As I See It : Doug McConnell on How Collaborative Medical Research Is Like A Marathon Swim

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Photo by Susan McConnell

Investment banker Doug McConnell is an open water marathon swimmer and founder of A Long Swim, a not-for-profit organization funding ALS collaborative research initiatives.

In July I will take on a 27-mile swim between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu. It will be my longest swim yet. People ask me about the cold, the darkness, how I will handle the waves and avoid the sharks. They picture me as being alone. But open water marathon swimming is a team effort. Without a team, I won’t get to the starting point or the finish line.

During a marathon swim one person is responsible for the swimmer’s feeding cycle. They make sure the calories are right and the fluids are heated. Someone else is responsible for stroke counting so the swimmer doesn’t exhibit signs of hypothermia. Another person keeps a log and watches for anomalies in the record. Marathon swims are unpredictable. A team member may succumb to seasickness or sunburn. Everyone is cross-trained to step in. Each swim is different, with its own challenges. When we first started our swims it was not apparent to any of us just how critical the team was.

Collaborative medical research teams function in a similar way. Every team member and research center has a role. Some may be positioned for gathering data, or statistical analysis. Another may be good at time series. They follow patients through generations of diagnosis. Each research center adds to the mix and shares information whether they are located in Boston, Chicago, Tokyo or Amsterdam.

Why collaborative research

A primary driver for A Long Swim is raising money for collaborative research initiatives that focus on patient treatments and finding a cure for ALS. Today, it’s easier for medical researchers to share information. I have supported ALS research from the get go. We began to see the evolution in collaborative research, especially for ALS. If we were going to be all in as a team in our swim marathons, we wanted the money we raise to go to collaborative research teams. The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago is the research center we know the best. Thus far, that’s where the money we raise goes.

My swim around Manhattan Island in New York was longer in miles than the ones before it, but there were two legs downstream. I also had something to look at all the time. There were bridges, boats, and buildings as opposed to the channel swims. During the English Channel and the Catalina Channel swims I couldn’t see the starting line or the finish line. I was just in the middle of nowhere.

Collaborative research is more like the Manhattan swim. Researchers are connected and inspired by each other’s work. In the old days and in some labs today, research appealed to people who were unto themselves. They kept things private. They were in search of a discovery on their own. Isolated, they were unsure of where they were or what other research was being conducted.

Accelerating the pace

Collaborative researchers recognize that information is fluid. With the Internet and other technologies the barriers are lifted. They can form teams, embrace new ideas and accelerate the pace of knowledge about ALS. Such a team effort is manifested by university researchers sharing information with pharmacology scientists. Centers across the globe link their research on genetics, stem cells, upper motor neurons, as well as cooperating on a genetic DNA registry. There are many fronts to consider with such a complicated disease.

I’m happy to say that progress is being made. New knowledge, treatments and therapies are being announced every other month rather than annually. Each donor to A Long Swim is a part of something exciting. Whether it is tracking the miles of a marathon swimmer or following research announcements, together we are on our way to giving hope for those with ALS.

Depending on weather conditions, Doug’s swim will occur some time between July 24th and July 30th. Track Doug McConnell’s swim live from Molokai to Oahu, Hawaii at

As I See It expresses the opinion or point of view of a Barrington area resident on a topic that they care about and are knowledgeable on. Through a personal interview, writer Mary Klest compiles the narrative for 365Barrington with images by local photographer, Kate Smith.

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