My name is Ellen DeWitt and I am now a 3rd year CIS major with a math minor. This past summer I completed my STEP Signature Project as an undergraduate research assistant in Gunther Labs on Project SWEAT here at OSU.
While my academic pursuits have been in STEM fields I have always had a desire to pursue some form of a career and/or higher education in public health and community wellness. At the same time I have also had a strong desire to take part in some form of research while here at OSU. This combination of interests and a desire to gain research experience lead to me applying to be an undergraduate research assistant for Project SWEAT.
This research project, lead by a PhD candidate Laura Hopkins here at OSU in Gunther Lab, stuck out to me when I applied because of its connections between technical skills I learned in the classroom and community research. The project was based on looking into if Columbus City School Children were experiencing a decline in health over the summer, and if so what were the causes of this decline. As a research assistant I was involved in the recruitment of families, setting up and attending data collections with the participant families, follow-ups and data management and entry.
While the tasks of the project may seem simple on the surface the experiences I gained from the work and the people I was with were priceless.
The project itself though required more work than I could have imagined putting in at the beginning. As it was unpaid I also worked at the RPAC as a lifeguard and due to the project requiring me and my sub-team of research assistants to meet with families during the day and on weekends I worked the opening shift. Meaning I woke up at 4:30am Monday-Saturday to work the open shift at the RPAC until 9-11am. I then would leave the RPAC and walk to Campbell (the building that houses Gunther Lab and the Projects offices). Once there if we were in a recruitment/collection phase I would pick up materials if needed and then get my car and pick up teammates so that we could drive to participant homes/site schools for data collection visits. These visits took 1-2 hours each and we could have up to three visits a day. On off days I often helped out other teams that were short a person and needed an extra person or I was making reminder phone calls and picking up equipment left with the family. During non data collection times I was in the office as part of the data management team and would be checking data for completion, de-identifying participant data, and entering said data into our database. I also worked on two URO Summer Research Fellows projects who were lead undergrads in the lab.
Even though the days were long and taxing I found myself enjoying every second of the experience. So much so that I would often volunteer to assist on extra projects to gain even more experience and learn more about the nuts and bolts of Project SWEAT. I was drawn in by the families I met as we met with them multiple times over the summer I got to know them on a more personal level. This more intimate relationship with them and their situations (as most families we worked with lived at or well below the poverty line) made me that much more convinced about the project and how its results could change these peoples lives. And I wanted that change for them. I wanted to be able to help find the problems and develop solutions in these communities that are a mere 15 minute drive from campus.
This project also exposed me to the inequalities and lack of opportunities that many people face here in my own community. And it wasn’t that I was unaware that these inequalities existed, but more that it was easier to ignore the problem rather than finding a solution to it. But when you know these families and see the lack of resources in the schools and the community it showed me why community research projects such as this one need to be done and the value that they can have in the communities they take place in.
It allowed me to gain experience into how a research project runs from applying for grants, to recruiting volunteers and participants, to working with participants on an individual and extensive basis to make sure all aspects of data collection are completes. It exposed me to the stumbling blocks that can occur and all of the hard work and unplanned time that needs to be put it. It showed me everything that I was able to develop a stronger work ethic, the need to strive for perfection and to not give up on a project when it becomes difficult.
In summary, my STEP project as a research assistant for Project SWEAT allowed me to see that both research and Public Health are genuine passions of mine that I want to and will continue to pursue. It has made what at the beginning of the summer was a pipeline dream of pursuing an MPH become something that can be attained through continued effort and education.