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Independent Research Study
Maddie Kim

The Baylor Research Program provides student researchers with many unparalleled opportunities, such as the ability to carry out their own independent research projects alongside accomplished researchers Dr. Elizabeth Forrester and Dr. Dawn Richards, as well as access to top-of-the-line equipment, like the multiple RTqPCR machines housed in the biomedical lab.

However, 2020 is not a normal year for Baylor Research. While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a few obstacles, it has also illuminated newfound possibilities for the students’ research experiences.

While Dr. Forrester and Dr. Richards assist on the front-lines of COVID-19 research at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, Baylor’s Advanced Research students—seniors Reese Dixon, Julia Flack, Ashleigh Huang; and juniors Maddie Kim, Caleb Nuñes, Sanjit Pamidi, Kate Rogers, Aidan Shaw, and Fatima Sohani –– have an opportunity to help out as well.

Through Baylor’s partnership with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the University of Tennessee College of Medicine-Chattanooga, and the Center for Global and Community Health, these students have the opportunity to assist Dr. Michael Davis and Dr. Gregory W. Heath on their clinical study regarding the mechanisms of COVID-19 transmission throughout a student population.

Called “Community Health Workers,” Baylor’s Advanced Researchers are able to apply their research skills to real-world problems presented by the pandemic. Gaining meaningful, applicable experience by conducting scientific surveys and analyzing data, these students will be able to use the collected information to impact future school COVID-19 policies or recommendations. I interviewed some of these Advanced Research students about their work and asked them how they felt about this new project. “Before March last year, I had the opportunity to conduct my own breast cancer research, investigating the role of HDAC inhibitors and TFG-β1 in cancer proliferation and viability. While we aren’t able to continue our independent research projects this year, I’m glad to have been presented another opportunity serving as a Community Health Worker,” Huang said. “Our research project this year focuses on environmental factors with the real world, not the micro-scale, so it’s been an interesting change in subject.”

Sohani echoes a similar sentiment: “I’m used to working in a controlled laboratory environment with triple negative breast cancer cells and being able to conduct as many trials as I want. Now, I’m working with the data Baylor students have given us in an environment with many factors that could easily influence the study in one way or another… My idea of what research is and how it works has fundamentally shifted as a result of working on this study, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be able to work with Dr. Davis, Dr. Heath, Dr. Forrester, Dr. Richards, and the rest of the Community Health Workers.”

The student researchers have also had the opportunity to be taught epidemiology by Dr. Heath, which has proven to be an extremely engaging—and relevant—topic. Rogers reflects on her experience so far, describing her opportunity to “learn more about behavioral epidemiology from Dr. Heath” as her “favorite part of working on the study so far. It is interesting how the choices people make impact their health and immune systems so greatly.”

Furthering their knowledge about health and epidemiology, these Advanced Research students have also studied and trained to become officially certified in Human Subjects Research. “This year,we are collaborating with not only Dr. Richards, and Dr. Forrester, but also Dr. Heath, and have begun examining the world of epidemiology due to the coronavirus. We have independently become certified in biomedical research training, but also have applied these skills to case studies and novel literature about the coronavirus under our instructors’ guidance,” said Nuñes.

I would have to agree with my fellow Community Health Workers’ observations. While I was saddened to hear that my independent biomedical research project had to be put on the back burner this year, the opportunity to work with Dr. Davis and Dr. Heath on this independent study is a truly inimitable experience. I know I can speak on behalf of all of my fellow Advanced Researchers when I say that we are so incredibly eager to apply our research training to serve others during this pandemic, and we look forward to growing our own understandings of research and its greater implications on our communities.

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