researchers here, we don’t have very many of them. We need a more critical mass of people who can mentor, who can support and develop and collaborate with clinicians to help build research.
“We need young, mid-level, and senior scientists.” Dr. Cunningham said. “It’s our most pressing need.”
Dr. Chulie Ulloa, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist on CHOC’s medical staff and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine, suggested the creation of a non-profit research center run by CHOC, UCI and Chapman University.
Dr. Sanger was optimistic about the future of the Research Institute and CHOC’s relationship with its academic partners.
“We want to make this the place where people say, ‘I wish I worked for CHOC,’” he said. “And we’re going to get there.”
Learn more about research at CHOC