Anthony Sciulli (Rehabilitation Science)
First Experiences in Research (FE-R)
Project: “Biosignatures: Study of Febrile Infants”
During my first Pitt tour and PittStart, I heard the term “research university” tossed around at least 40 times. While I had decided long before my tour to attend Pitt, I believed that this marketing scheme of the “research university” was just that—a scheme used to create a sense of allure and grandeur. At the time, I believed research was reserved for the elite, the geniuses, who spent time locked in a dark, mysterious lab like those on CSI—certainly not for an inexperienced freshman. But, as you may have guessed (from the existence of this post), I was wrong. I spent my first afternoon of PittStart at a presentation given by Patrick Mullen, Director of the OUR, and it was there I first realized the misconceptions I had about Pitt’s research opportunities. Throughout the fall semester, with Patrick as one of my professors, I became even more interested in the prospective opportunities that I could experience through the FE-R Program and in research in general.
In the spring semester, I began my work in the Children’s Hospital Emergency Room with the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN). My responsibilities range from creating Excel spreadsheets to centrifuging blood samples in the hospital lab (which, although not as visually dramatic as a TV counterpart, is still pretty cool), but my primary responsibility is screening for patients who might qualify for a broader research study on a more effective diagnostic tool for febrile infants. Through the use of a computer program, I can remotely see the charts of every patient in the ER and then use that information to assess if any of those patients qualify for one of five current studies. Qualified patients get a visit from yours truly, when I ask them to complete a short questionnaire. In just a few weeks of working, I gained more academic insight and knowledge in the fields of emergency medicine and research practice than I could have hoped for. But this research has shaped me in other powerful ways, too…
I left Children’s after my first day of work feeling humbled and blessed. I had been given a general tour of the ER, where I walked past the patient-filled trauma rooms, exam rooms, and waiting areas. The ER rang with the mechanic chorus of beeping EKG monitors and ringing telephones—harsh sounds that were ignored by my supervisor. I was then shown my work area and the electronic board that detailed the medical record of every patient in the ER. The colorful screen confirmed what I had seen on the floor: The ER was packed. As I perused the patients’ reasons for being in the ER, I noticed things like “Complications from Transplant,” “Liver Failure,” and “Severe Head Trauma.” I thought back to the cold I had a few days earlier, and how I complained about my headache and runny nose. I felt angry with myself.
My supervisor and I then discussed the studies themselves, and I finally grasped the immense size of the network. She explained that these FDA studies, which are currently being implemented in research hospitals around the country, require thousands of samples from a wide variety of children in order to accomplish the study’s goal: to determine the cause of an infant’s fever based on rapid mRNA testing.
I thought back to my tour, to the children in the rooms. It would be so simple to scan the electronic boards from an office room, but to go and interview a family and see a mother’s disheveled hair, a father’s exhaustion, and a crying infant patient—that was an entirely separate challenge. These aren’t just thousands of “samples.” They are sons and daughters of stressed and concerned families. They are children who are scared and ill, and who want, more than anything, to get well.
Prior to that first day at Children’s, I had not been exposed to this human element of medical research. To me, the statistics on the news or the new drug commercials just happened, just came out of the depths of those labs where eccentric researchers hunched over microscopes. I never truly appreciated the health struggles of thousands of patients; ultimately, the work of many scientists, doctors, and nurses is what yields hopeful solutions to end those health issues.
After working at Children’s Hospital for three months, it is reassuring to know that one day, the work to which I’m contributing this semester may one day help prevent, or at least alleviate, the suffering of a sick child on the other end of one of those monitors. It also filled me with pride knowing that our “research university” positively impacts people, not just data, on an international level. And I feel truly honored to be a part of it.