Going into the Brackenridge, I thought research was synonymous with data collection. Now I know that data collection is a small part of the research project. Arguably, the most important aspect of research is gathering background information and building a foundation for one’s project. I set out to participate in independent research as a freshman, meeting weekly with my now mentor, Dr. Marci Nilsen, familiarizing myself with what she researches and where my contribution would be the most valuable. Fast forwarding to the summer before senior year, I had finally narrowed down a topic and completed what I thought would be the end of literature reviews. However, I began this project by reviewing literature for variables related to hospital utilization so I would know what other variables and information to extract from patient charts.
Another aspect of research I underestimated was the importance of inclusion and exclusion criteria for my patient sample. A majority of the project was spent combing through over 200 patient histories to decide whether they fit the criteria and could be included in my project. Not only had I misjudge how time consuming this would be, I also over looked the importance of well-formulated inclusion and exclusion factors. For example, I had to exclude any patient that was not treated at the Hillman Cancer Center, which I thought was too stringent because it excluded upwards of 50 patients. However, I was reading through a surgeon’s note from a six month follow up appointment, where he described an emergency room visit that was not documented in the patient’s chart. If this patient had been included, I would be missing data. On the other hand, having too many exclusion criteria can be criticized because the study sample is not representative of the abstract population and conclusions I reach cannot be applied broadly to all head and neck patients; it is only representative of those treated at a single institution in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Finally, research is not static or finite; there will always been new topics to investigate or projects that support previous findings. Obstacles can halt progress, send a project in a new direction, or identify another area of study. For example, I previously described missing data and how I had to exclude patients as a result. In this instance, I identified a gap in technology within my field and the difficulties health professionals must face with no comprehensive electronic health records. This gap in technology also presents the opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary project with computer science or health informaticists. Research is not static or sedentary, it evolves and holds more interdisciplinary opportunities than I had previously thought.
The most valuable experiences were exposure to my colleagues work, workshops I attended, and developing a deeper understanding of my own research. Going along with how my understanding of research has changed, hearing from the other fellows was inspiring. I had no idea what a humanities project is comprised off, but now I appreciate how researchers in the humanities immerse themselves in literature, analyze their findings, and write a final analysis in their own words. This somewhat parallels work in the STEM field, but the creative nature of the humanities is something I want to incorporate into any research project I carry out in the future. Also, the information presented in the workshops was above and beyond anything that has or will be presented in my curriculum. I ended up enrolling in more than the required number of workshops, but it was 100% worth it. I’ve been able to update my resume, think about graduate programs and the application process, and gain helpful insight to different data collection methods like interviews. Finally, I was able to look retrospectively at how I had narrowed down my topic using the framework presented in our weekly meetings to understand how I got to where I am. From there I picked up skills like using analogies to more precisely describe my project in an easy to understand format. Before, I really struggled explaining what I was doing to everyone, even members of my own discipline, but now I can confidently and adequately describe what I did this summer in under a minute.
In terms of next steps for myself and this project, I want to finish data collection and analysis, so I can present my finding as an honors thesis. By doing so, I would graduate from Pitt in the spring with a Bachelor of Philosophy. As I’ve gone through my curriculum and independent research, I have found a number of areas within nursing that I would love to pursue. I know I would gladly carry out research again, so I am contemplating which route I want to take: nurse practitioner or nurse researcher.
Thank you to Brett Say for organizing a fantastic experience and all the scholar mentors and presenters for contributing! And thank you to my mentor, Dr. Nilsen, and Karley Atchison for all their help with my project! It was a pleasure working with everyone this summer!