The studies weren't for real, but the "investigators" worked really hard
They had had a lot to consider when designing their clinical trials: Ethical concerns. Alternative study designs. Confounding factors. Statistical integrity. Existing published research.
From the beginning, the Dartmouth undergraduates in Biology 81 knew that they would not actually be carrying out their studies. Nevertheless, their trials had to be built for the real world. And when it came time for their final poster presentations, they realized how much they had learned.
The course was designed by Dr. Kevin Curtis, a DMS emergency physician, to help undergraduates interested in medicine learn about clinical research. "Dartmouth College students will be our future leaders in many fields, including science and medicine," according to Curtis. "The degree to which they will participate in future research will vary, but even for those who will only be reading journal articles on the research of others, an understanding of the underlying principles is essential."
Though most of the students in the course were premeds, few had been exposed to the basic concepts of biomedical research. "Now I feel like I'm at least literate in the basic statistical terms," said Katie Muse, a senior biomedical engineering major, as she stood in front of her poster. Muse, a member of Dartmouth's junior varsity soccer team, focused her study on the effectiveness of passive-motion therapy in recovering from knee surgery—something many soccer players are familiar with.
Inherent difficulties: The students' understanding expanded even more when they got a chance to spend some time in the DHMC Emergency Department, where they helped to enroll patients in real clinical trials. And their work on their own studies gave them a sense for the difficulties inherent in certain topics.
Laura Yasaitis—a senior majoring in biochemistry and minoring in Latin American studies—found her research question difficult to tackle. "It's not like studying a specific intervention," she said. Her study looked at the accuracy of the diagnoses that Spanish-speaking patients receive in emergency departments. "I was trying to address more systematic issues," she said.
"The hardest thing" for senior philosophy major Trevor Jensen "was separating out the truth from the non-truth," he explained. "A lot of the studies, just from what I know, were pretty sketchy." His topic was the efficacy of certain edible mushrooms in reducing the fatigue often associated with breast-cancer treatments.
"This class gave me a real sort of hands-on understanding of how clinical research works," said junior Justin Altschuler, a studio arts major. His trial, on the benefits of cinnamon for diabetics, may even make the leap from the hypothetical to the real world.
Actually: During the class's poster presentation, Altschuler struck up a conversation with Dr. Todd MacKenzie, an assistant professor of medicine who studies the effects of green tea and other beverages on diabetes. MacKenzie agreed to help Altschuler find a way to actually conduct his study.
But, said Altschuler, "a lot needs to be done to get this from a poster to an actual study."
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