An Opportunity of a Lifetime: Reimaging the Framework of Research

The 2020 Vanderbilt PAECER-SURE program was built from critical thinking by our program facilitators, Joey Barnett, Ph.D., and Kendra Oliver, Ph.D.. They had to completely reimagine what was intended to be an immersive summer of research in the lab. Their ability to adapt this program into a totally virtual setting while maintaining the components of research, faculty mentorship, and learning about health equity was astonishing, and it set the tone for success. 

This was reinforced during Dr. Barnett’s welcome to us, especially when he noted this experience would be completely untested, but that we should take pride in ourselves for charging ahead anyways and reminded us to be open-minded to new methods of learning. I took these comments to heart as we charged ahead into the planned programming for the summer. Throughout the summer, we took online courses in digital science communication, planning for our scientific careers, and experimental design and hypothesis testing. These served as foundations for later in the summer as we wrote blog posts, had conversations with established faculty about their career paths, and for the design of every part of our research study. 

            Considering the research in more detail, the online courses provided foundational knowledge of how to conduct scientific research and pass this knowledge to people outside the study. The digital science communication course prepared us in the creation of our animated video, which would be viewed by research participants, by discussing pitfalls to avoid and three principles to work by: concise, clear, and cohesive. The video summarizes current literature on a selected topic, addresses inequities of disease burden, and shares community resources to mitigate risk, and the online course aided us to convey this information effectively to a non-scientific audience. For the design of our IRB-approved study, the experimental design and hypothesis testing online course provided guidance for how to write a hypothesis: it needs to be specific, measurable, and testable. Finally, the digital science communication course came to play again in the design of our scientific poster summarizing our analysis of the survey data: minimize blocks of text, use graphics conveying the written information, and as a whole aiming to tell the story of the data through visuals. The ability to create this resource, develop a survey, and analyze the resulting data was facilitated by critical analysis of our online courses as well as speaker’s comments. 

            Our speakers included people with M.D.s, Ph.D.s, Pharm.D.s, M.Ed.s, MBAs, MPHs, and more. Hearing from such a diverse group of people, some scientists by training and others not, broadened the lens from which we approached this experience. Charlene Walton, M.D., facilitated an activity called the Poverty Simulator, which allowed us students to experience the types of decisions people of low socioeconomic status faced on a daily basis. This gave us a more informed perspective of the proportion of the social determinants of health’s contribution (spoiler- it’s huge) to wellness instead of only considering biological and behavioral factors. This new lens allowed us to approach discussing the health inequities of our topic with a compassionate, educated opinion. Before the creation of our video, we also had an opportunity to learn from Ashley Hebert, MPA, about local, state, and federal advocacy and Denise Costanza, who shared with us the importance of community impact. These meetings provided foundational knowledge of how we should approach discussing actions for change. We ultimately decided to provide a lot of local individual level goal actions in our video resource instead of large-scale institutional work, since this was aimed towards people at risk. During the creation of our video resource, we consulted content experts. Ann Kavanaugh-McHugh, M.D., and Lisa Zuckerwise, M.D., advised a revision of our video content to a topic which had much stronger evidence for association. We critically evaluated the primary literature and recognized a pattern between the content experts’ suggestion and current research to narrow it down further into a defined condition. Following data collection, Max Joffe, Ph.D., led a workshop for us in accurately choosing and performing statistical tests to analyze the data. We then worked independently to analyze data informing our individual sub-hypotheses we evaluated in GraphPad. This culminated in an internal poster presentation with feedback from Max Joffe, Ph.D., Kendra Oliver, Ph.D., and peers in our cohort. Receiving feedback from distinct perspectives pushed the research experience to its maximum potential. 

            This summer my research experience has not been what I imagined it to be, but it has become more meaningful because of its uniqueness. I don’t know if I will ever have another opportunity like this one, and I went all in during the ten weeks I had to maximize my learning. My knowledge of conducting scientific research, mentorship, health equity, and cardiovascular medicine have been vastly expanded by engaging in the PAECER-SURE program, and I hope to continue learning at this pace, depth, and with the same diversity of perspectives in my future training. 

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