Research helps ensure healthcare for patients improves over time. Students have many opportunities to strengthen their training at IU School of Medicine by partnering with researchers who possess expertise in a variety of topics, from precision genomics to maternal health. The Indiana University Medical Student Program for Research and Scholarship (IMPRS), allows first-year medical students to complete a summer program in the summer between their first and second year. We asked second year student, Matt Hodges, to share his IMPRS experience and why students should consider participating.
Can you share what research you were immersed in through the Indiana University Medical Student Program for Research and Scholarship (IMPRS)?
Last summer I worked with Dr. Deb Litzelman on the WeCare program. WeCare aims to improve Marion County’s maternal and infant health outcomes by pairing pregnant women in the Indianapolis area with community health workers (CHWs). The CHW acts as a guide, resource hub, coach and source of support as each patient navigates through her pregnancy and postpartum period. The underlying idea is that every pregnancy is unique and faces its own set of challenges and obstacles. If we can pair each woman with a knowledgeable CHW, the CHW can tailor care to best fit the individual case. The goal is to improve maternal and infant health outcomes by treating each patient holistically and personally. My research was specifically focused on maternal health risk factors associated with mental illness among women enrolled in the WeCare program.
How did this program strengthen your MD training?
The IMPRS program strengthened my MD training in three key ways that I will discuss individually: hard research skills, soft leadership skills and professional morale.
The research skills component is the most obvious, but that doesn’t make it less important. Regardless of whether or not you anticipate doing research in your medical career, the research process is critical in shaping how we will practice as physicians and what policies we will adopt as a healthcare system. We can’t provide high-quality care if we aren’t utilizing high-quality research, so every practicing physician should have a basic understanding of the research process and how it works. I think the best way to do that is to jump in and engage with research in a hands-on way. IMPRS provides a great opportunity to do that under the guidance of a mentor. There are a lot of moving parts and personnel involved in medical research and IMPRS was able to give me insight into how the machine operates.
The time spent watching and observing during my IMPRS summer was just as important as the time spent actively working. Every Tuesday morning I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall during Dr. Litzelman’s weekly debriefings with the CHWs in the program. This was hands-down the best part of my week every week. During this time, the CHWs would share particularly tricky or concerning problems they encountered that week and together (along with Dr. Litzelman) they would brainstorm solutions. I learned a lot about being both a physician and a researcher by watching Dr. Litzelman on these Zoom calls. She was usually the only physician in the meeting and the whole WeCare program was her brainchild, yet she seldom spoke. She was constantly listening, constantly observing, providing insight when necessary and freely giving advice when asked. She was always open to feedback and new ideas. She carried this approach into every meeting we had that summer, whether it was with our statistician, with the WeCare management team, or during our weekly one-on-one meetings. Overseeing medical research frequently involves managing multiple teams of people carrying out multiple tasks simultaneously. Doing this effectively requires sharply-honed leadership skills that can be difficult to develop without a model to base them on. Fortunately, through my IMPRS experience I was able to observe stellar leadership in action on a regular basis and develop my own leadership skills using what I observed.
The summer of 2020 was a trying and uncertain time (to put it mildly) for a lot of people. When you’re working on eliminating health disparities and providing healthcare to those without adequate access, it can begin to feel like the numbers are hopelessly stacked against your cause. Pile a pandemic and civil unrest on top of that feeling, and it becomes easy to fall into despair. Challenges begin to seem insurmountable and it becomes more and more difficult to meet the day-to-day workload of a medical student. I was at a low point when I started working with Dr. Litzelman and the WeCare team, but suddenly I found myself surrounded by this resilient team of people working around-the-clock and doing everything in their power to create better health outcomes and better lives for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Not only that, but they were gaining considerable traction and getting awesome results. It was impossible for me to be pessimistic when I was surrounded by intelligent, devoted people who had been working toward health justice for way longer than I had and were nowhere near giving up.
In short: my IMPRS experience not only gave me many of the core skills I will need to carry out research over the course of my career, but it also helped me see that the traits of an ideal physician (a listening ear, an open mind, a patient spirit, and flexibility) are also the traits of an ideal researcher. My summer with IMPRS also showed me that it was possible to create lasting positive change in my community as a researching physician.
What advice would you give to students who are considering whether or not to participate in the IMPRS summer program?
I think a lot of people have pre-formed ideas of what research looks like. Medical research comes in all shapes and sizes and there’s something out there for everyone. My advice would be to figure out what kinds opportunities exist within IMRS and try to gauge where you might fit. I made a lot of phone calls and met a lot of people for coffee during my first semester last year (obviously all coffee would be consumed via Zoom this year, but I think the point remains). Reaching out to a physician that you don’t know can be intimidating, but I’ve found that in my experience most people are willing and eager to share their work with you; it’s what they’re passionate about. Reaching out and talking to someone is the fastest and most reliable way to figure out if you would be interested in pursuing a summer of research with that person. Explore, be open, meet new people, and I imagine you’ll click with a researcher eventually. Even if you end up pursuing a different summer opportunity, you will still learn a lot and make connections in the process.
How did this experience affect your future plans and career goals?
I knew when I entered medical school that I wanted to work in medically underserved communities. I knew that research was a big part of improving healthcare access, but when I pictured myself ten years down the road I always pictured myself as a practicing physician and never really imagined how research might fit into my career. After my summer with IMPRS and Dr. Litzelman I realized that research is a great macro-level complement to the work that I will already be doing at a micro-level in the clinic. Striking a balance between the two will allow me to make personal connections and create change one patient at a time while also participating on the front lines of innovative care. When talking about improving healthcare quality and access in underserved populations, my summer with IMPRS made it abundantly clear that clinical practice and medical research have a powerful mutualistic relationship.
What role did your mentor play, and how did you identify your mentor?
That’s a big question. Dr. Litzelman is a person who wears many hats; if I were to list all of the roles that she played I’m sure I would exceed some kind of word limit. To put it as simply as possible, Dr. Litzelman made sure that I didn’t totally fall of the rails with my little project while she was simultaneously doing the other myriad of jobs that she would normally do otherwise. To me she was a guide, a source of support, and a person with whom I could always bounce ideas back and forth.
I actually met Dr. Litzelman because I was interested in AMPATH (the Academic Model Providing Access To Healthcare; a partnership between IU, Moi University, and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kenya). I loved the AMPATH philosophy and I was particularly intrigued by its emphasis on bilateral exchange (the two-way innovation that can occur when international health systems cooperate). Dr. Litzelman had worked with AMPATH for many years and the WeCare program was actually a product of bilateral exchange; it was based on a CHW-based prenatal care model in Kenya. After meeting with a few people involved in AMPATH I found myself on the phone with Dr. Litzelman and I became fascinated by the WeCare program and the work it was doing in Indianapolis.
Students interested in participating in IMPRS can apply now. The deadline for application is January 15, 2021.