Conversations With Cardiologists: Kristin M. Burns, MD, FACC

November 22, 2017 | Kristin M. Burns, MD, FACC

'Conversations With Cardiologists' highlights prominent cardiologists throughout the country and shares their invaluable insight on cardiology and sage advice for Fellows in Training (FITs). In this interview, Kristin M. Burns, MD, FACC, pediatric cardiologist at the Children's National Hospital in Washington, DC, and medical officer at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), shares advice with ACC's FITs about a career in research.

How did you get involved with the ACC?

I first joined the ACC as an FIT during my pediatric cardiology fellowship. More recently, I have had the pleasure of representing the NHLBI on the ACC's Diversity Task Force.

How did you become interested in working with NHLBI?

During my pediatric cardiology fellowship at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, I was fortunate enough to work with two pediatric cardiologists who both spend their clinical time at Children's National but also work at NHLBI. They mentored me on a research project using administrative databases to examine resource utilization in pediatric cardiology, and I spent my research time in fellowship at NHLBI learning about the exciting programs and grants it supports. After fellowship, I was given the opportunity to continue my work with them at NHLBI and my clinical practice at Children's National.

At NHLBI, I am in a unique position to learn about exciting new research by advising investigators who are seeking research funding as well as help with the development and execution of multicenter research initiatives on congenital heart disease, pediatric cardiovascular conditions and sudden cardiac death in the young. Maintaining my clinical practice reminds me of the important unanswered questions and helps me recognize the potential impact of research.

What advice do you have for FITs interested in starting a research career?

1) Be passionate about your research topic. Many successful investigators develop their research ideas through the care of their patients. Remind yourself regularly why your question is important.

2) Research comes in many different flavors, and it is a group effort. It is important to explore different specialties, departments and institutions to broaden your opportunities and to learn new techniques, collaborate and answer your scientific questions in innovative ways.

How do you balance your research and clinical work?

My supervisors at NHLBI and Children's National have been very supportive of my schedule and make balancing the two areas easier. I work at NHLBI four days a week and I see clinic patients one day a week. I also cover the inpatient and consult cardiology services for one week each quarter. I found it helpful to establish clear expectations and boundaries on both sides at the beginning, and to dedicate a full day to clinical activities (rather than half-day clinics) to allow myself to be fully focused on my clinical responsibilities in a dedicated block of time. Of course, clinical care can be unpredictable and deadlines come up on both sides, but it generally works out well.

What advice do you have for FITs applying for their first research grant?

Sell the science. Not all grant reviewers evaluating your application will have the expertise to understand the significance of your proposal. It helps to explain the big picture and importance of your question before diving into the weeds of the experiments. I encourage you to have as many people as possible (with and without scientific backgrounds) read your grant application to help you hone your message and make it clear to a broad audience.

Are there steps FITs can start taking during their years of clinical training?

I recommend engaging with more than one faculty member on very small, discrete research projects. Working with more than one person will provide exposure to various styles of mentoring and approaches to research. Choosing small projects will help you actually finish them in the setting of many competing responsibilities.

What changes do you foresee in funding for medical research?

It is important to recognize that there is a myriad of funding streams for research to be leveraged; including federal agencies, industry, advocacy organizations and professional organizations. I am optimistic that many stakeholders will continue recognizing the value of medical research and will continue supporting it.

How do you navigate life and work balance?

I often tell the parents of my patients that you can't take care of your child without also taking care of yourself. I think this philosophy applies to clinicians as well. The demands of our job require a bit more scheduling and planning to build in time for family, exercise and play. However, to me, they should be just as high a priority.

What other advice do you have for FITs?

1) Although you are on a relatively defined path during your training, realize that there are hundreds of possible paths thereafter. Medicine offers so many possible career options that are sculpted by your unique talents and interests.

2) Tap into the vast networks around you that are full of people who are excited to offer advice and guidance along the way.

How can FITs learn more about opportunities at the NHLBI?

The NHLBI offers various programs that FITs can explore to help with their career development. For example, the Pediatric Heart Network offers an annual career day for FITs and junior faculty, and NHLBI offers a Program to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health Related Research. FITs are also able to contact NIH staff members, whose names are listed on all funding announcements in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts.