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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.

Zoe Zimmerman began working as an OrACORe research assistant in the summer of 2020 after graduating from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry. Outside of the classroom, she spent a summer doing research in London on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, danced with the student group Impact Dance, and worked as a spin instructor at a local cycling studio. Zoe also did platelet research in Dr. Holinstat’s pharmacology lab her junior year and research on intestinal homeostasis with the Parkos-Nusrat pathology lab her senior year.

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

Zoe is pictured here in London where she spent a summer abroad doing research. (Photo courtesy of Zimmerman)

After doing mostly wet lab research in college, I wanted to get involved with clinical research projects that would allow me to interact with patients and learn more about public health. I had always been interested in pursuing a career in medicine, but I hoped my gap year experiences could help me better understand what it’s like to be involved with patient care and medical research. I appreciate that at OrACORe the RAs can be involved in studies like TeMPO that involve a quite a bit of patient interaction as well as OAPol analyses which are more public health focused.

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

Things look a little different during the pandemic than they would under normal circumstances. For TeMPO, I go into clinic about 2 days a week to recruit patients. I also go into the OrACORe office to make questionnaire reminder calls, mail out study information, and perform TeMPO enrollment and follow-up visits. The OAPol work I do can be done from home. I am currently starting a new project to determine the cost-effectiveness of a program that promotes physical activity among patients with OA. I am also working on KArAT, which aims to help patients become more physically active after total knee replacement surgery. In the next few months, I will be working on the IRB approval for this study as well conducting interviews with patients to optimize study protocols. No two days or weeks at OrACORe are the same, which is what makes this job so interesting.

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

Zoe (right) during a performance with the student group Impact Dance. (Photo courtesy of Zimmerman)

When I go into clinic to recruit patients for TeMPO, I get a behind-the-scenes look at patient care. I get insight into how physicians come up with treatment plans for their patients as they decide whether or not the patient would be a good fit for TeMPO. It’s also interesting to see how a patient’s knee OA has progressed over time and which patients respond to which treatments. I love that there is so much variety in our projects – one day I might be focusing on clinical research and performing physical exams on patients, and the next I am determining whether a physical activity program will be cost-effective if it is implemented on a large scale. Thinking back to when I started at OrACORe in June, I realize how much I have learned in such a short period of time. 

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?

Something interesting about knee OA is that, sometimes, the patient’s symptoms don’t align with their X-ray or MRI. You’ll have some people with X-rays or MRIs that show severe joint space narrowing or cartilage thinning, and you’ll think: wow, this person is probably coming in for a total knee replacement consultation. Then, you’ll meet the patient, and they’ll only be in mild to moderate pain. The opposite can happen as well; some patients will have imaging that indicates mild disease, but they’ll be in a great deal of pain. This experience has helped me understand some of the complexities of patient care. There is no formula that tells you exactly how to treat a patient – it’s important to get a holistic picture of a patient’s health and understand their experiences.  

5. What are your plans post-OrACORe?

Zoe at the spin studio she taught at in Ann Arbor. 
(Photo courtesy of Zimmerman)

I plan to apply to medical school next year. I definitely want to do research as well – my experiences at OrACORe have helped me make that decision. I will be looking to strike a balance between time spent seeing patients and doing research. 

6. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your experience starting at OrACORe?

I started working remotely in June when I was still living in Michigan at my parents’ house. I was the first new RA to start, so I was a bit intimidated at first. [Second-year RAs] Kaetlyn and Val came up with a comprehensive training schedule, so I was never bored. I really appreciate how hard they worked to help me have a smooth transition. When I first started, I had a few Zoom meet-and-greets, which helped me get to know everyone better. This was my first job out of college, so I think it was going to be a very new experience regardless of how I started. All things considered, everyone at OrACORe did a great job helping bring the new RAs onto the team. 

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