Q&A: ATS 2015-16 President Atul Malhotra, MD

ATS 2015-16 President Atul Malhotra

ATS 2015-16 President Atul Malhotra

Q: Your ATS work has focused primarily on supporting early career professionals. You helped to create the Student Scholars Program and the Resident Boot Camp. What inspired you to do this?

My own success has been based in part on the contributions of junior people around me, which has been a source of satisfaction for a long time. In terms of research, one person can’t do everything, so a team of people around you who are likeminded and successful can help you get a lot more done. I’ve always been a team player in that sense, and developing young talent has been part of my professional philosophy. 

The Student Scholars Program was a team effort consistent with my values, and ATS Chief Program Officer Eileen Larson was very helpful. Laura Crotty Alexander, MD, the vice chair of the ATS Training Committee and an assistant professor of University of California, San Diego, deserves most of the credit for the Resident Boot Camp.

Q: The Global Scholars Program was unveiled at ATS 2015. Can you tell us about this initiative?

During the past few years, I’ve spent some time overseas, including working in the ICUs in Rwanda two to three years ago. It was very rewarding, but I didn’t feel like we were solving the problem or that we were building local capacity. We were taking care of patients and leaving. We tried to do a fair amount of teaching while we were there, but it just didn’t seem like we made a huge amount of progress.

Recently, I went to Mozambique. My focus was building capacity and developing research initiatives. While I was there, we wrote a ResMed Foundation grant that got funded. The purpose of the grant was to bring seven doctors from Mozambique to ATS 2015, so that they could meet key opinion leaders, learn about what we do at the ATS, and go back to their home country and, hopefully, share that knowledge with their local colleagues.

But this model is not scalable. You can’t bring hundreds of people from Africa or South America to Denver through a foundation grant. So, the model for the Global Scholars Program is based on online webinars to deliver the information.

The idea is to use web-based technology to provide regular lectures to students around the world. If they complete pre- and post-tests and show that they have learned a decent amount through those lecture series, then at the end, they would receive a certificate saying they are ATS Global Scholars. They can frame it and put it on their wall and take it to the local minister of health and say that they have received that training. Ideally, the top students would be invited to the ATS International Conference.

Over time, as the scholars learn more and grow and become more proficient, they can teach others locally what they’ve learned. Ideally, this will become self-sustaining, like MECOR.

Q: What has led you to become a proponent of bridge grant funding at the ATS Foundation?

The Executive Committee has pushed for increased funding for research to help young investigators who are struggling with competitive but unfunded grants by the National Institutes of Health. We developed bridge grants through the ATS Foundation that allowed junior people more time to revise and resubmit their grant proposals and, hopefully, get a bigger grant to move on to larger research projects.

The bridge grants are a great way to keep young people engaged and excited about what they are doing. If they don’t get a $1 million NIH grant, the fact that they get a smaller ATS award helps keep them in the game long enough to then secure other funding. And that makes this a critically important program for young professionals.  When we track the numbers, we see that our foundation grants have been highly effective in generating NIH grants down the road.

Q: You are pushing to expand the Division Directors Forum. Can you tell us about this initiative?

This is related to the bridge grants. What was frustrating to me was, despite the ATS’s major investment, we didn’t get that many bridge grant applications. When I spoke with division directors around the country, they didn’t seem to know about it. So, I thought getting the division directors more engaged in the process would be helpful, and having them understand what the ATS can do for early career professionals would be the way to get more junior people involved in the ATS meeting and membership activities.

The other aspect of this is that I’m a relatively new division director. I took over as chief of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at University of California, San Diego in July 2013. I had good advice from colleagues, but I could have benefited from the ATS network having other division chiefs help me navigate bumps in the road. This is an initiative I’ve been pushing for because most division directors are like-minded about these issues—it’s just we don’t work together in a coordinated way. The ATS can help organize that.

Q: How might the ATS strengthen its relationship with the health care industry to improve health care for all?

The ATS does that fairly well. Historically, there were hardcore academics who thought there was absolutely no value in collaborating with industry, but over time, it has evolved for the better so that we now work together on some interesting projects. If you talk to anybody at NIH, they say that we need industry partnerships to bring products to market. The simple fact is that a successful product that is commercialized and reaching my patients is being done through industry; it’s not being done through other means.

There is an appropriate balance between academic rigor and the advancements that occur by industry. If we all work together, and we’re setting our goals in terms of improving patient care, then it’s a natural marriage and a successful partnership. If somebody just cares about academic science for the sake of it or they just care about making money for the sake of it, then the system doesn’t work as well. It has to be partnership with shared goals.