5 Questions for First-Year Research Assistants: Peter Bensen

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

Peter Bensen joined OrACORe as a research assistant in the summer of 2019 after returning to the U.S. from Indonesia, where he taught English for a year as a Fulbright scholar. He graduated in 2018 from Bowdoin College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics. Outside of class, Peter played hockey and lacrosse, and, in his senior year, he worked in a genetics lab, mapping promoters and enhancers.

Peter is from Norwich, Vermont, but completed his undergrad in Maine at Bowdoin College, where he earned a degree in mathematics (photo courtesy of Bensen).

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

“Other positions I considered involved working on just one study or just a certain aspect of multiple studies. Whereas at OrACORe, it seemed like I would get to be involved in many different things, such as interacting with study participants, and hopefully use some of my math skills. Especially when learning about OAPol, I was confident that I could use my math and computer science skills from college. Ultimately, I was attracted to this position because I would use skills that I both enjoyed and learned in college while also experiencing the medical world.”

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

“I usually work from around 8:30 to 5 most days, with a group lunch break during the middle of the day. Most of my time is spent on OAPol, although I do attend several standing weekly meetings. I just wrapped up a big project involving the validation of the incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that we use in the OAPol model. I learned a lot about COPD, which surprised me, as I was not expecting to learn about chronic lung conditions as part of an orthopaedic research group.

Given that we’re surrounded by hospitals, there are a lot of opportunities to attend talks and seminars to further one’s education. I try to sit in on one or two talks per week, whether it’s rheumatology rounds or a talk that Dr. Katz or someone else suggests we attend. The medical educational aspect of this job is one that I wasn’t aware was going to be a big part of our lives here, but I’ve really enjoyed having these opportunities.”

Peter was on Bowdoin’s hockey team all four years and will be returning to play in the alumni game this spring (photo courtesy of Bensen).

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

“I like that you get to use your brain in different ways each day. Even as a research assistant, I feel like I’m working on projects and topics that are relevant to the research aims of OrACORe/PIVOT. I feel like I am doing something that’s valued and that my supervisors are listening to what I have to say.

I also like the culture around the office. From day one, everyone’s on a first-name basis. While a simple thing, it goes a long way. It’s a comfortable and easy-going environment. The idea of teamwork in the office is huge. Even if I’m spending most of my time on one project, there are still many other colleagues involved. Everyone’s pulling on different levers to make projects progress.”

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?

Peter’s neighbors in Indonesia grew peppers that they later sold at the market. Here, he is helping organize and trim the peppers (photo courtesy of Bensen).

“I didn’t fully understand the extent of collaboration in medicine. There are tons of moving parts and so many people that play pivotal roles. It’s not just the doctor you see when you go in for your check-up. There are researchers looking to identify better practices or therapies, which are then implemented by the doctor you see on check-up day. When we attend medical rounds, we hear about the many medical personnel who are consulted for an individual case.

I’d always seen research and clinical practice as two separate entities. But here I’ve learned how much cohesion exists between the two. Researchers really value clinicians’ input, and clinicians really value researchers’ input. It’s rejuvenating to be part of a community that puts so much care and effort into their work.”

5. What are your plans post-OrACORe?

“Hopefully, I’ll go to medical school. I’m studying for the MCAT now and will be taking it soon, then applying in the summer. Research is much more on my radar after joining OrACORe, and I am considering applying to MD/MPH programs, especially because the foundations of OAPol involve epidemiology, which I’ve been finding very interesting.”