This summer I am working as a research assistant at Penn’s Vasculitis Center. The center is part of the division of rheumatology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Vasculitis is a subspecialty of rheumatology that focuses on auto-immune diseases where the immune system attacks the blood vessels in the body causing them to become inflamed. There are different types of vasculitis diseases, which are classified based on the size of the affected vessel dividing the family of diseases into small, medium, and large vessel vasculitides. The team of physicians I work with are members of the Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network which aims to spearhead research between hospitals for rare diseases, including vasculitis, through the Vasculitis Clinical Research Consortium (VCRC). The consortium includes the University of Pennsylvania in addition to hospitals such as the Cleveland Clinic, John’s Hopkins University, and many others globally.
I spend part of my week working on the current research studies. I devoted another portion of my workweek to data and compliance for longitudinal studies that track patients over the course of several years. I am also working on a study where we work on collecting tissue biopsies from patients in hopes of creating a large data bank of tissue that can be analyzed to potentially identify patterns among and within vasculitis diseases.
For my primary project, I am working with a team of doctors to generate a survey to distribute to patients via an online patient network called the Vasculitis Patient Powered Research Network (VPPRN). It was created to revolutionize how clinical research in vasculitis is conducted by directly involving patients in the research process. We are currently drafting the final version of the survey based on a preliminary survey that asked patients for pertinent information. The survey is looking to address the variables that impact the time it takes for a patient with a vasculitis disease to receive a diagnosis. Some of the variables we are assessing include socioeconomic factors that limit the availability of necessary interventions as well as the skill sets of the physicians who played a role in diagnosing the disease.
I spend the other half of the week working in the clinic with a team of physicians. This is a great opportunity as it allows me to not only learn more about vasculitis, but also to interact with patients who have these diseases. It is especially interesting when I am able to interact with the patients enrolled in the research studies I am involved in.
It is amazing being able to work alongside some of the most talented physicians in the specialty. In addition, it has been incredible encountering patients with symptoms and diseases that the average rheumatologist let alone the average physician will never see in their lifetime.
For students interested in the field of medicine, I advise you to try to gain experiences in a wide array of medical specialties. You never know if something unexpected will peak your interest. It is incredibly valuable to see how different physicians approach similar problems and to better understand the importance of doctor-patient interaction. Beyond the clinic, being able to engage in research both in a lab can help you better understand the field of medicine from different perspectives. You should never be afraid to ask questions and physicians are always more than happy to explain complex topics.
As a patient with a vasculitis condition, I wanted to learn more about my disease. I had sent an email to the doctor I now work for who is in charge of VCRC to speak with him about his research and it has resulted with me working with the clinic for the summer. Vasculitis is a field I am very passionate about due to my personal connection. In turn, I advise you to reach out to those who study something personal to you or something unusual that you believe you might find a passion for, because you never know where such efforts will lead you.