S. Gemma DiMatteo
Barnard College, Columbia University 2011
Last summer, I was lucky enough to work as a clinical research assistant at NYU School of Medicine’s Institute for Social and Psychiatric Initiatives – Research, Education and Services (InSPIRES). As a rising senior at Barnard College, this was my first real psychology research experience. Since all the studies that I assisted with were related to schizophrenia, and I wanted to be as prepared as possible (not knowing what to expect), I brushed up on what I had learned about schizophrenia in Abnormal Psychology and started reading on the relationship between schizophrenia and autism. Although all of this certainly didn’t hurt, I now know that, as cliché as this may sound, no course or book can prepare you for working with patients.
Before this internship, I knew little about what the research behind a psychology study would entail. I wasn’t even sure what a “clinical research team” really was. I didn’t know that, as a research assistant in the clinical team, I would be working with schizophrenia patients almost every day.
I had always thought of my future career goal as a more “behind the scenes” research position, thinking that this was more reputable or scientific (probably a result of my grandparents’ prejudice against psychology as a real science). I went into college as a chemistry major but immediately switched to psychology, a move that was difficult for them to accept. I tried to explain that studying psychology is not just an “easy way out” and that not all psychology majors become psychoanalysts who only talk to patients every day. As a result of my family’s bias, I would have been hesitant to work on the clinical side of the field if I had known that it was less “behind the scenes” and more personal. I am now grateful though for my prior ignorance of the term “clinical”; without this ignorance, I most likely never would have given clinical research a chance.
I think I can speak for most people when I say that a large contributor to job satisfaction is variability and variety. Going to the same place everyday with the same tasks and responsibilities can inevitably become monotonous, no matter what the job is. I have found that when most of these tasks involve working with an array of different people, the day is generally more interesting, and the time goes by more quickly. The diversity of our participants, in everything from background and age to personality, made each day at InSPIRES completely unpredictable. I mean this in the best way possible; for example, working with a patient who is quiet and compliant is very different from working with someone who gets frustrated at the different tests and questionnaires. Some patients are extremely talkative and personable, whereas others are reserved and often listless and enervated. Something that stood out to me when I first started the job last summer was several of the patients’ reactions to the departure of one of the research coordinators (she moved to go to graduate school). When they heard the news, they were forlorn and confused, explaining that she was one of their close friends, and they wanted to know if she would be back to visit. Witnessing these patient’s reactions made me aware of the way in which I interacted with everyone participating in the study. For a lot of these people, coming to InSPIRES is the main activity of their day or week, and I tried to be cognizant of this while working with them or even just seeing them in the hallway.
Making the patients feel comfortable and trusting of the researchers isn’t just beneficial for them, it is actually vital for many parts of the study. This is especially true for patients with schizophrenia, where paranoia is already an issue and often an obstacle when trying to record necessary personal information. I was doing questionnaires with a patient once who was extremely resistant to answering most of the questions; he had just met me and thought that I was trying to prosecute him for a crime he had committed in the past. No matter how many times I assured him that all the information he provided was confidential and our goal was not to prosecute him, he didn’t trust me because he had never worked with me before. I have learned to choose my words carefully, because if I inadvertantly offend or upset a patient, it could affect the validity of their responses.
Psychology is still a relatively new field, and our knowledge of many psychiatric disorders is growing. With this in mind, InSPIRES takes a holistic approach in order to get a more robust and accurate reading of the patients and the disorder. Each person is acted upon and affected by so many different agents and aspects of the world that it would be naïve not to approach the issue from as many of these angles as possible. Every Wednesday, we hold a group meeting, open to everyone involved in the program. Sometimes there’s a guest speaker, and sometimes it’s more of an announcements/open discussion meeting. I was very impressed by the collection of professionals that were all contributing to the development of the studies. There were pediatricians, OB/GYNs, epidemiologists, sociologists, statisticians, medical students, PhD students, and postdocs. With top scientists from so many different backgrounds, it’s easy to begin to tackle problems that others may have overlooked.
If I had to narrow down the most valuable thing I’ve learned from my year’s experience, it would be the personal reevaluation of my career goals. At the beginning of this job, all I knew was that I wanted to do psychology research and that I was interested in autism and schizophrenia. Now, after working at InSPIRES, I am certain that whatever line of research I go into, I want to interact with the patients and have that be a large part of my day (which I now know is called clinical research). Connecting with the patients, and even struggling with them, made the job not only more interesting but also more rewarding for me. There is really nothing like working with sick patients on such a one-on-one basis, while still contributing to a greater field of research. InSPIRES has really inspired me to pursue exactly this.
S. Gemma DiMatteo received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Barnard College of Columbia University in 2011. Her interests include cognitive neuropsychology and behavioral genetics. She can be contacted at email@example.com