5 Questions for First-Year Research Assistants: Emma Williams

This is the first in a series of interviews we are conducting with each of our first-year research assistants about their OrACORe experience so far.

Emma Williams joined the OrACORe team as a research assistant in the summer of 2019, after graduating from Cornell University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in biology and government. At Cornell, Emma worked in the McArt lab of the entomology department, where she was involved in projects studying within-colony transmission of Nosema spp. among honey bees and potential synergism between insecticides and fungicides on bumble bee mortality. When not in the bee lab, Emma spent most of her time working on the student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, or volunteering at the Ithaca Free Clinic.

Emma spent much of her senior year at Cornell working on an honors thesis in the government department. Her topic was the Affordable Care Act, and she argued that policy feedback principles help to explain the law’s ability to survive Republican repeal efforts (photo courtesy of Williams).

1. What about this research position attracted you to it?

“I was looking for an opportunity that would bridge my interests in health policy and medicine and allow me to do both qualitative and quantitative analyses. I’d had experiences as an undergraduate in each of these four areas, but rarely did they overlap. I was honestly a little surprised when I came across the OrACORe application because it described everything I was looking for! What sealed the deal was the interview process, when it became clear to me that I could actually contribute meaningfully to multiple ongoing projects. I was also really excited about the opportunities to interact with patients and physicians because I knew from experience that I didn’t want to spend five days a week in a cubicle or at a lab bench.”

2. What’s a typical week on the job for you?

“Each week is different from the one before (which is something I really like about OrACORe), but I usually spend about two days on TeMPO, two days on OAPol, and the remaining time on INJECT and a qualitative project that examines psychosocial factors related to hand transplant outcomes. My main responsibilities for TeMPO are recruiting and enrolling patients and conducting baseline and follow-up assessments with those who do enroll. Most of my OAPol work so far has been training and testing model updates, but I’m excited to get started on a project looking at the cost-effectiveness of arthroscopic partial meniscectomy. When I’m working on a qualitative project, I’m usually conducting interviews, annotating interview transcripts, or producing thematic maps.

I also find time to update the website, write blog posts, and tweet from the OrACORe account!”

3. What do you like most about being a research assistant at OrACORe?

“I love that I feel like a part of the team here. Outside of OrACORe, I think a lot of research assistants really do just assist researchers. But at OrACORe, I feel as though I am a researcher. It makes my job much more exciting and rewarding to feel as though I have a real stake in each of the projects I work on.

I also really enjoy the academic hospital environment of the Brigham. There are countless learning opportunities in the office and The Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, around the hospital and at Harvard Medical School and School of Public Health. But I also get to interact with patients and physicians on a weekly basis in clinic, which is a good reminder of why we’re doing the research in the first place.”

Emma got her first taste of qualitative research when she spent a summer in Moshi, Tanzania as part of Cornell’s global health program. While there, she worked with Cornell undergraduates and Tanzanian medical students to investigate the barriers preventing women in Moshi from using family planning services (photo courtesy of Williams).

4. What’s one thing you’ve learned in the past month here that either changed the way you understand health care or influenced you in some other way?

“Clinical symptoms are not always consistent with imaging findings, and vice versa. One patient with little to no pain may have an x-ray showing severe osteoarthritis in their knee. Another patient may have only mild osteoarthritis on x-ray but experience substantial pain. Or, as we often see in spine conference cases, it isn’t always clear whether pain, numbness, or weakness in the extremities can be tied to a specific imaging finding.

This is significant because it adds a certain level of uncertainty to medical practice and also challenges the broader assumption that doctors can always find and fix whatever is causing a symptom as long as they order the right image or test. Instead, there are always cases for which the cause or cure are unclear or unknown.”

5. What are your plans post-OrACORe?

“I’ll be starting the medical school application process soon, and I’m hoping to matriculate in 2021. Beyond that, I’m hoping to have a medical career that bridges clinical practice with health policy, either as a researcher or policymaker. In fact, one of the reasons I’m interested in Infectious Diseases as a specialty is because of how naturally involved it is with public and global health policy issues.”