WHAT? I have been offered, and accepted, a position as a Student Clinical Research Assistant at the Comprehensive Cancer Center here at The Ohio State University. I will be working for Dr. Maura Gillison on her Genomic Research Study on oral cancer patients and their associations with the HPV virus. I will begin my employment with this team starting May 1st, 2014 and have plans to continue with their study until I graduate OSU in May of 2016.

I have already begun my work for Dr. Gillison and have seen a large impact in my position. Being a clinical research assistant I meet with patients who have been diagnosed with oral cavity cancer that is positive for HPV16, those who are diagnosed with oral cavity cancer and are HPV16 negative, both types of cancer patient’s partners, and those who do not have oral cavity cancer and have no history of any other type of cancer. I perform the same activities with all types of my patients, some just more frequent than others dependent on their cancer status. The first time I meet with a patient is on behalf of a doctor’s recommendation to our study based on the patient’s cancer stage. At this first visit I explain our voluntary study to the patient by reading through a consent form as well as a HIPPA form. After a patient is enrolled we will collect our “baseline” samples, this is for all types of our participants. Our “baseline” samples are categorized as pre-surgery and pre-treatment. These samples include an oral rinse to collect the untreated cells, a blood sample, and three computer surveys. The computer surveys help us to understand the lifestyle habits of each type of participant and possibly indicate a similar type of behavior that is distinct in one group versus another. For the controls, non-cancer patients, and the partners of the cancer patients these are all the samples and information that I collect from them. Both HPV16 positive and negative cancer patients I continue to follow for a 6-month period of time. I attend their surgeries to collect a sample of the tumor that the surgeon excises during surgery. I meet with these patients post-surgery but pre-treatment to collect another oral rinse. For those patients who are receiving radiation treatment and chemotherapy I collect one oral rinse per week for the total 8 weeks of radiation treatment. These once a week samples help us to analyze the cells and their changes throughout the course of the radiation treatment and provide us with information on what the treatment is actually doing to the mutated cells. After the patients complete the 8-week radiation treatment I meet with them again at their 4-6 week post-treatment follow up to collect another oral rinse as well as a blood sample. Lastly, I meet with these patients at their 6-month post-diagnosis follow up and collect one last oral rinse. All of these samples that I collect are brought back to our lab to be processed and examined, and put into a data base system in order to collect the appropriate information.

So What? This job has given me many skills that I may not have learned inside the classroom otherwise. Although there is no opportunity for me to lead my own independent research project since this is a national study, I still am exposed to what is necessary for Dr. Gillison to conduct this research. I have seen what it takes for her to keep and apply for grants to fund her research, I am trained on proper ethical guidelines for human research, and all the different aspects that go into conducting a national research study. The most important skill that I have gained from this project is my patient care interactions. I have actual experience in a clinical setting working with doctors, nurses, patient care assistants, dentists, nurse practitioners, surgeons, and so many more people. The patients can test my knowledge and challenge me to look up or research questions that they have and that I may not know the answer to. I also have developed skills that have allowed me to interact with people who may be in their absolute worst state of mind. I sometimes see patients in the same day that they have been told that they have cancer, which for most is an extremely emotional time. I also follow these patients throughout their radiation treatment, which could arguably be the most detrimental experience one’s body could endure leaving the patients in significant amounts of pain, exhaustion, and for some the desire to “just want to quit.”  Being thrown into these difficult situations has allowed me to become a more understanding person, and have a more mature response to those dealing with difficult times, which may just be my friend who is stressed about an upcoming exam.

Now What? My experiences that I have gained inside the hospital as well as in the office have assured me in my decision to pursue my goal of becoming a pediatric oncologist. Without my STEP participation I’m not sure that I would still be on the track of going to medical school. Sitting in class is not always a good motivator to continue the extremely difficult track of becoming a doctor. Seeing my patients gives me the motivation to work even harder when school becomes overwhelmingly stressful. The skills and habits that I have developed throughout this job has transformed me as an individual and provided me with the ability to appropriately respond in situations that I would not have been able to before.  With my grant money I was able to accept this job and be reminded everyday why I am choosing to become a doctor.

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