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”The genetically upgraded EpiHealth cohort is a gold mine that could help more researchers excel”

Martin L. Olsson smiles and stands up against a wall that reflects his image. Photo

A representative from the strategic research area (SRA) EpiHealth has talked to Martin L. Olsson, who is the faculty management representative of the EpiHealth board and Deputy Dean with special responsibility for research infrastructure and strategic issues at the Faculty of Medicine. Martin is also a Professor of Transfusion Medicine at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and a consultant in transfusion medicine at the Office for Medical Services in Region Skåne.

For his research, he was named a Wallenberg Clinical Scholar 2016–2026 and given 30 MSEK for his translational research about blood groups. He recently stepped down after serving as the President of the International Society of Blood Transfusion (ISBT) during the period 2018-2020. When asked what his assignment as an EpiHealth board member is, he answers,

All strategic research areas (SRA) have a Faculty management representative who is a member of the board and my task is to ensure that SRA EpiHealth has a short and open communications channel to the Faculty leadership and that it is easy for us to understand the challenges and successes of SRA EpiHealth. By being part of the Board, I aim to continue constituting this direct link.”

During the interview, we talk about how the Faculty of Medicine’s research is met within SRA EpiHealth and Martin brings up the fact that SRA EpiHealth is not only an SRA for Lund University (LU) but also a strategically important collaboration between LU and Uppsala University.

Our collaborations with other universities are important. We need to know what is happening within the SRAs and in the case of EpiHealth, Uppsala University contributes with their view on developments. At the national Deans´ meetings, we meet with the managements of the other Faculties of Medicine in Sweden, and the joint SRAs are natural points of contacts and an essential part of our work together. In the longer run, I look forward to even more collaborative efforts between the different SRAs locally and nationally, which can benefit both SRA EpiHealth and LU as a whole.”

We are also talking about the ongoing work within the university to produce an overall communications strategy for the SRA environments in the spring of 2021, since a need has been identified to boost and display existing SRA environments even more. It is discussed how the communications strategy for EpiHealth can be used in this context.

It is important that we have an overall communications strategy that ensures that we share our successes and that it also contributes to a better communication between the SRAs. Furthermore, I think researchers in general would benefit from a better understanding of our strengths, and SRA EpiHealth is an important part of the overall work to make this happen. In addition to the overall communication strategy, all SRAs have been challenged with producing a communication plan specific for them, an ambition that will ensure that we become even better at communicating our successes. This could also facilitate future recruitment efforts”, says Martin.

We also discuss what the most important messages of SRA EpiHealth are, and Martin says that “SRA EpiHealth is a large cohort that could be used by even more investigators for even better outcomes. However, there are many resources around and at present it is not easy to stand out from all the noise with our messages. It would be great if we can spread the word what a gold mine SRA EpiHealth really is and how it could improve yet other fields of study and inspire other researchers. We need to help researchers see the potential of SRA EpiHealth, and part of that is to communicate the good examples, our success stories as show cases”.

The conversation makes us talk about what the best way is to reach out with our messages and which communication channels we can use. “When it comes to which communication channels to use, it is really up to each SRA to use the channels that best correspond to the needs they see most pressing. They say social media is the way to go but I’m certainly not the expert there but I think the dedicated communications officers within or outside the SRAs know best.” As a completely different example, Martin continues: ”Before the pandemic, we started the ”Brown Bag Lunch” concept, which is an hour-long workshop over lunch where researchers had the opportunity to meet, exchange knowledge and ask questions about specific research resources and infrastructures, such as epidemiological research and databases”.

The purpose was to display hidden gems among our research infrastructures and other resources with a potential to facilitate excellent research, also by simply creating new contact surfaces over a lunch sandwich. Looking ahead, and in view of the ongoing pandemic, we may need to replace these meetings with digital meetings but hope to start them up later this year or next. Perhaps we could arrange an in-depth webinar or lunch seminar with EpiHealth in focus”, says Martin.

During the interview, we discuss whether there are barriers that may prevent us from reaching out with our messages and Martin explains his view on this: “I see the SRAs as one of the major driving forces of excellent research at LU but it is essential that they can shine a light and be seen as sources of inspiration rather than an exclusive club for a few elite members. In the case of EpiHealth, the SRA leadership has been strategic in opening the doors and realized that the success of EpiHealth relies on the success not only of its original Principal Investigators (PI) but also the extended network created as time goes by.”

When asked how we can get more members within the network, Martin answers “Currently, one of the  major, new attraction of the EpiHealth cohort is that it has been genetically profiled. Once this becomes common knowledge in the science community, I expect more research ideas to inspire more investigators to seek contact. Of course, it is really important that we make sure, this possibility is advertized profusely going forward. Even if there is an increasing number of cohorts out there, the new and genetically upgraded EpiHealth is a gold mine waiting for more prospectors to join the rush - I think we have a role to help them to see what their EpiHealth nugget could look like!