Research Electives – Personal Perspectives
Ralph Hurley O’Dwyer
Henry Cooke Drury Student Research Fellowship
In summer 2014 I spent three months undertaking research in the field of neurogastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. As I am very interested in the links between the gut and the nervous system – particularly considering the high prevalence of disorders such as IBS and their poor management clinically- in October of 3rd year, I decided to tryorganise a research elective in the area. Having read about the neurogastroenterology research centre at the Mayo Clinic, I chanced my arm and sent an email to Dr. Michael Camilleri, head of the department and current President of the American Gastroenterological Association, expressing my interest in his research. To my surprise, Dr. Camilleri replied and arranged for me to come tospend the summer working for him.
Undertaking research at the Mayo Clinic was an incredible opportunity. I was immensely lucky to receive outstanding support and encouragement from Dr. Camilleri, Dr. Acosta, my other supervisor, as well as other staff. Working there gave me an insight into clinical research and its direct impact for the benefit of patients – as I was given the opportunity to attend Dr. Camilleri’s consultations. It was amazing to see Dr. Camilleri implement his own research and discoveries to better treat his patients, many of whom had suffered for decades from their symptoms. I also saw what is involved in clinical trials and to witnessed the development of ideas – which were once exchanged at lunchtime- into studies and journal articles. I was well-supported throughout my stay in Rochester and even managed to publish a paper on adult megacolon with my supervisors shortly afterwards, which I presented at Digestive Disease Week in Washington DC in May 2015.
In summary, undertaking this elective has been of huge benefit and has opened up many doors, most of which I never knew even existed. It is important to state that I never would have been able to undertake this elective without financial support from Trinity College Dublin in the form of the Henry Cooke Drury research fellowship. I’m very grateful for the chance this fund gave me and would highly encourage anybody interested in research to apply.
My advice to those interested in research would be to chance your arm and to write to people whose research you are truly fascinated by. Quite often, you will be unlucky. But if you persist and show your interest, you might never know where it might lead to!
Amgen Scholars, Europe
I spent a significant portion of my summer working in the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, ETH Zurich, Switzerland. I decided early in third year that I wanted to do a research elective, largely because I have an interest in research and wanted to get some experience to evaluate whether or not the realities of academic work were some something I was actually willing to deal with long-term.
I started out by wasting time with unfocused searching for opportunities I might be interested in; eventually, however, I became efficient at finding labs in my field of interest, and from there I started sending unsolicited emails to principal investigators, which included short statement outlining who I was (medical student interested in research), what I hoped for (to work with their group) and why, along with a CV and more detailed cover letter attached in case they didn’t just instantly delete my email. I was actually met with a surprising amount of positivity, with most of the initial people I contacted replying to me- generally with positive responses That said, I’m still pretty convinced no one ever actually looked at my CV and cover letter.
The next step was trying to secure funding so I could actually afford to leave Dublin. I had initially limited my search to the UK and Ireland, intending to apply for a Wellcome Trust summer scholarship, but through a search for other options I came across the Amgen Scholars programme, which I ended up applying to after some “logistical restructuring” (budget cuts) resulted in the project team I had initially committed to no longer being able to supervise students. After quickly going through all the labs in the host institutions, I pretty rapidly found one that was very well aligned with my interests, and applied directly to that lab. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, and ended up spending quite a bit of time there.
Going over, I very much expected the experience to be grim- spending most of the day working in a lab with little to no social contact. This was not the case. I got on very well with my lab, and since the Amgen Scholars programme is cohortbased (i.e. there was a group of us working in Zurich at the same time), I consistently had people to be a tourist with. The Amgen Foundation puts a strong emphasis on the social side of the programme, as it is good for their public image, so we had funding to go on numerous trips on the weekends, etc. and to see more of Switzerland than the inside of its technical institutes.
In the end, I was very glad I went ahead with a research elective – I got everything I had hoped to get out of it academically, as I experienced hands-on research in a world-leading institution in an area I’m interested in, while also living in a great city and actually having the time and money to enjoy myself. I’ll openly admit that going in I was hesitant to give over my summer to research when I could have been on a beach in Thailand, but I definitely don’t regret it.
The idea of a research elective had always appealed to me for a number of reasons. I have a healthy interest in science and, after my positive experience with the research project in second Year, I became more curious about a future career involving clinical research. Furthermore, I thought a research elective would be a good opportunity to pick up valuable skills -and possibly publications- that a clinical elective wouldn’t typically offer.
I began organising my elective just before Christmas of third Year. I contacted the research office in the School of Medicine to express my interest and they sent me a list of teams interested in taking on students. I chose to apply for an elective with the Infectious Diseases team in St. James’s Hospital based on the positive reviews I had heard from other students. I sent a CV and cover letter to Prof. Colm Bergin, who agreed to arrange the elective.
My work focused on patients co-infected with HIV and Hepatitis C who attend the clinic. I primarily assisted in a study assessing the outcomes of these patients receiving new anti viral therapies for Hepatitis C. Most days involved accessing patients’ records and monitoring changes in their health over the course of their treatment. On Tuesdays I would meet these patients in the clinic and administer questionnaires to assess their Health-Related Quality of Life. Once this project was completed, I conducted a clinical audit on pneumococcal vaccine uptake in this vulnerable patient group. In my free time I also had the opportunity to develop practical skills by working with researchers in the Clinical Research Facility and Institute for Molecular Medicine. I gained plenty of clinical experience by accompanying the doctors to ward rounds, outpatient clinics and multidisciplinary meetings.
In order to fund the elective, I applied for the HRB’s Summer Student Scholarship. Unfortunately, my application was not successful. I then made plans to apply for the Dr Henry Cooke Drury Student Research Fellowship, but this was not necessary as the Infectious Diseases department kindly offered to compensate me for my work. The elective offered me everything I had hoped for and more. I received first-hand experience in research, statistical analysis, lab work and clinical audit in addition to the clinical experience I would have received during a more standard elective. The money I earned during this time helped fund a voluntary elective in Zimbabwe during the latter half of my summer. In addition, I cited this research elective in my application for an intercalated M.Sc. in Biomedical Science. I recently presented the results of my clinical audit and have been invited to re-audit this summer. I also anticipate that the study I was involved in will be published in the coming months.
HRB Summer Student Scholarship
I had already arranged to go on an overseas clinical elective with MOVE, so I decided not to do another clinical elective, but instead to do something different. My second year research project was an enjoyable experience and I thought that a research placement might give me the opportunity to expand my research skills. Having previously completed an Evidence-Based-Medicine project in Our Lady’s Hospice, which I found both interesting and enjoyable, I applied for a placement opportunity with the research team and was accepted. Working with the team, we submitted a successful application to the Health Research Board to fund my placement.
My placement gave me a real insight into the research process. I was involved with the project from the start and saw how it had to adapt and change in order to be both feasible and useful. I was slightly startled by the fact that patient focused research is not a desk job! My preconception that these researchers are essentially statisticians at a desk all day was far from the case. And I had the opportunity to meet some wonderful patients. Finally, I learned that research is truly a collaborative effort. I was was only a small cog in a much larger research team in the All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care. The whole team gave me feedback and I helped them where I could. We worked together to make certain that we undertook quality research.