Forging connections: Dr. Fadi Salloum on the power of translational research and academic mentorship

The Department of Internal Medicine’s Fadi Salloum, Ph.D., credits a multidisciplinary culture for his last 25 years of work here at VCU School of Medicine.

Fadi Salloum, Ph.D., (left) in the lab with David Durrant, Ph.D., (right) a former graduate student from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Photo courtesy of VCU Health Pauley Heart Center.

By Anthony DePalma VCU School of Medicine

October 20, 2023

For many doctoral students, the traditional route after completing their degree is to transfer to a new institution to be challenged in a new environment. For Fadi Salloum, Ph.D., he was interested in another kind of challenge: transitioning from training in a basic health sciences department to conducting translational research in cardiology here at VCU School of Medicine 

“I have really discovered a lot about myself during my time at VCU,” said Salloum, professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology, associate chair for research in the Department of Internal Medicine and associate director of research mentoring and preclinical science for the Pauley Heart Center. “I find it very fulfilling coming up with new challenges, anything that’s facing the community that may become important. You keep moving with the need.” 

Over the last 25 years, one need Salloum has sought to address is for effective mentoring and collaboration across departments. Patricia Sime, M.D., chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, described Salloum as a “talented and passionate translational researcher,” and noted that his dedication to mentorship sets him apart. 

“Dr. Salloum is a truly remarkable colleague,” said Sime. “He is a very generous and engaged mentor who is an inspiration to both his mentees and colleagues alike, and our department benefits from his leadership.”  

Over his 25 years at VCU School of Medicine, Salloum’s accomplishments have included an endowed chair position at the Pauley Heart Center and a seven-year, $5.4 million R35 award from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, while leading his colleagues and mentees toward a more collaborative learning and working environment. 

'Mentorship means being selfless'

As a child, growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Salloum became fascinated with science and medicine. While completing his B.S. in biology at the American University of Beirut during a brutal civil war, Salloum volunteered for the Lebanese Red Cross to gain exposure in the medical field and offer help and support to those who needed it. Such service included caring for wounded civilians and transporting them to safe medical facilities for treatment and help coordinating blood drives.   

“Caring for patients in different capacities, particularly those facing serious injuries, made me fall in love with medical care and health care in general,” Salloum said.  

Inspired by the cardiological work being conducted at that time at VCU School of Medicine, Salloum immigrated to the U.S. in 1998 to pursue his doctorate in physiology at VCU School of Medicine. While completing his postdoctoral training, Salloum became interested in translational research – the process of translating the knowledge gained from the basic science preclinical studies to produce results with a direct impact on patients. Salloum noted that having someone who “speaks both languages” can help close the gap between bench science and clinical care, as he strives to bring these two worlds together more closely. 

Over the last 25 years, Salloum has seen the School of Medicine expand opportunities for multidisciplinary research across basic health sciences and the clinical departments, with mentorship at the core of those collaborations. As associate chair for research in the Department of Internal Medicine, Salloum helped establish a vetting procedure for the mentor-mentee match process, which emphasizes the success of the mentees above all else. This effort was mainly focused through the development of "mentor teams" that not only focus on the scientific progress of the mentees, but also their overall career development and growth. 

“For me, the definition of mentorship means being selfless,” Salloum said. “You must start from being selfless and wanting what’s in the best interest of the mentee and not trying to just benefit from the mentee.” 

Salloum acknowledges the inevitability of this relationship transforming into a two-way street. When a mentee is building their career, their mentor benefits greatly from the mentee’s work as most of the work they're doing is directly related to their mentor's research. However, as Salloum notes, that should never be the goal, just be a product that reflects more on one’s success as a mentor. 

“Dr. Salloum is very generous in terms of sharing credit,” said Frank Raucci, M.D., Ph.D., a physician scientist and pediatric cardiologist at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and one of Salloum’s mentees. “He wants his trainees to be successful and will often allow those who he feels are capable to sit in the driver’s seat on projects, which is an approach I’ve adopted with those I mentor in my own lab.”

Empowering students to lead

As the associate director of research mentoring and preclinical science for the Pauley Heart Center, Salloum oversees all research activities, pilot grants and seed funding that the center provides for investigators early in their careers. Additionally, along with chief of the division of cardiology and director of the VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, W. Gregory Hundley, M.D., Salloum makes himself available to researchers through these learning opportunities. The two hold individual and small group sessions for the investigators and offer a weekly session on the different aspects of research on a range of topics, from how to design a trial to discussions on grant writing. 

Salloum’s approach for meeting with prospective mentees is to see if they are “real thinkers.” He looks for students who are driven, who want to dig deeper with their research and who are eager to take the lead on projects. 

Nigeste Carter, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and another one of Salloum’s mentees, praised Salloum’s style of mentorship after recently attending their first in-person conference, the 2023 American Heart Association’s Basic Cardiovascular Science Scientific Sessions. 

Dr. Salloum trains his students to think as principal investigators early on in their training,” Carter said. “And thanks to that, I was able to present a poster with my latest data in front of other researchers in the field.” 

Whether they are postdocs, residents or faculty members whom he mentors, Salloum credits their success as a source of inspiration.  

“The goal isn’t to take students just to take them,” Salloum said, “but to make sure you can encourage and support them to reach their potential.”

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