Undergraduate Research: A Taste of the Real (Scientific) World

The Wire: A column dedicated to science and technology

by Michelle Bui

Confusion is the bane of my existence. I’m stuck in a mental mire, unable to pinpoint where I am or how to get out of it.

Looking at the statistical analysis in front of me, I could feel the familiar yet unpleasant feeling of being lost washing over me. Although I had taken statistics in high school, I could not recall ever learning about likelihood ratios or sensitivity versus specificity. Aside from the confidence intervals, which were vaguely familiar, the numbers in brackets and parentheses carried no meaning. I’m sure to a well-read scientist they held all the information necessary to understand the progress of my research study, but to me, they were codes encrypted by a skilled mathematician.

And the worst part was that I had to talk about all of this for my first research presentation.

As a researcher in the Emergency Medicine Research Associates Program (EMRAP) here at UCI, I work in the Emergency Department (ED) at the UCI Medical Center enrolling patients in various studies that the doctors there pioneer in hopes of improving the standard of care and quality of the hospital. Each study has a liaison from EMRAP who acts as the go-between for us researchers and the main investigators.

This past summer I took up the liaison position for one of our ultrasound studies, all of which aim to use ultrasound to diagnose common problems found in the ED. Most people are familiar with ultrasounds being used to view developing babies in pregnant women, but in the ED we experiment with using it on various parts of the body like the eye and the heart.

My study specifically looks for the presence of a small bowel obstruction (SBO) in the intestines, a condition wherein something blocks the normal flow of the intestinal tract, leading to abdominal pain and other symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Typically CT scans are used to diagnose the presence of SBO in ED patients, but this is often time consuming and costly, not to mention requires a nice dose of radiation. An ultrasound, on the other hand, works by simply placing a probe coated with gel on a patient’s stomach, allowing the physician to view the contents inside on a separate computer screen.

So the concept for my study was simple, I thought: compare the results of CT scans and ultrasounds in diagnosing SBO. If the results of an ultrasound match that of CT scans, then ultrasounds could potentially be used in place of CT scans in the future.

But by some twist of fate and advanced number crunching, the concepts behind my study became more complicated than I could comprehend.

In the weeks before my research presentation, I decided that I needed to contact the main personal investigator Dr. Brent Becker, a former ultrasound fellow at UCI and current practicing physician at York Hospital in Pennsylvania, to really understand it. I did some of my own homework to figure out the analysis, getting a vague understanding of medical statistics, but still could not explain the data in my own words. After exchanging a couple of emails and going through a timezone mix up (I forgot that Pennsylvania was 3 hours ahead, not 3 hours behind), I finally got all of my questions answered over a half-hour phone call.
I’ll be honest, I was a little embarrassed at first, worried that I looked like an incompetent undergraduate. However, Dr. Becker was happy to help me, patiently explaining the meanings behind all the brackets, numbers, and foreign vocabulary. When I finally presented at the Southern California Conferences for Undergraduate Research at UC Riverside the next weekend, I was able to confidently answer audience members’ questions about sensitivity and specificity, whereas weeks before I would not have known much more than they did. I had made it out of the mire.

If there is anything I learned from this experience, it is that working in the research field — or any field — requires the will to continually learn and unabashedly ask questions.

Confusion is a frustrating state that we all deal with in everyday life; it is important that we not let it hold us down, but give us a reason to improve upon our current set of skills.