Weinstein and Gerber's HHS 491/492
Perhaps no field is more truly interdisciplinary than healthcare; students interested in health-related careers can be found in any number of majors, including the life sciences, Bioengineering, Community Health, Rehabilitation Science, Nursing, and many others. Thanks to an innovative collaboration between Mason's College of Health and Human Services and the Honors College, students in all of these majors have the opportunity for meaningful and interdisciplinary clinical research experience.
Dr. Ali Weinstein, Associate Professor of Global and Community Health, created and co-teaches HHS 491 and 492 with her colleague, Dr. Lynne Gerber, University Professor in the Department of Health Administration and Policy and Director of Mason's Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability. Both Weinstein and Gerber are clinical researchers who do work to determine the safety and efficacy of medications, diagnostic products, and treatment plans.
Offered in the fall semester, “Foundations of Clinical Research,” (HHS 491) is the first in this two-course sequence. The 1-credit course prepares students for their internship by outlining the research process, covering critical aspects like design, analysis, and interpretation. “We focus on the special parts of conducting health research with humans,” says Dr. Weinstein.
Dr. Weinstein explains the course focuses on how to ask an answerable and important clinical research question, emphasizing that students learn to formulate realistic inquiries for testing. Dr. Gerber adds that they hope their students learn how to "struggle" with refining questions through analyzing data and interpreting their findings.
Further, HHS 491 takes an immersive approach, preparing students to intern in laboratory and hospital settings in the spring semester. According to Dr. Gerber, students have opportunities to tour and shadow at Inova and other sites. “We are setting up an opportunity to witness cardiac surgery, cardiac rehab, and the simulation center at Inova,” shares Dr. Gerber.
Upon completion of HHS 491, selected students are eligible to progress to HHS 492, the 3-credit Spring internship component. Students in HHS 492 are assigned to a clinical research site, engaging in research under the mentorship of clinical health professionals. According to Dr. Weinstein, students are expected to spend seven to eight hours a week on their internship, meeting face-to-face biweekly to discuss experiences at their sites.
“Without fail, students will face obstacles at their internship sites,” explains Dr. Weinstein. “Clinical research is not a smooth, straight-line process. Working with humans is never simple.” She encourages her HHS 492 students to learn to be flexible and adaptable when faced with research challenges.
Now a first-year medical student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Honors College alum Daniel Suarez, Psychology (2015), took the course as a junior in spring of 2014. As a student, he was placed in the Human Performance Lab of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Suarez studied the effect of caffeine supplements on the human body in extreme exercise and stress conditions. As an adjunct project, Suarez further examined the relationship between self-reported scores on sleep quality questionnaires and patients' physical fitness.
"This was my first exposure to research with human subjects, and I quickly learned that it takes a well-coordinated team to pull off these sorts of studies," reflects Suarez, whose findings supported the notion that lack of sleep quality negatively impacts daily functioning.
Following graduation from Mason, Suarez accepted a prestigious postbaccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health – which often hosts HHS 492 interns. When asked by Dr. Weinstein and Dr. Gerber to mentor Jena Chalmers, Biology (2018), last spring, Suarez seized the opportunity. They worked together in the NIH's Liver Disease Branch, focusing on the Hepatitis B Virus.
Chalmers, a senior from Phoenix, reflects positively on her experience with microbiology research. "I investigated the potential predictors of elevated ALT levels in patients with chronic Hepatitis B who had achieved viral suppression," explains Chalmers, meaning she studied indicators of liver damage.
Both mentor and mentee benefited from the project. "I gained experience carrying out a research question from start to finish," says Chalmers, and that's what counts in HHS 492. "Dan really helped me from crafting the research question, to using specialized software for data analysis, to giving me advice on my final poster," says Chalmers.
Suarez sharpened his own skills as he helped Chalmers narrow her research question, set parameters, and perform analyses. "Productive mentor/mentee relationships are critical to success in the fields of academic science and medicine," says Suarez, who adds that he felt humbled to be on the mentor side for the first time.
"HHS 492 was a turning point my academic career," explains Suarez, who at the time was having second thoughts about his course of study and his professional goals. "The experience completely turned my ambition on its head, and with the encouragement of Dr. Gerber, I set my sights on pursuing a career in medicine," says Suarez.
Dr. Gerber recounts that Suarez and Chalmers developed their curiosity and overcame fears of asking for help after trial and error. “I love to observe the students wonder at what is unfolding and what they are seeing,” reflects Dr. Gerber, who adds that she feels honored to see students excited to realize they may be the first to discover their findings.
Dr. Weinstein believes that for HHS 492 students to experience the challenge of research is eye-opening. “It is frustrating at times, but when the students get through the frustration, the growth really occurs,” shares Dr. Weinstein, who believes their HHS 492 curriculum exposes Honors College students to "opportunities that they may never have without this course.”
Original reporting by Jimmy O'Hara.