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Reflections from a Soon-to-be Alumna of Mentored Training in Dissemination and Implementation Research in Cancer

October 26, 2015   |   Sarah Birken

In June 2015, I spent a week with 28 up-and-coming scholars in the field of dissemination and implementation (D&I) research in cancer. From 9am to 5pm each day, we alternated between hearing MT-DIRC faculty about emerging issues in the field and working collaboratively to refine our research proposals. Some reflections are also posted on and are open for commenting.

With the previous year’s experience as an MT-DIRC fellow under my belt, I was ready to dive in to each session with both feet, taking full advantage of the expertise of the faculty and other fellows. During one session following lunch, fellows Ted Skolarus, Rebecca Selove, and I came together to resurrect a conceptual paper that we conceived the previous year but had fallen by the wayside over the course of a busy semester. In a postprandial stupor, I doubted that we would be able to tackle such a complex issue. Within 5 minutes, though, I was fully engaged in drafting a paper that has shaped how I and many of my colleagues approach studying the implementation of complex innovations in cancer. During another session, fellow Bogda Koczawa challenged me to consider the global implications of my domestic research on cancer survivorship care plans, resulting in our collaboration on an appeal to global oncologists to consider the role of D&I in their work. Interactions with other fellows during downtime – morning jogs, at dinner, and over drinks – were just as invigorating and productive.

That week in June 2015 was bittersweet. Throughout the week, I couldn’t help lamenting that it would be my last summer at Washington University as an MT-DIRC fellow. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had an entire year remaining in the fellowship, with calls scheduled each month to work with Ted, Rebecca, and our mentor, Enola Proctor; in the previous year, we had met each month, sharing successes and challenges, and cultivating the concept papers that we had included in our MT-DIRC applications into competitive research proposals. We would continue our work in the coming year.

Indeed, just a month after I left Washington University, our mentoring calls resumed, and I was excited to continue learning from my colleagues. Later that summer, I had another flash of the bittersweet feeling that I experienced during that last week at Washington University: I had been awarded pilot funding to conduct the research that I had proposed with the help of Enola, Ted, and Rebecca. As thrilled as I was to receive the award, I worried that I might never have the opportunity to develop a proposal quite as methodically and collaboratively as I did with my MT-DIRC mentoring team.

In late September, though, I had a revelation at the Society for Implementation Research Collaboration’s 3rd Biennial Conference, where two hundred experts in behavioral health came together to share insights regarding implementation science. Occasionally, I would encounter a participant with a badge labeled “Implementation Research Institute fellow”. IRI, a program that predates MT-DIRC, has been training behavioral health scientists in implementation research for 6 years. During a break at SIRC, I saw several generations of IRI fellows enthusiastically discussing an issue in implementation science. That’s when I realized: You can take the fellow out of the training program, but you can’t take the training out of the fellow.

Next month, I will submit a proposal for Cancer Research Network pilot funding that I developed in collaboration with fellow Erin Hahn, leveraging our training in methodical, collaborative proposal writing. In the months to come, we will submit an R01 application; in December, I will have dinner with dozens of MT-DIRC fellows at the Dissemination and Implementation Conference. Having undergone training that has transformed my scholarship and established invaluable relationships, I no longer dread the day that I will no longer be an MT-DIRC fellow; I look forward to a long career as an MT-DIRC alumna.