For Dr. Timothy Nelson, doing research with a faculty mentor as a UW-Eau Claire student was life-changing.
Twenty years later, he’s an internationally renowned physician-scientist and, in a new role with Mayo Clinic Health System, helping guide a collaboration between UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System that will create life-changing undergraduate research experiences for many more Blugolds.
Nelson was announced today as the director of research and innovation for Mayo Clinic Health System in northwest Wisconsin.
It all began with Dr. O …
Nelson’s undergraduate research at UW-Eau Claire in the 1990s was with Dr. Leo Ochrymowycz — or “Dr. O,” as the now emeritus professor of chemistry was fondly called by his students. Organic chemistry research with Ochrymowycz “triggered my interest in research in a way that I’d never been aware of before,” Nelson says. Then a pre-med student, he realized he wanted a career practicing medicine and doing research.
“The student-faculty experience I had with Dr. O opened a whole new horizon for me: being able to integrate medicine and research together,” Nelson says. “Today, it’s so integrated for me that it’s hard for me to even imagine that there are two separate fields.”
Nelson went on to earn both a Ph.D. and a medical degree after completing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry-molecular biology at UW-Eau Claire. Today, he is an internationally respected researcher in the field of regenerative medicine as well as an internal medicine physician — both with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Nelson is particularly known for his pioneering research involving cardiovascular regeneration using bioengineered stem cells.
His success as both a physician and researcher led to Nelson’s appointment as Mayo Clinic Health System's director of research and innovation.
Moving an important collaboration forward
In his new role, Nelson will lead the efforts to develop a cutting-edge research program at Mayo Clinic Health System in collaboration with Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He also will be a key player in moving UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System forward with a master collaborative research agreement they announced last summer.
The agreement will enable new research collaborations between Mayo clinicians and Blugold faculty, staff and students to create outcomes that will positively impact patient care and health and wellness in the community. With research as an institutional priority for both UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System, the agreement is a mutual fit, leaders of both institutions said at the announcement of the agreement last June.
“Given our shared commitment to advancing research, it makes great sense that UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System would look for new, strategic and intentional ways we can work together to accomplish our goals,” UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said after the agreement was announced.
Nelson enters the picture as connections between Mayo Clinic Health System and UW-Eau Claire are being made.
“The master research agreement got the ball rolling,” says Dr. Karen Havholm, UW-Eau Claire’s assistant vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs. “We’re now in the process of taking care of the procedural details.”
Increased depth and breadth of collaboration is expected under the master research agreement.
“The potential for what can come out of these projects and what the master agreement can let us explore is remarkable,” says Dr. Mel Kantor, the Oliver Marion Ramsey endowed chair of UW-Eau Claire’s Institute for Health Sciences. “The partnership with Mayo Clinic Health System is going to give our researchers access they haven’t had before to people, knowledge and patient data while also giving Mayo clinicians opportunities to participate in research that can inform their patient care.”
Ongoing UW-Eau Claire-Mayo Clinic Health System projects give a glimpse of the kinds of collaboration expected to increase under the research agreement.
Dr. Jeffrey Janot, UW-Eau Claire professor of kinesiology, leads a faculty-student research project exploring the use of load-bearing vests by Eau Claire police officers to carry equipment on the job and avoid back pain. The project is a collaboration with Dr. Andrew Floren in occupational medicine at Mayo Clinic Health System. Dr. Floren initially met with the researchers to review the project design, and he will be consulted again following data collection to discuss application of the results.
Similarly, faculty members in UW-Eau Claire’s communication sciences and disorders department and speech-language pathologists from Mayo Clinic Health System have collaborated on the Chippewa Valley Aphasia Camp for the past 15 years. Dr. Jerry Hoepner and Dr. Tom Sather from UW-Eau Claire and Mary Beth Clark and Michele Knutson from Mayo Clinic Health System have partnered on all phases of the camp.
In addition to UW-Eau Claire students working with camp participants, the collaboration involves a multidisciplinary research component including UW-Eau Claire faculty and student researchers in speech-language pathology, geography and anthropology, kinesiology and computer science. Studies focus on outcomes for campers and students.
Hoepner says the aphasia camp collaboration is a model for addressing challenges in other clinical areas.
“A challenge for our discipline and one that is shared across many clinical disciplines is the gap between research and clinical implementation,” Hoepner says. “If we’re working alongside clinicians, we make that connection very directly and with their insights included as a part of the process rather than excluding them or addressing them after the fact.”
Achieving more together
There is no shortage of ideas being floated for potential collaborations under the research agreement.
The way forward, Nelson says, is to be guided by the needs of UW-Eau Claire students and Mayo Clinic Health System patients: “By keeping the needs of the patients on our mind on the hospital side, and keeping the needs of the students at the university at the front of our minds, we can serve both of those primary needs and have an outcome that neither one by ourselves could achieve.”
Top photo cutline: During UW-Eau Claire's annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity, students present the findings of the research projects they conduct with faculty mentors.