Episode 23: Summer Research Program

Two second-year Pritzker students, Mike Drazer and Katie Gielissen, talk with us about their experiences in Pritzker’s Summer Research Program.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com.

[Music: “The Area” used with permission from Eliot Lipp. “Shiggidy” used with permission from Greg Spero and GMG.]

Episode 23 Transcript

BF: Hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Pritzker Podcast. Given that the summer has come to a close by now for most people and will be ending coming up here soon in the next few weeks for the new second-years at Pritzker, we decided we’d like to do an episode covering the Summer Research Program at Pritzker, the SRP. It’s a program that’s available to everyone in the first-year class who’s interested in doing some research. And it’s been running for quite a while now. I spoke with Mike Drazer and Katie Gielissen, both of whom are second-year students, new second-year students, about their experiences with the program. We recorded this interview on August 28th, which was officially the last day of the SRP. So let’s get started with the interview.

§ “Mike and Katie’s Backgrounds”

BF: Hey, Mike. Hey, Katie. How’s it going?

KG: It’s going great.

MD: Going pretty well. How are you, Ben?

BF: Not too bad. Thanks to both of you again for agreeing to be on the show and taking some time out. I should mention that SRP is over now and I guess, what, today is the final award ceremony?

KG: Woo-hoo!

BF: So it sounds like you guys are pretty happy about being done?

KG: Yeah, it’s nice to be done, to feel like you’ve accomplished something actually.

BF: Yeah, exactly. Well, we are going to through sort of the basics of the SRP, but before we do that, I want to sort of give the audience just a snapshot of what your individual backgrounds are. So, Mike, do you want to talk a little bit about what you did before coming to medical school, if you took any time off, or what you did in college–what sorts of things outside of schoolwork you did.

MD: Sure. So I grew up in northwest Indiana, in a small town called Hebron, Indiana. It’s kind of a rural community that has about 3400 people in it. And I actually didn’t grew up in the town. I grew up on the farm outside, on a corn and soybean farm. And when it came time to go to college I went to Indiana University-Bloomington and that was actually the first time I was exposed to research. Before I even started, I actually did a research program, kind of similar to SRP actually that kind of put us in a lab and we basically just all high schoolers kind of just trying to survive essentially. I was put in a crystallography and biochemistry lab. And I actually stayed in that lab for about four years with the exception of a little bit of time I spent in Europe studying abroad. So I had had a lot of success before in basic science because I had an excellent mentor during that time. But when it came time to do SRP, I kind of wanted to branch out and do something a little bit differently. But in terms of coming to Pritzker from undergrad, I came and straight out of undergrad, so…

BF: Okay. And what about you, Katie? Where are you coming from?

KG: I’m also from a small town, in Wisconsin. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and–

BF: Wow. So this is an all-Big Ten crowd, I understand.

KG: Yeah.

BF: Although my University of Illinois is clearly superior.

KG: I would have to disagree.

BF: Totally kidding. But seriously, the basketball team is phenomenal…

KG: We have a good one too!

MD: We Hoosiers, we’re peaceful people. I’ll stay out on this one.

BF: Yeah, yeah, exactly. No, no I’m just kidding around with you. So you went to UW-Madison.

KG: Yep. And I also did undergrad research for about three years in the same lab. I also had a little bit of study abroad experience. I went to Uganda. And I didn’t take any time off of school in between, but I kind of wish I had after seeing so many of my classmates who did take time off and the experiences that they had in the time between.

§ “The SRP”

BF: Okay. And so, Mike, you touched on this a little bit in terms of your preparation, in terms of having done research before SRP. But how was it that you got involved with the project that you’re working on and did you consider doing anything else other than SRP, or is that sort of the default for medical students these days?

MD: Well, I mean, certainly it’s not the default, especially at Pritzker. My roommate at the time decided to do something more community service-oriented so he was working in a kind of an education project in the community. And I think about–I’m not sure exactly what the final tally was–but I think probably about 65 or 70 of the hundred people in my class actually did SRP. So, I mean, while it is a majority, there is a significant proportion of the class that does not do SRP.

BF: Okay.

MD: But in terms of–

BF: What made you decide to do that over something else?

MD: Coming in, I knew that I kind of wanted–the plan right now is–I’d like to take a year off to do some type of more transitional type research. But I knew that I wanted to get some exposure to clinical research this summer because I knew that trying to do basic in 10 weeks is very difficult and people who can do that, I applaud them. But at the same time, I had had a lot of exposure to basic as an undergraduate and I really wanted to kind of branch out a little bit and get some exposure to something that I really had no idea what I was doing and I was able to do that, I think, fairly successfully. So in terms of selecting my project though, what they do is the administration provides a pretty large pamphlet–I think it’s about 110 pages or so–of these research projects and they break it down by section or department in the hospital or the school, and you basically just kind of pore through that. And I usually just looked for projects that I thought or seems to me that the mentor had a good idea of the type of work that a medical student could do and be successful in the course of a summer–not even a summer, but ten or eleven weeks. And things that were just interesting to me, it seemed like I could develop a skill set that I didn’t have at that point.

BF: Okay. And what about you, Katie? How did you decide on doing SRP over something else?

KG: I really actually had a very hard time deciding because I had applied for a human rights internship earlier in the year thinking that I would want to take the summer to go abroad and work in a sub-Saharan African country. And I eventually decided that that wouldn’t be a good idea just because I didn’t think that I’d have enough time during the school year to plan a trip like that because it would be a totally independent project. And for me, SRP was such a great opportunity and it was kind of like this pre-packaged, ready-made project where I wouldn’t have to worry so much about getting approval for things and forming new contacts. It was already there and present and it was a lot easier for me as a first-year medical student to enroll in SRP. And also, the fact that we have a month off between the end of SRP and the beginning of school, I’m taking that month, in fact I’m leaving tomorrow, to go to Tanzania. So I was able to fulfill both of the desires I had for my summer, so–

BF: Sure. So we’re recording this in the nick of time.

KG: Yes. I’m quite excited actually.

BF: So you mentioned that it’s fairly easy to get in to SRP. Do you guys want to talk a little bit about what the process is for applying to the program or is there even an application these days? It was a while ago since I’ve done it so I don’t know if it’s changed. Do you guys want to talk about that a little bit?

MD: Sure, I can talk about that in a little bit. As I remember, I mean, I think essentially what the application consisted of was essentially your methods and materials that you planned on doing and kind of introduction to your project. And I think it also included a little bit about the time commitment that you intended to put in in terms of the spring because a lot of people–in fact it’s required–you’re supposed to spend a significant proportion of time during the spring quarter–U of C is on the quarter system–so you’re expected to spend about 10 hours a week on it during the spring kind of just preparing and doing your background research and looking for references and things like that.

BF: Sure. So this kind of turns into sort of a spring elective really.

MD: To a certain degree, yes. And it certainly does vary in terms of the project itself and the mentors. For example, some people didn’t have their data from other institutions if they were multi-institution, so they might not have received that data during the spring so they had to look into other things, background review and things like that. But to a certain degree it can be either your research per se or it can be more of the background reading just in preparation for the summertime.

BF: Okay. And the application itself, I mean, you said you have to put in like materials and methods and sort of a timeline. So it really sounds like it’s almost a mini grant proposal.

MD: Exactly. Yeah, a grant proposal-lite.

BF: Okay. Katie, you had mentioned before that this is sort of an easy package with all the parts of research built in. Do you guys want to talk about the timeline of SRP and the phases that they put you guys through? I know back when I did it, there was like a hypothesis generation phase, an image development phase, a data analysis phase, and all that stuff. So can you talk a little bit about how they set the program up in terms of leading you through all these phases and also what the organization of people is in terms of what groups you’re put into?

KG: Sure, I can talk about that. So in the wintertime, there is kind of like a seminar where they introduce you to SRP and then they give you this pamphlet like Mike talked about where you can look at different projects and go around to different mentors and talk with them about it. And then as soon as you choose your SRP project, you can start working in your lab. And that varies depending on how difficult your project is or how intensive you want it to be. And then during summer, you start forming in cluster groups which are loosely based on the subject of your project. For instance, I was in a GI cluster group so all the people in my group did some kind of GI-centered project. And it’s kind of a nice little forum where you can present the progress of your project and get feedback not only from your fellow classmates but also from experts in the field. So you’re constantly working with doctors or researchers who are quite good at what they do and can help you troubleshoot with your problems.

And then also throughout the summer, there are different deadlines for different components of what will eventually be a project. So like you said, there’s like an introduction component where by the end of a week, you have to have an introduction done. And these are kind of–they’re deadlines but it’s not like you have to have anything perfect, you don’t have to have absolute results, you don’t necessarily have to have an absolutely beautiful paper or anything like that. But these deadlines are just set up to keep you on track and, for the most part, they do help you. By the end of the summer, it was really helpful to have an introduction, methods already done and I just could put them together to put together a pretty well-structured paper.

BF: And how are the deadlines managed? How do you transmit those files? Is the website still up and running?

KG: Yes.

MD: Yes.

BF: Okay. And that sort of gives you an idea of when stuff is due and what you have coming up in the future.

MD: Exactly.

BF: Okay. Let’s see. You guys were talking about your reasons for doing SRP, and I think people have a lot of different reasons, probably not the least of which is the fact that you get a stipend over the summer. Do you guys tell people what the stipend is like, or how much is it these days? Do you guys know off the top of your head?

KG: It’s about $5,000.

BF: Okay.

KG: A little bit more.

BF: So this is for 10 weeks. So that’s not insignificant. I think that is considered one of the important benefits of the program.

KG: Yeah.

BF: Hopefully not the primary benefit of the program but it’s a nice perk.

KG: It’s definitely–go ahead Mike.

MD: Sorry. Speaking with my friends around the country that are in various medical school, I think it’s certainly one of the more generous stipends that I’ve heard of, which is very nice.

BF: Sure, sure. So we mentioned that you guys just completed SRP. What happens at the end? Do you guys give a presentation? Do you guys have to turn in like an article manuscript or a journal or how does this work? How do you guys finish up?

MD: I think for the most part, it really depends on the project and the mentor. For example, my project did go pretty well and so what you do is you present a PowerPoint in front of the colleagues and some judges there from the school. So there are various professors who may or may not have an extensive understanding of what you did your work in, and so you have to present in a manner that’s clear and fairly concise. And then you have to also submit a manuscript of some sort to the SRP website. It’s not something that you have to necessarily submit to JAMA or something, but you do turn that in. And I think a lot of people do use that as a framework for a future publication. Certainly, I’ve met a few people this summer–or not met, but some of my friends this summer in the program have said that they more or less intended to use that to submit to a journal. But then in terms of continuing after the program is done, I think, like I said, it depends on the project and it depends on the mentor. Certainly, our work isn’t done yet on my project so after we finish this podcast this afternoon, I’m going to be back in the hospital doing that work.

KG: You dork.

MD: My social network is fairly limited so, this summer will be–.

BF: So no Tanzania for you?

MD: No Tanzania, unfortunately.

BF: Well, that’s too bad. Well, I know from some of my original classmates in my original class, a lot of them even tended to go back to their projects that they started after first year of during their fourth year. So a lot of times, it becomes a longitudinal thing across medical school years.

MD: Exactly.

BF: So do you guys think that you’ll continue working on this at least during second year at all or is it sort of done for you now, today notwithstanding?

KG: I’d really like to continue with my project. I’m really excited with the results I’ve gotten so far, and I feel like it’s really nice to have someone as a faculty member know you as a person. And I’d like to continue that relationship because I think that it’s really important as far as mentorship and then later on, I mean, I don’t want to say that I’m doing this only for a letter of recommendation but it’s always nice to have someone know you and know your work ethic.

BF: Sure, so I guess this sort of sets up like an instant connection in the hospital that you can maintain or use however you want so that’s kind of nice about it.

KG: Yes.

BF: Let’s see. Do you guys think I missed anything about talking about sort of the structure of the program or how it’s run?

KG: One thing I’d like to mention is that this is a really great opportunity to explore a specialty that you might be interested in. You don’t necessarily have to pick the specialty that you think you’re going to do. Like, for instance, I had no idea that I would want to do GI but I thought the project sounded interesting so I thought, well, why not, this is a great chance to explore the field of gastroenterology. So there are so many different fields and it’s a great opportunity to just check things out. You don’t necessarily get to experience those things when you’re doing your clinical rotations.

MD: Yeah, I would second that in a different manner as well. But I think a lot of people did use this summer to kind of branch out in terms of the type of work that they’re doing. My project is involved in a large public database and I had never touched statistical software before in my life. The work that I did during undergraduate was very much spectroscopy and biophysics and setting up crystal trays and things like this, and I was really looking for something not necessarily along those lines of what I had done during undergraduate. And by the end of the summer, I’m certainly by no means am I an expert or anything in terms of statistical software, but I at the same time, I do have a working knowledge of it and it’s something that I can see myself incorporating into my future career. And use it as an opportunity to branch out and kind of do something you haven’t done before–maybe you’re interested in academic medicine or something along those lines for your career.

BF: Sure. So how did you guys like the program overall? Do you think that the way that it’s set up helps it to accomplish the goals that are written into the program or do you think there’s some weaknesses to it also? How did you like it?

MD: I really enjoyed my time in the program. I think that in terms of the setup of the program, it’s very nice how they structure it so that you start off with your references and then you form a hypothesis, and then you write your introduction. And it really moves you through it in a methodical manner if you haven’t done research before. It really kind of introduces the thought process to you. I think on of the drawbacks of the program, with any program of this sort during the summertime, is you really want to do get 10 weeks or 11 weeks of time and a lot of things have to go right for you to have a successful project. And, for example, the original project that I had started off with in the spring, someone actually published the paper that we were hoping to produce sometime in late April. And I did my work on my references in the months of February and then March, and I actually found out in May when I went back and revised my references that there was my paper right there.

BF: Wow. You got scooped before you even started.

MD: I got scooped before I even started, Ben, I know. But it all worked out in the end and I think the new project actually probably was a little bit more interesting than the other one that I had started on and I ended up getting results in a timely manner as well.

BF: And Katie, how did you like it?

KG: I really liked it but there were, you know–like with any scientific project, there is low points and there is high points. So the low points: It’s during the summer in Chicago and it’s beautiful outside. And although you really want to get something accomplished, you have to work really hard to get something done in 10 weeks if you want to publish something. Some people chose to do that, some people did not. So I think it’s–I guess a drawback of the program is that it’s during the summer when you’d rather be doing other things sometimes. But I enjoyed my experience. I learned a lot. And I’m glad I chose to do it, I guess.

BF: Right. So another question I have is they sort of–I don’t want to say they sugarcoat the experience in terms of chaperoning you through these cycles in terms of making a hypothesis and all that stuff–but do you think for people who have extensive research experience–and, Mike, maybe you can touch on this since you worked in a lab for a while in college–but do you think that people who have prior research experience will find this SRP experience redundant or maybe unnecessary even?

MD: You know, I think without the presence of the cluster groups, I would say perhaps, yes. But the unique thing is we have a classmate who is a nontraditional student from Azerbaijan and worked at the NIH for a long time and had produced papers and things like that. And this is one of the brightest people I’ve never met. And for someone like that, I’m sure some of these things were very redundant. But at the same time, because of the cluster groups, you can kind of meet with these people and meet with your classmates and you kind of–there’s a little bit more–the group work adds the fun of it if you’ve done this before because you can contribute a little bit more if you’ve done some of these things in the past. And I think that certainly my classmates in the cluster group who haven’t had a lot of experience with the NIH, they really appreciated his input and his comments. And I would kind of reinforce that too from my own experience. I think it’s very interesting seeing things from another perspective after you have a few years of experience and you can see some pitfalls in people’s projects and your own project as well. So I think it’s just another dynamic for the program as a whole. I think people with experience in research.

KG: I’d also like to add that if you have extensive research, whether it’d be in clinical- or lab-based, you can always choose a project that’s different. So if you have extensive lab-based research experience, then pick a clinical project because that type of research is totally different and structured and makes you think in a different way. So if you want to be challenged in a different way, you can pick a different type of project, you know?

BF: Sure.

MD: That’s a very good point. The mindset is entirely different between the two. I mean, I would always be thinking about how I was going collect my data and once I get my data, would it be true to my hypothesis? But with clinical, I had all the data right there. It was almost overwhelming. I thought, okay, what questions do I want to ask about this data? And I had to reverse my entire way of thinking going from one type of research to the other.

§ “Mike and Katie’s Projects”

BF: Right. Well, given that you guys have just finished SRP and finished turning in your paper-style publications, I guess, and finished giving your presentations, do you guys want to talk a little bit about specifically what you guys were working on this summer? I mean, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes if you’re putting a publication–a real publication–together and don’t want to announce it to the world. But do you guys want to talk a little bit about what you did?

MD: Katie?

KG: Oh, go ahead, Mike.

MD: So essentially, in very broad terms, there’s a lot of controversy about–I work in urology for the summer and my project basically involved PSA screening especially in older men because there’s a lot of controversy about who should receive a PSA screen and how we determine who are the healthiest people in the population and those people are the types of people who ideally we would like to screen for prostate cancer. But the difficulty arises when you have elderly patients who might not have as many years of life expectancy remaining or maybe they are healthy and maybe they should be screened. So there’s quite a bit of debate about that right now and it’s only been heightened in the past four months because there were a series of randomized clinical trials that showed conflicting results in the efficacy of PSA screening in reducing prostate cancer mortality. So that’s essentially what I was investigating this summer was using this large database to just gain a better understanding of some of the people who are being screened for prostate cancer and whether or not they should’ve been screened.

BF: And did you find anything interesting?

MD: Yeah, I mean, I can’t talk about it too much but there’s some interesting results there that I think should make a nice little paper hopefully. That’s my intention.

BF: Sounds very interesting. And Katie, what about you?

KG: I worked on a project that focused on intestinal microbes. A lot of studies have shown that there’s no difference between the left and the right colon for the composition of intestinal microbes. But the way that these studies are conducted, their sample collection kind of misconstrues the data. They did a colonic lavage before they did the colonoscopy. Studies show that when you do lavage, it flushes out all the microbiota that lived in the mucosal wall. So what we did was we did unprepped colonoscopies in patients to see if there was a difference between the left and the right colon because we know that there is a difference in physiological function between the left and the right colon. It’d be logical that the same would be true of the microbiota. And so we did sampling there and then we analyzed the bacteria using the 16S ribosomal RNA subunit. And from that, we were able to determine that there were differences in the percent abundance. And then when we compared between patients, we saw that there were actually systematic differences between the right and left colon, indicating to us that there is some kind of commonality amongst all people. So it was really kind of exciting results and we have a lot more work to do but it’s really encouraging so far.

BF: And were you looking at individual species of bacteria or just the overall abundance?

KG: We were looking at both but–.

BF: So you’re kind of like the Craig Venter of the colon.

KG: Yes…

BF: Sorry, that was a nerd joke.

MD: I was thinking every time I meet Katie, I think that now.

§ “Final Thoughts”

BF: So do you guys have any other final thoughts about the program? Would you recommend doing this, recommend to other people that they do this?

KG: I would recommend other people to do it but I would like also like to give not a warning but just let people know that at the winter seminar, when they introduce what you can do for your summer, they will really, really emphasize SRP. They’ll make SRP seem like it’s the only choice you can have. And I have a lot of classmates who kind of agonized over their decision of what to do over the summer because they felt like they almost had to do SRP. And you don’t have to. There are lots of other choices. Like Mike said, people do public service projects which are also funded by Pritzker. People do human rights internships which are funded by the University of Chicago. So there’s a lot of choices you can take. I mean, I know people who just took the summer off, so that’s fine. Or you can also TA anatomy. There are a lot of choices.

MD: I mean, I think it’s important–that’s a very good point. And being at a school like the University of Chicago, you have a lot of opportunities outside research. In the medical school, you can do a lot of things in the community like I previously mentioned. It’s just important to keep those types of things in mind as well. But at the same time, you can do something like Katie is doing as well: You can start with SRP and then do something else for the rest of your summer. I think that’s a brilliant idea and something that a lot of people should consider.

BF: Cool. Well, I think maybe we’ll end on that note. I want to thank you guys for taking some time to come on the program.

MD: Thank you, Ben.

KG: Thanks a lot.

BF: Thanks a lot.


Thanks again for listening to the Pritzker Podcast. To hear more or to get full transcripts for every episode of this program, visit pritzkerpodcast.com and be sure to leave us a comment to tell us what you think about it. We’re also on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, and FriendFeed, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you’ve got a question or comment for the show. Take care.

Posted on September 17, 2009 to: