Sports Psychologist Brings Game-Time Strategies into James Lab

Sameek Roychowdhury

Sameek Roychowdhury, MD, PhD, just might be the Capt. James T. Kirk of the cancer-research galaxy.

“What we try and do is bring in new ways to solve problems,” said Roychowdhury, a physician scientist in medical oncology at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

His research is devoted to using a patient’s genome sequencing to determine the genetic mutation of their cancer, and then matching the patient with the “smart” drug or drugs that have proven to be most effective against this specific genetic mutation/cancer.

And, in his quest to bring out the best in himself and the members of his lab, Roychowdhury is all about trying new methods and motivational techniques, including discussions of the famed Kobayashi Maru conundrum from Star Trek.

This seems appropriate, as the Kobayashi Maru was a no-win scenario that was part of the training for Starfleet Academy cadets. Cancer research is often filled with failures and frustrations. “Some of the work we do doesn’t work out the way we would like and this leads to frustration,” Roychowdhury said.

To combat this, Roychowdhury employs team-building exercises, teaches leadership skills and shares inspirational messages from great leaders, such as famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Success is the peace of mind which is the direct result of the self-satisfaction of knowing you did your best to become the best you you’re capable of becoming.”

And this is why, on a recent Friday afternoon, Roychowdhury and about a dozen members of his lab gathered in a conference room in the Biomedical Research Tower to hear a presentation from Jen Carter, PhD, a sports psychologist with the Ohio State Sports Medicine Center.

Her mission was to help the members of the lab “learn to encourage and coach yourself, work together as a team and visualize your success,” she said.

Researchers can utilize many of the techniques that world-class athletes employ to overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

Carter talked about patience, mindfulness and how to be present in the moment and not allow your feelings to get in the way. She called this the “Teflon mind” and told the members of the lab, “you have to realize that thoughts rise and fall like waves. If you’re having a rough day, it will get better. Don’t dwell on bad thoughts.”

Another key is to find the intersection of your emotional and reasonable mind, which she calls the “wise mind.” In Star Trek terms: It’s the way in which Kirk (emotional) and Spock (reasonable) balance each other out.

Roychowdhury said he often struggles with the wise mind, and sometimes allows his passion take over. “But I know when my emotions take over, and I know it’s not time to make any important decisions. I recognize that in my wise mind.”

Research Assistant Matt Reeder said Carter’s talk reinforced many of the techniques he learned playing football at the College of Wooster.

“It’s good to hear because you run into issues doing research and in other aspects of your life,” Reeder said. “It’s important to be mindful and center yourself and identify the issues, keep your emotions in check and formulate an answer.”

A good leader goes more than lead: He instills leadership in others.

“(Roychowdhury) lets us be our own leaders,” said Amy Smith, a clinical technologist. “He feels confident that we can take on that role, that we can all be leaders.”

During her talk, Carter discussed multi-tasking – and how the human brain was not designed to do several things at the same time.

“Our brains work best when we do one thing at a time,” she said.

Smith related to this point and said it’s difficult not to fall into this trap in the demanding world of cancer research, where there never seems to be enough time to get done everything that needs to get done.

“Our society and culture is so fast-paced, and if you’re not doing 10 things at once, you’re seen as lazy or not fulfilling your potential,” she said. “But it’s better to put all your efforts into one thing at a time, like if I’m working with patient samples.”

This is a strategy Roychowdhury recognizes and encourages.

“He promotes that type of culture and we can ask for help,” Smith said. “Or you can say to yourself that it’s OK to do this tomorrow, the world won’t come to an end.”