5 Questions for First-Year Research Assistants: Michael Zarra

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

Michael calls Connecticut his home but enjoys travelling abroad. He spent two trimesters at the University of Oxford during his undergraduate years (photo courtesy of Zarra).

Michael Zarra joined OrACORe as a research assistant after graduating from Trinity College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience. While at Trinity, Michael did research in neurophilosophy and neuropsychology, which culminated in an honors thesis examining sonification of brain activity as a way to diagnose traumatic brain injury. When he wasn’t in a lab, Michael was heading the student government’s Health and Wellness Committee, pole vaulting on the track team, or performing in musical theater (his favorite roles were Preppy Stud in Heathers and Sonny LaTierri in Grease).

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

“What initially distinguished this research assistant (RA) position from others was its engagement with health policy. Conducting research that advances treatment is necessary to providing compassionate and comprehensive care. But without a legal system that allows for a unifying implementation of such advances, our healthcare system becomes divergent from itself and the goal of providing patients with the best care.

Later in the application process, when I spoke with former RAs, [OrACORe Director] Dr. [Jeffrey] Katz, and [OrACORe Co-Director] Dr. [Elena] Losina, I could tell that the OrACORe and PIVOT centers were really letting the science lead the way and that their hardworking team was doing great things. The intriguing academic environment here, which focuses on patient outcomes and social determinants of health, was something I knew I had to be a part of!”

Michael was very involved in undergraduate research while at Trinity College as a member of the Raskin neuropsychology lab (photo courtesy of Zarra).

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

“No two weeks are the same here, which is something I truly value about this position. My largest projects, ORBIT and TeMPO, both involve a fair bit of background chart review and screening in order to enroll patients. I then have the opportunity to lead patient visits for those who enrolled. For ORBIT, that involves guiding participants through MRIs, X-rays, a blood draw, and a musculoskeletal exam. TeMPO visits include radiography, a musculoskeletal exam, and quantitative sensory testing.”

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

“My favorite part of my job is definitely the patient visits! I conduct musculoskeletal examinations as well as collect information regarding flexibility and performance measures. Interacting with patients and hearing their stories is incredibly gratifying and never fails to reinforce why the research we are doing is so important!”

Michael began pole vaulting in high school and continued through college (photo courtesy of Zarra).

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?

“The ability to interact with patients and other health professionals at the Brigham has taught me a great deal about health care. Attending the Harvard Global Orthopedic Collaborative meetings has given me a lot of insight into global health research as well. I’ve been able to see how healthcare resources and knowledge in one place can be thoughtfully adapted to aid an underserved population in another. It is both humbling and inspiring to see the impact the physicians here have on so many peoples’ lives. It is a lot to live up to, but it has spurred my own thought process about how I can apply what resources and knowledge I have to serve disadvantaged groups, either domestically or abroad.”

5. What are your plans post-OrACORe?

“I have no doubt it will feel too soon when my time to leave OrACORe comes, but I am very excited about the future. I am in the process of prepping for medical school applications. I hope to become a doctor who is able to make strides towards health equity through clinical practice, research, and policy reform.”