The Summer That Honed My Critical Thinking Skills

By Davin Means

Critical thinking is ingrained within every aspect of daily life. However, I never believed that my critical thinking skills could be stretched, exercised, and  employed in a virtual setting as extensively as it has been with the Vanderbilt AHA PAECER SURE Program. Every workday within this program became a question of “how will my brain be exerted during today’s activities?” We have performed in depth analysis of science communication, experimental design, career development, structural competencies, socioeconomic determinants of health, and the mind’s influence on cardiovascular disease. 

Science communication is the ability to send a message about a science related discovery or finding  through a channel that effectively reaches your target audience. Furthermore, successful scientific communication results in your target audience taking action or responding to your message in your intended manner. Our first step in effective scientific communication is to determine our audience. Within my group’s video titled “The Heart’s Mind, we emphasize the importance of reaching the general public; thus our target audience could be defined as minorities and laypersons that are at risk for their mind influencing their heart health. Our second step is to clearly define the objectives of our science communication. In “The Heart’s Mind, our objectives were to 1) enable non-scientific audiences to identify the association between mental health and cardiovascular health, and 2) enable these audiences to identify strategies that mitigate risks associated with mental health induced cardiovascular disorders. Thirdly we needed to clearly define our message. Scientists who spend years focusing on a specific subject are likely to explain their findings in a way that individuals outside of academia are unable to understand. Thus, it was important to simplify our message in a manner that untrained individuals could relate to and derive meaning from. We focused on information that was most important for the general population, and information that could potentially cause a behavioral change. We synthesized and presented information in order to educate a non-scientific general audience on the link between mental and cardiovascular health and inform the viewers on strategies to minimize their risk for negative mental and cardiovascular health outcomes. We placed heavy emphasis on the exact take home messages that we wished our audience to receive and remember. Fourthly we needed to choose an effective channel for our message. This was determined based on our audience. For example, if your audience is the general public, you wouldn’t depend on a published scientific journal to reach that audience. If you wished to reach young male athletes, you probably wouldn’t promote your message on a platform catered to house renovation. My group used social media to specifically target individuals that would benefit most from viewing our product. Lastly we analyzed the results received from our scientific communication, via surveys and intend to modify our communication strategies to receive better outcomes and audience engagement.

We have learned that, variables such as race, class, discriminatory housing, employment, education, income, criminal justice, and healthcare,  in conjunction with  neighborhood conditions, public policies, local consumer economy, food networks, transportation systems, and localized healthcare delivery systems all impact a population’s susceptibility to negative health outcomes and vastly perpetuate health disparities and inequities. Our group attempts to address these health disparities throughout the entirety of our project through the lens of structural competency which analyzes the effects of how previous practices such as structural, institutional, political, and economic racisms affect minority healthcare, but it does so with the ultimate goal of developing new systems, practices, and action plans that address health disparities in the present day. Within the stress and hypertension section, we address the various socioeconomic and racial stressors that contribute to negative minority cardiovascular health outcomes. Within the anxiety section  we view the connections between anxiety and cardiovascular disease through a lens of various socioeconomic, racial, and behavioral factors as well. Within the depression and cardiovascular disease section, we touch on cultural mindsets and preconceived notions that many have about mental health and how that affects the method in which patients seek treatment. We conclude our media project by once more addressing these health inequities and disparities, and by providing  methods that individuals can use to lower their risk for negative mental and cardiovascular health outcomes.
This program has also advanced our critical thinking skills in regards to experimental design. We have undergone training in the formation of hypothesis and scientific questions that are clear, concise, and testable. We have learned a method in prioritizing experiments and sub hypotheses in a way that is conducive to maximum use of time and resources. We have investigated ways to reduce technical and biological variation, and have learned the importance of replication in reducing experimental noise. The risk of confounding variables can be minimized if your experimentation is carefully planned, methodically organized, extensively detailed, and consistently documented. We understand the importance of scientific rigor and transparency as we have methods to reduce experimental bias.

In response to covid-19, the administration of my AHA SURE Scholars program at Vanderbilt, fully transitioned into an immersive virtual experience that lasted for the duration of ten weeks. During this program we met a multitude of researchers on the cutting edge of cardiovascular science, as well as many other professionals on the clinical side of cardiovascular medicine. We participated in various exposés on health equity, health advocacy, and on socioeconomic determinants of health. We’ve spoken to both authoritative figures within cardiovascular academic medicine and  representatives from the private and government  cardiovascular research sectors. We have gained insight into the American Heart Association’s ventures into health equity, health advocacy, and collective impacts via meetings with Dr. Ivor Benjamin, Immediate Past President of the AHA,  Mr. Bruce Inverso, Senior VP, Health Strategies at American Heart Association, Inc., Mrs. Denise Costanza, AHA’s Vice President of Health Strategies for Middle Tennessee, Dr. Michelle Albert, President of the Association of Black Cardiologists, and a host of others.There have also been a plethora of panels in which board members from various medical schools spoke to us about increasing the competitiveness of our application to MD and MD-PhD programs. Outside of all these meetings,  my peers and I completed a project that explored the mind’s role as an influential determinant for cardiovascular disease through the lens of structural competency within healthcare. Furthermore, I completed courses within scientific career development, digital science communication, and experimental design.  I am extremely thankful to the Vanderbilt AHA SURE program for the critical thinking skills that I have gained through the course curriculum in conjunction with a phenomenal virtual experience that has transformed me into a competent learner, able to thrive within any immersion into the realm of science.

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