As part of our Day in the Life: Grinnell Alums series, we're catching up with Grinnell alum Amelia Cogan '19. Read on to learn more about Amelia's experience at Grinnell, and where it led her professionally.
Fast Facts about Amelia:
Major at Grinnell: Biological Chemistry
Favorite class at Grinnell: Possibly an unpopular opinion, but Physical Chemistry (thanks to Professor Hernandez!)
Job Title/Organization: Clinical Research Coordinator, Massachusetts General Hospital
Hobbies: Hiking, evening sudoku puzzles, paint by number kits, trying to nurse my succulent back to health, playing tennis
Which non-STEM class at Grinnell had the biggest impact on you (professionally or personally)?
If I define "biggest impact" as the class that changed the way that I see the world, then I'm torn between my Intro to Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies and Intro to Sociology classes! These classes really helped me understand things that will be paramount for me as an aspiring physician, such as recognizing the role that systemic racism, implicit bias, one's social and physical environment, and more play into influencing one's life and health.
What led you to pursue this field and how did you prepare for it?
In preparation for my future aspirations as a physician, I knew that I could become a better, more competitive medical school applicant by gaining more experience in research and in clinical settings (even after completing my MPH). So, I started looking for positions where I could do both, and this is what led me to clinical research.
Preparing for a job in clinical research is remarkably similar to preparing to be a future health care provider. While I didn't specifically prepare to be a clinical researcher at Grinnell, my background as a biological chemistry major and pre-med student certainly helped. For anyone who is interested in clinical research, a background in the natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry), applied sciences (e.g., biostatistics), and/or social sciences (e.g., public health) can be helpful. This knowledge may help you understand the underpinnings of any potential topic that you may study. No one expects you to be an expert of have experience in any specialty, but your general background knowledge may help bring you up to speed faster. This background may also help you read journal articles and/or prepare manuscripts and posters for publication - skills that are often essential in research.
Although not required, it may also be helpful to have experiences working in clinical settings. You may gain this experience through paid work (e.g., medical scribing) or volunteer work (e.g., transporting patients in a hospital). Being comfortable in these settings may help you more effectively interact with patients in a research setting where patients may be ill or injured - sometimes severely.
Describe your role on a healthcare team or within the healthcare system.
As a clinical research coordinator (CRC), my primary team consists of a physician, project manager, and one other CRC. However, clinical research is only possible with the efforts of numerous other people from a variety of backgrounds. Therefore, I also continually work with other physicians, nurse practitioners and registered nurses, other CRCs, laboratory technicians, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, project managers, biostatisticians, and representatives from pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations. I could list more, but I think you get the point that healthcare is a team effort!
Our work is primarily focused on advancing research and improving clinical care in allergy. I serve as the main point of contact for our clinical trials patients to ensure their safety and address any questions or concerns they may have. I also schedule their research visits, coordinate with the team (study visits involve several moving parts and many tasks delegated to many specific people), administer questionnaires, check patient study compliance, complete documentation, complete more documentation, assist the principal investigator, and oversee the entire visit to anticipate and prevent potential protocol deviations.
There is a less glamorous side to my job, though, but only because it requires me to be in front of a computer for extended periods of time! I manage study finances (yes, I took several Economics courses at Grinnell, and no, they did not prepare me to become a semi-quasi accountant), correspond back and forth with our institutional review board and industry sponsors, work with our study monitor to ensure data integrity and compliance with the protocol and federal regulations, and complete chart review.
Overall, I find my job to be extremely rewarding. I get to meet and interact with patients frequently, see our patients' quality of life improve before my eyes, co-author publications, help novel therapeutics enter the commercial market, and know that our research is contributing to an increase in knowledge and an improvement in clinical care.
Share a piece of career advice you wish you knew as an undergraduate student.
I always imagined that I would start medical school immediately following my graduation from Grinnell or, at the very latest, one year after if I absolutely needed to. But here I am, 2 years later, still not a medical student, still not (currently) applying to medical school, but very content with where I'm at.
My advice to you is that there are perfectly good reasons to slow down, to not go full steam ahead into your dream career, and that there are many meaningful ways that you can spend your time between graduation from Grinnell and matriculation to a health professional school. Research is one option, but you could also seek a position as a medical scribe, pursue a graduate degree (e.g., MS, MPH), join the Peace Corps, etc. If I had tried to go straight into medical school, I may never have discovered my niche and passion for health policy. If I had tried to go straight into medical school, my application would have been sub-par at best, setting myself up for rejection and making residency applications more difficult down the line. If I had tried to go straight into medical school, I may have gotten overwhelmed or burnt out coming straight from my rigorous years spent studying at Grinnell.
My point is, take the time to explore different interests you may have, then turn them into a meaningful experience. You may learn something about yourself that you may not have otherwise! Most importantly, though, don't forget to take the time to take care of yourself. Being a pre-health professional student is stressful and burn out is real. This is especially important as we continue to navigate an unfamiliar world as the pandemic rages on. Stay safe, wear a mask, and get vaccinated (once you are eligible, that is!)
The views expressed here are Amelia's own, and do not reflect those of her employer.
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