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Dr. David Collier, ECU assistant professor of pediatrics, discusses obesity research at the April 8 Research Think Tank presentation. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

New ECU Think Tank Gives Researchers Forum for Ideas

By Doug Boyd

Organizers of a new research endeavor at East Carolina University hope to engage faculty, staff and students in the process of conceptualizing, developing and improving novel and innovative research ideas.

As the name implies, the Heart and Metabolic Institutes Research Think Tank will focus on the health of the cardiovascular system and issues surrounding obesity, diabetes and other metabolic conditions. Leaders hope the think tank will spur creative discussions in other fields, too.

“It is the idea that comes from one person and then another person and then another person that is important,” said Dr. Jose Caro, an endocrinologist, professor of medicine and director of the ECU Metabolic Institute, at the first meeting of the group March 19.

The think tank is good for science, good for patients and a good investment for the university, said Caro, who led the creation of the think tank and directs it along with Dr. Wayne Cascio, a cardiologist, professor of cardiovascular sciences and director of research at the East Carolina Heart Institute, and Dr. Darrell Neufer, professor of physiology and associate director of the metabolic institute.

Approximately 200 faculty, staff and students attended that first meeting and heard Dr. Chris Mansfield, director of the ECU Center for Health Services Research and Development, discuss the major health challenges facing eastern North Carolina, including health disparities between whites and minorities.

In subsequent discussions, ECU faculty Drs. Samil Sharma, David Collier, and Darrell Neufer and George Howard of the University of Alabama - Birmingham have spoken about sleep apnea, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Neufer and Cascio also serve as moderators for the discussions.

Cascio said similar groups exist at other universities, but not with the same goal of presenting concepts in early development, soliciting expert opinions and constructive criticism, and stimulating collaboration.

“Researchers all too often operate in a vacuum with little interaction on campus,” Cascio said. “We believe strongly that we can leverage the immense fund of knowledge and expertise to stimulate enthusiasm for research and improve the quality of the science.”

He and Caro hope the group will lead to better preparation and submission of research grant applications to the National Institutes of Health. In 2008, North Carolina received $919 million from the National Institutes of Health, sixth best in the country. ECU received less than $10 million.

Organizers chose cardiovascular disease and metabolism as focal points because these conditions are widespread in eastern North Carolina and adversely affect the health, productivity and economy of the region and because metabolic disorders are risk factors for the development and progression of cardiovascular disease and worsen prognosis.

Caro and Cascio welcome participation from researchers who might not have any obvious connection to heart or metabolic disease and hope research groups will form in other disciplines, such as cancer.

“We are interested in faculty presenting new ideas and a willingness to get immediate critique from their colleagues,” Cascio said.

“The success of the (think tank) will be enhanced when faculty with expertise in other areas find an unanticipated connection to their area of interest and expertise. It is through such connections that novelty and innovation will be stimulated.”

This page originally appeared in the May 1, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at