Researching at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
What type of research do you do at Dana-Farber?
I work on gastrointestinal oncology clinical trials. This includes trials for esophageal, gastric, liver, neuroendocrine, pancreatic, and colon cancer. I work with several principal investigators (PI) and am responsible for a variety of trials. I work on Phase I (first time a drug is tested in patients) through Phase III trials and have seen new treatments be submitted for FDA approval and become new standard treatment options.
Overall, I am the point person in between the patient, the healthcare provider, and the study team for the trial (including the PI and the pharmaceutical sponsor). I relay information regarding protocol requirements and slot availability from the outside study team to the clinical team. Many of our trials also involve correlative sciences. I work with several research labs within Dana-Farber — some of which analyze circulating tumor markers or create cell lines from patient tissue. Understanding the bigger picture of the research and its implication through translational research motivates me.
Oncology clinical research is different from other research disciplines. I recall other research coordinator positions that I considered before deciding to work at Dana-Farber; many involved patient recruitment via phone calls or advertisements on public transportation. I do not conduct any patient recruitment as patients constantly present to Dana-Farber to pursue clinical trials. At the visit with one of the roughly twenty doctors in our group, they will be consented to a research trial if they are interested (and there is a slot available on the trial).
I worked as a student nurse’s aide one summer during college and loved the direct contact with patients. While less of my current position involves interacting directly with patients, I have gained a better understanding of medical and healthcare systems.
What does a typical day look like at your job?
I love that my day-to-day is never the same. Certainly there are routine tasks, but I am constantly learning new things about healthcare, research, and medicine. Each new trial that activates requires new elements. It is a job where I think on my feet every day and find solutions to unexpected situations. On a weekly basis, I prepare blood tubes for research samples, attend biopsies to collect research tissue, go to clinic for electrocardiograms or to administer Quality of Life surveys, submit event reports to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), enter and analyze data, and prepare data for internal and external audits.
What do you hope your research will eventually lead to?
I came into the role planning to apply to medical school. Through my experience at Dana-Farber, I have observed the interactions between a medical team and come to better understand the role of each care provider. I work with administrators, physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, clinical assistants, and fellow research coordinators. I also work closely with pharmaceutical companies. Because of my experience at Dana-Farber, I was asked to be a consultant for a pharmaceutical company. This was a wonderful opportunity and showed me that, for now at least, I prefer working in a patient-centered, hospital setting rather than on the operational or industry side. Through working at Dana-Farber, I have gained an understanding of intricacies of the healthcare system and have come to appreciate more fully the importance of prevention research and access to healthcare. For this reason, I recently decided to pursue a Masters of Public Health.
Any advice or suggestions to current Hamilton students considering going into research?
Though I was pre-med and a neuroscience major at Hamilton, I was able to explore many disciplines because of the open curriculum. I am particularly grateful for this. If I had needed to fit core requirements in as well, I would not have had the opportunity to study the humanities as I did. While I think it is important to have a plan for the future, I would urge you to allow yourself to wander, to stray from the direct path a little bit. As a sophomore at Hamilton, I was advised to defer studying abroad (or to go to a country where I could take science courses), as it would complicate the ‘four-year plan’ of my pre-med and major requirements. Be grateful for the advice of professors and counselors, but also don’t be afraid to follow a passion.
I spent my junior fall in Madrid with Hamilton College Academic Year in Spain. My decision to study abroad was one of the best decisions I ever made. I learned extensively about myself and about the world while abroad. Hamilton is a small campus and a small community, and at times it can feel like a bubble. My semester abroad was refreshing.
There is no rush and it will all work out. Many of my colleagues have taken post-bac classes while working to complete pre-med or pre-nursing requirements. You can also take classes over the summer. So if an opportunity arises, don’t turn it down just because you have to finish all your pre-med requirements by the end of sophomore year. There is plenty of time!
Bridget Fitzpatrick, a neuroscience major, graduated from Hamilton in 2013. In 2014, she began working for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as a clinical research coordinator for gastrointestinal oncology.