Sylvie Breton, PhD, in her laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital
Sylvie Breton, PhD (center), with lab members Maria Paralta, BS (left), and Maria Battistone, PhD (right)
Sylvie Breton, PhD

Sylvie Breton, PhD

Since she first arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital as a postdoctoral fellow in 1994, Sylvie Breton, PhD, has been encouraged by the positive changes the institution has made to support the research community.

This includes launching key programs to recognize and support promising researchers, such as the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Awards, the MGH Research Scholars program, the Martin Research Prize and the Interim Support Fund program (ISFs).

In her role as an elected Executive Committee on Research (ECOR) representative for the past six years, Dr. Breton has been a vocal advocate for these programs and other initiatives designed to foster research at Mass General. She has served on ECOR for two consecutive three-year terms, and must now wait at least one year before deciding if she should run again. 

In a recent interview, she talked about the role of ECOR reps, the benefits of serving on ECOR and the challenges facing the Mass General research community.

ECOR representatives are elected from members of the Mass General faculty. A total of six reps serve on ECOR—two each at the assistant, associate and full professor levels.

Elected reps attend biweekly ECOR meetings and help to set the agenda for monthly Research Council meetings. The reps take turns serving as the chair of Research Council. They also hold office hours before and after Research Council to hear suggestions and concerns from members of the research community.

Lately, most of the concerns the ECOR reps have been fielding involve the increased difficulty in obtaining funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary federal funding agency for biomedical research.

These concerns are compounded by the prospect of even more significant cuts, perhaps as much as 20 percent, or $5.8 billion, to the NIH budget proposed by President Donald Trump for the 2018 fiscal year.

 “I would say we are in a crisis in the country,” Breton said. “It’s not only at Mass General. This situation is affecting the entire United States. The research community is extremely worried.”

Researchers are already feeling the effects of budget tightening at the NIH in their grant applications and grant renewals, she noted. “It is already more difficult to get NIH funding and we are receiving less money for the renewal of existing grants. In this context, the ISF program has become more vital than ever.” ISF funds were established by ECOR to provide support for Mass General researchers during lapses or delays in federal funding.

The continuous pursuit of NIH grants, along with the additional reporting requirements attached to each grant, means that researchers are often spending more time on administrative duties than working in their labs, she said.

While some relief could come from diversifying the research funding base, Breton believes it is critical to continue lobbying for more NIH funds.

“I know the Research Institute is trying to figure out ways to get more industry funding or philanthropy funding. That could help, but the NIH is the major ‘bread and butter’ for all of us, and we need to increase that funding.”

As an ECOR rep, Breton has been able to share these concerns with hospital leadership, and report back on efforts that are being made to advocate for research funding at the federal level. She and her fellow reps have also worked with ECOR Director Maire Leyne to use Research Council meetings as a forum for providing information and updates.

Serving on ECOR has also helped to expand the scope of Breton’s scientific work. While her research has traditionally been focused on fundamental, lab-based science exploring cell to cell communication in the kidneys and reproductive system, she has recently expanded the scope of her work to include a clinical trial investigating the connection between cardiac surgery and acute kidney injury (AKI). AKI occurs in 30% of patients after cardiac surgery.

The clinical trial is a result of a collaboration that formed through interactions Breton had with other investigators while serving as an ECOR rep.

“That’s one of the strengths of Mass General—the quality of the research here, the quality of your colleagues. The minute you get out of your own lab, you always meet super interesting people.”

Breton said she’d encourage Mass General faculty members to learn more about serving as an ECOR rep, and to consider running in the election this fall.

“You feel useful, so that part is very rewarding, and it’s not very time-consuming compared to the benefits that you can bring to the research community.”

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