My STEP Project was a research position on the main research team for Project SWEAT here at OSU. Over the summer, we conducted interviews with several families with children enrolled in local Columbus City elementary schools in order to study the weight gain of children over the summer. We began by recruiting families at the schools to participate in the study in May and throughout the summer we meet at their homes or other places on three different occasions for roughly 2 hours at a time to take food inventory, perform standardized tests with the kids, and question their recreational and eating habits.
This project was initially somewhat intimidating for me as I would be going into urban areas of Columbus asking very personal questions to people who I had never met. To say that these interactions changed my perspective of others would be an understatement. Growing up I was blessed with 2 loving parents who provided me with a life full of privileges that I am grateful for. I was rarely exposed to environments that differed from my own and thus had preconceived notions of those who lived differently that I did. These preconceived ideas and stereotypes that I once held were shattered this summer when I did my first interview with Project SWEAT.
These families lived in low income neighborhoods with neighbors so close you could see inside from one living room to another. They often lived off food stamps and would have fridges and pantries with little to no food sometimes. Originally I could not imagine growing up like this but overtime I noticed their appreciation for things that I took for granted and it was extremely humbling. Perhaps the greatest change in my ideals came from talking with the children. These kids had no idea that their parents were struggling to get by and they seemed just as happy if not more happy than I remember being as a child. Their quality of life wasn’t based upon what they had, but who they had. I realized soon that this in fact was the best and most fulfilling way to live life. They were some of the most accepting and kind people I have ever met even though they had very little. They appreciated each other and not material goods which is I like to believe rubbed off on me and my ideals. While I was supposed to be helping these people in the long run through this research, they ended up helping me almost immediately.
One interaction that sticks out was one of my last interviews toward the end of the summer. This family had 4 children in the study, none of which who were biological siblings but were all adopted. During this interview I had asked about their activity level and one of the kids began talking about playing outside but upon further questioning, I was told they had 1 basketball and a mini trampoline. As I was questioning how they would play outside so much with such little equipment his brother came around the corner with two sticks tied together with rope and called them nunchucks and he proceeded to play with them for 2 hours. This experience really hit me as I realized that these kids enjoy life just as much as others even if they have less. While they may have a more difficult living situation they are still children and have no problem finding fun with what they have.
Another experience I had was more related to the focus of our research. In July while conducting an interview with a single mother and her two daughters I was completing a food inventory and noticed that they had less than 10 items in their refrigerator. Although I had to hide my emotion for the sake of the research and its integrity, I was truly saddened to see such a thing in the home of such amazing people. As I was completing the interview my partner and I were caught off guard when the mother offered us dinner. We denied but she insisted we eat with them. This was one of the most eye opening experiences this summer. She had so little yet insisted that we eat her food that she made to be polite. Her kindness and selflessness brought about a feeling in me that it difficult to explain. Judging people on their income, “quality of life”, or social status was now, to me, the most ignorant thing one could do.
The last thing I will take with me from this research was the work I did with my team and the PhD candidate in charge of everything. Throughout the summer there were countless interactions between myself and others where we had to adapt to changes in the research because of its nature. Families would cancel, plans would change, data would be missing. All of these things taught me that in community research you have to be understandable and flexible in order to get accurate results. This is experience that I hope to take with me into medicine and dealing with real people. While research in a lab is fantastic, I believe the skills that I gained will help me immensely in the future when having to consult patients and work with them in order to achieve mine and their goals in regards to their well-being.
That being said, I know that this research experience greatly prepared me for my future in medicine. The first thing I learned was not to be judgemental of others and approach others with no predispositions or assumptions about them. When meeting patients and their families, I hope to be as kind as the mother who offered me food and as grateful as the children playing with sticks in my approach. I want them to feel like I want them to be there and not that they need to be there. I hope these experiences and relationships will help further this love for others that I have and continue to change the person I am for the better.
The next thing that I gained from this experience that will directly help in the future were the need for strong attention to detail as well as my ability to adapt to changing situations. As a physician, I know that I will be required to listen closely to patients to diagnose them or focus strongly during surgeries and collecting this data helped me tune these skills. During interviews I had to pay diligent attention to everything that was being told to me in order to answer each question with accuracy. Along with this, I had to be able to adjust the questions and my mannerisms based on the situation that I was in order to not offend any of the participants when asking the very personal questions.
Working with Project SWEAT this summer was something that has undoubtedly changed my outlook on life, view of others, and my personal ideals.