Understanding Asthma: Kecia Carroll
As the most common chronic diseases of childhood, asthma and other allergic diseases represent a “substantial burden on children in terms of quality of life, missed school days, and impact on the family in terms of financial costs as well as having to miss work,” according to Kecia Carroll, MD, MPH. As a pediatrician who regularly sees the tremendous effect of these diseases in her patients, she wants to understand what factors influence their development, perhaps eventually learning how to prevent it. Her current R01-supported project takes a close look at exposures during pregnancy, specifically dietary factors such as folate intake, and maps their effect on whether children in two different cohorts develop asthma.
“I think we understand now that if you really want to work to prevent illnesses, you have to think about what’s happening during pregnancy, or even before pregnancy, to the mom. The time when your lungs are developing, your immune system is developing, is what we call a ‘critical window,’ when you can have influences that shape your risk of disease when you’re older,” she says. Once identified, these factors can potentially be modified, which is what makes them so intriguing.
The mystery is why Dr. Carroll enjoys research. “It’s almost like a puzzle, trying to understand what’s behind some of the diseases that we see,” she says. She discovered her interest in it while working as a Research Assistant in Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt before attending medical school, also at Vanderbilt. Inspired by watching physicians who balanced research, clinical work, and teaching, she finds the same balance herself, noting that research is “a nice complement to clinical care,” as the relationships she develops with patients motivate her to investigate ways to keep more children from developing asthma.
And so one of the keys to writing a successful grant, in Carroll’s opinion, is finding an area you’re passionate about. The more you enjoy your topic, the easier it is to do the extensive preparation it takes to get the proposal ready, and then of course spend years doing the research itself. Carroll credits the protected time she had as part of her K award with allowing her to explore related areas and develop her research question.
She also adds that making time for every possible resource Vanderbilt has to offer was essential, especially when it came to CTSA support. After making some progress on her proposal, Carroll took it to a VICTR Studio to have experts “poke holes in it” and raise questions that reviewers might come up with. She also used VICTR funding for pilot studies that demonstrated she and her team were going to be able to get the samples necessary to run the study. And when she finished writing, she submitted her grant to an Edge Review, which she says gave her the opportunity to see what a real review experience is like, as well as where to strengthen and clarify the grant. “Sometimes when you’re working on a grant, you’re in the literature, you know exactly what you mean and what you want to say,” she cautions, but “it’s good to hear perspectives” of expert researchers who have varying familiarity with the topic.
Getting these outside perspectives made Carroll competitive at the real NHLBI study section. And her R01 funding will help her puzzle out factors behind the development of childhood asthma, eventually, she hopes, allowing doctors and scientists to reduce the substantial burden it places on children and their families.