Clinical trials can offer patients a chance to improve their health or quality of life and offer physicians clues to advancements in treatment.
For University of Cincinnati (UC) Cancer Institute Clinical Trials Coordinators Jenna Braun, 23, Camden Martin, 26, and Audrey McCartney, 23, clinical trials and the work they do offered a pathway that inspired them to pursue their passion of practicing medicine.
Braun, Martin and McCartney will leave their UC jobs this summer and begin their journeys as medical students. Braun will attend Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University, Martin will attend Ohio State University’s College of Medicine and McCartney will attend UC College of Medicine.
"Individuals who interview for the clinical trials office often have different aspirations,” says Trisha Wise-Draper, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Hematology Oncology at the UC College of Medicine and clinical research director of the UC Cancer Institute. "We have some employees who plan to pursue a career in coordinating clinical trials, but some use the position as a stepping stone, which we do our best to facilitate in order for them to achieve their goals. We are all very proud that all three employees who applied to medical this year were accepted. We wish them our best."
Braun, a Cincinnati native with a bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition science from Ohio University (OU), hopes to pursue a career as a pediatrician. She started her job with the UC Cancer Institute’s Clinical Trials Office in August, but she said very excited to start this new career path.
"I did a lot of community research at OU, and I’m really looking forward to doing more clinical research,” she says. "I didn’t have any expectations when I started this job, but I’m leaving with a knowledge about how to interact with patients and deal with a big hospital system.
"It’s really important to put the patients first.”
Braun works with patients who have head and neck cancer, and she says she’s learned so much just by her daily interaction with them.
"I just don’t know how these people who are coming for so many doctor’s visits and are dealing with so much stay so positive,” she says. "It’s inspiring.”
Braun adds that her time with the clinical trials office has taught her to multitask—something she’ll certainly need to do in medical school.
"I had such a fantastic mentor in Dr. (Trisha) Wise-Draper,” she says, adding that Muhammad Kashif Riaz, MD, and Lisa Gebhart, a certified nurse practitioner, were huge supporters as well. "Work in the clinical trials office is having 100 little things, but important things, to do and keeping them all straight. It was definitely a learning experience in time management.”
Martin, a San Diego native who first received a bachelor’s degree in art history at Vanderbilt University and then a master’s degree in physiology at UC, took a non-traditional route to medicine.
But his desire to purse it as a career was based on personal experiences.
"I have chronic kidney disease, which I was diagnosed with at the age of 14,” he says, adding that he had both positive and negative experiences with physicians and their treatment of him as a patient and a person throughout the years. "I remember when I finally had a physician sit down on my bed and look me in the eye and actually talk to me about my condition and treatment, and it really just struck me. That is what a physician is supposed to be, and that is the type of physician I want to be—a doctor who is truly empathetic.”
Martin says he chose art history because he’d always loved it and knew that college would be the only time in his life he’d be able to pursue it. But he feels that this part of his training can also be applied to medicine.
"It teaches you how to take in the whole picture,” he says. "Things aren’t always black and white in medicine; there’s an uncertainty. Art history teaches you how to observe, much like you have to do in medicine—taking in the details about a patient’s medical history or symptoms.”
Martin also didn’t get his acceptance letter to medical school on his first try, but he didn’t give up, and decided instead to purse his master’s degree and "prove he could succeed in the sciences.”
He joined the UC Cancer Institute Clinical Trials office in November 2017 and has worked with patients at the Cincinnati Children’s/UC Health Proton Therapy Center since then.
"It has just been amazing to be around that fascinating technology,” he says. "The Proton Therapy Center is only one of about 26 facilities of its kind in the country, and has the country’s only research gantry. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the future of radiation oncology. Oh … and I also learned a lot about insurance.”
Martin hopes to pursue nephrology or urology, but his options are open. One thing is for sure, though, his time with the Clinical Trials Office will always stick with him.
"The patient interactions are what will stay with me,” he says. "I had a patient who completed treatment at the Proton Therapy Center who came up to me and told me how much my daily greetings and our quick conversations during each treatment meant so much; the person even wrote me a thank you card. It taught me that every interaction matters.”
McCartney, a Cincinnati native with a bachelor’s of arts degree in history from Dartmouth, says she already had some cancer research experience under her belt when she applied to medical school.
"I’d worked in a lab that was looking at oxygen levels in solid tumors during my time as an undergraduate,” she says.
However, she wanted to gain more experience in clinical research, and so, as a gap year between the Medical College Admissions Test and applications, she decided to apply for a job in the UC Cancer Institute’s Clinical Trials Office.
McCartney, who has been in the UC Cancer Institute’s Clinical Trials Office for about a year and a half, says that working at UC showed her the strength of its medical program, and she knew she wanted to stay close to home, so she’s thrilled to be a Bearcat.
Currently, she’s working with patients in the Brain Tumor Center.
"I’ve loved working with this patient population and the ins and outs of the disease,” she says. "Dr. (Rekha) Chaudhary has been wonderful to work with—she even wrote me a letter of recommendation for medical school—and I just know she’s going to be a life-long mentor. I’m looking forward to being able to learn from and work more closely with physicians I’ve met in my time here.”
McCartney mirrors her colleagues’ sentiments about the impact patient interaction has had on her.
"I’ve really been able to work on my patient interaction skills and to figure out how to say the appropriate things,” she says. "I’ve seen how patients really hang on the words of their physicians, and I’ve learned that it’s important to choose your words wisely.”
She adds that she’s also learned a lot about the behind the scenes work needed to run clinical trials.
"There are a lot of rules and regulations,” she says.
Rachel Podell, a first-year student at the UC College of Medicine who also worked in the UC Cancer Institute’s Clinical Trials Office for roughly a year before leaping into medical school, can attest that this work easily translates into what she’s learning now.
"Working in the clinical trials office exposed me to many things I have already encountered in medical school,” she says. "We start learning about cancer processes pretty early on in our education, and having had some experiences with cancer patients helped reinforce my classroom learning.
"I worked mainly on the data team in the office, and through that work, I learned a lot about specific cancer types and treatments, some of which I have already learned about in school. It’s so interesting to me to see the connection.”