This summer passed by quicker than I can grasp; it’s been such a thrilling summer full of learning opportunities with smart and kindhearted people, and I’ve been truly grateful every step of the way.
This is the first summer I spent away from home. Although I’ve had countless moments where I just wanted to snuggle with my mom in bed or devour a scallion pancake from the store around the corner of my apartment, I’ve cherished every moment here. I’ve learned a lot from this lab, especially from the research coordinator – Ismel. When I first joined, I imagined myself interacting with the participants more. In the course of the past few months, even though I have worked with people and have gotten to understand the daily schedule of a clinical lab, I didn’t expect for a significant amount of my time to be spent in front of a computer. To be honest, at first it was difficult to adjust to. However, I later realized how valuable this experience was because it enabled me to learn some hard skills that I was never exposed to in school – particularly programming.
Not only did Ismel expose me to different organizational applications like Airtable, Trello, and Zenkit, etc., but the other intern, Jeanne, also helped me a lot with analytical programs, especially with R. Before this internship, I was reluctant to learn about programming because I’ve never been exposed to it. Even though I initially dreaded it, after working with some programs and achieving what I envisioned, I now see it as an exciting challenge. I struggled at first, asking countless questions and searching through Google blindly, but in the end I’ve grown and have been able to pick up hard skills throughout the months I’ve been here. I’ve inputted almost all the formulas to grade each of our questionnaires in an instant, which created a much more efficient system where we can determine their sleeping and eating habits before they go home with an actiwatch. I’ve also created an inventory program linking an inter-board to a log with Zapier so that we not only are constantly aware of where each of our 50 watches are, but also that we have all activity recorded. Not only did I complete these side projects, but throughout the study I was constantly entering data from participants’ tri-weekly food logs into the NDSR (Nutrition Data System for Research) program. Later on, to be able to present for Barnard’s SRI, I ran through some very preliminary data analysis through R and Excel, which did partially support our hypothesis that sleep restriction does cause energy intake to increase (none of which is significant since we only had 7 completed participants at the time). However, when going through my data analysis with my primary investigator, she pointed out that the average energy intake seems to be lower than expected (1785 calories) because some entries were lower than what they were supposed to be. Currently, as I am writing this final progress report, I’m also checking and adjusting the accuracy of the nutritional information for specific food items in NDSR.
Along with these projects, I also ran around the medical campus to hang up flyers, processed blood, and monitored participants’ actiwatches to make sure their sleep is within the desired range for the study. I’ve truly enjoyed conducting research out of the traditional lab setting, but out of all that I’ve been exposed to, one of the most valuable lessons is how important organization and dedication to details are. This takeaway is not only a large-scaled and long-term study like this one, but also for any other future career path I choose to go down. Thank you Ismel, for constantly reminding me of that.
In my last report I talked about how nervous I was with having to present in the SRI presentation because I felt so unprepared and alone. However, it turned out to be a highlight of the summer. Making the poster turned out to be enjoyable, and I truly appreciated the support from the Barnard Community, whether from the Empirical Reasoning Center or the library. During the presentation, I loved when people were approaching me, actively listening, and shooting questions after questions, which indicated that they comprehended what our research entailed and were curious with what we are doing. I also loved hearing about my friends’ and peers’ research projects -- what they have been working on in the summer and why they’re passionate about it. That morning was exciting, intellectually stimulating, nerve-wrecking, exhausting…all these emotions all at one, and I loved every minute of it.
Besides this specific project, I’ve also learned a lot about current related research studies through our journal club and from reading articles on my own. For example, last month the AHA Presidential Advisory released a comprehensive article on the role of dietary fats on the risk of cardiovascular disease. Overall, the recommendation was to lower the intake of saturated fats (eg. butter) and replace it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats (eg. olive oil, safflower oil, etc). This garnered a lot of media attention, to the point where my primary investigator was interviewed by journalists on which spectrum coconut oil fell in – the healthy or unhealthy side. Although recent marketing and supposed health experts swear behind the wonders of this fat, it still is and will always be a saturated fat. Saturated fats are highly correlated with the buildup of LDL cholesterol, which leads to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. There is still not enough research behind coconut oil specifically. However, based on what we are already very sure about the role of saturated fat and its correlation with CVD, none of the people in my lab, including my primary investigator, understand the justifications behind the “health benefits” of coconut oil. To me, it just seems like another marketing strategy. There was also another interesting article on how meal timing and frequency can become a strategy for cardiovascular disease prevention. All in all, people who snack more, as well as people who tend to skip breakfast, tend to have a higher daily energy intake.
Furthermore, I’ve also watched a couple of documentaries about the food industry in general. The one that truly resonated was one that my coworker recommended – “What the Health.” It uncovers the effects of meat and dairy products (including eggs!) on human and environmental health and the reasons why health organizations are hiding their risks. Overall, this film’s overall goal is to push people to pursue a plant-based diet, and has become a reminder to why I want to pursue nutrition as a career. The foundation to health lies in what we eat, and I want people to realize that and put more emphasis in becoming aware of what we are putting into our bodies on a daily basis. I truly believe in what Hippocrates says, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Because I wanted to connect to the broader community through nutrition, aside from my research experience, I’ve also started volunteering in a nonprofit organization called the Bubble Foundation. Bubble is a program that partners with schools and provides a health and wellness curriculum through nutrition, environmental science, and physical education classes. For the past few months I’ve volunteered to help when Bubble traveled to different public schools on these schools’ field day and passed out their homemade granola, encouraging kids to try new food they haven’t been as exposed to, along with flavored water (made with real fruit). Yet, since it’s summer vacation, I haven’t been able to work with Bubble as much. Despite this, I am planning to apply and eager to become a health and wellness educator in the academic year. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to teach the nutrition curriculum in classrooms. Furthermore, what I’m most looking forward to is serving at family meals that Bubble holds in public schools, which is an event to emphasize the importance of eating together. Everyone I’ve met through this program are incredible people who share the same passions as I do, and I want to able to connect with the greater New York Community through Bubble. Considering what kind of food schools are serving in our food deserts and how childhood obesity is becoming such an increasing concern, even an epidemic, this foundation makes such a significant impact. I share their passion and believe in their mission, which is why I want to be a part of this community and to help achieve their goal.
In conclusion, this summer has helped me become even more confident with the career path I want to go down – Nutrition. However, I am still conflicted with which specific field. Whether it’s becoming a registered dietician, a doctor that specializes in Clinical Nutrition, a phD that conducts research, or an educator, I honestly have no idea what I want to do specifically. But I do know that I want to help people with making the right choices on what they eat, whether it’s for the better of their own or community’s health. Nonetheless, I do feel that I’m a step closer to where I want to be, which is what matters.
Thank you, Noyce, for giving me the opportunity to be able to spend such an incredible summer here in the city and helping me take one step closer to achieving my goals. I will always be grateful. Thank you
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to be part of this clinical lab. For the past month, I have become exposed to many areas, been given more challenging tasks and responsibilities, and also became great friends with the two other interns, Jeanne and Margaux, who both happen to be exchange students from France. I’m grateful to work with Jeanne and my research coordinator, Ismel, along with other people in the lab, as they have all helped and guided me countless times.
In my last report, one of my goals was to understand all the theoretical aspects of the study, to understand the details of why each test is conducted and how it would contribute to answering our hypothesis – that mild sleep restriction will negatively affect our mood, cognitive, and physical performance. Because this study looks at overweight people specifically, we also have another hypothesis that mild sleep restriction is a contributing factor to overweight people’s risk of obesity. Another one of my more specific goals was to become independent and be able to conduct interviews/visits/tasks on my own without the supervision of Ismel or Kristen. Ismel once told me that paying attention to detail is the key to this research project due to the quantity of all the aspects that we’re trying to monitor in each participant, and I’ve kept this at heart. Looking back, in the past two weeks I’ve interviewed people for in-person screenings, which consists of checking their BMI, walking them through the outline of the project, and making sure they don’t have concerns with needles (from taking their blood), closed spaces (MRI + fMRI scans), etc. This is one of my favorite parts of this study – from in-person screenings I’ve met people from an eclectic source of backgrounds. Several participants are working on the medical campus, some are also working in research, others are pursuing a PhD. I’ve also met people who work in a retail, mothers with their children, even a hypnotherapist once! It’s always brings me joy to be able to interact with people and learn from their experience – whether in their professional careers or personal lives. Besides that, I’ve also conducted screening visits – analyzing individuals’ watch data by checking the hours and the efficiency of their sleep. Furthermore, after the blood draw in the third and sixth week of each phase, I’ve also processed the blood samples – centrifuging and separating the red from the white blood cells. Thus, all in all, I feel like I have accomplished my goals of understanding the study more in-depth. Because I’ve gained more knowledge, I’ve also internalized the process of each visit, where I no longer constantly question and doubt myself for tasks like how I name files or answer participants’ questions. Therefore, I’ve also become more independent through my budding confidence in handling visits and representing the lab.
Although I’ve conducted these visits independently, in the past few weeks our lab has been having trouble/difficulty recruiting participants. There is a plethora of people who are interested, but most of the time they don’t make it to the stage where we invite them into the study. This might be because of their schedules or because their total sleep time per night doesn’t meet the range (7-9 hours). Therefore, in attempt to counteract this problem, we decided to flyer all around the medical campus, which hopefully garnered more emails for our research coordinator to respond to. Initially, I felt a little irritated and frustrated because we’ve been at a stagnant place for over a month, having a total of 9 participants who have joined and at this point 6 people who have completed the study. However, after talking to Ismel, he helped me realize that this isn’t part of our control. In fact, in March, he had five people start the study in the course of a month. All we can do is continue what we’re doing, become more efficient in any way that we can, and enjoy the process as we work through this slump. Fortunately, as I am writing this there was a screening visit this morning whose total sleep time landed right at ~8 hours and another person who’s expected to start next week if his second screening work is as well as his first.
My other goal was to expand my hard skills set, especially with data analysis programs like R, SPSS, and Excel. I’ve only been exposed to the very basics of R, and since the analysis that my research coordinator wants us to do is far beyond simple regressions, Jeanne has mostly been working with R. On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago I was assigned with the task of first finding how to grade some screening questionnaires (some weren’t documented, I was quite shocked upon realizing this) and consequently coding the auto-grading functions for all the data. Potential participants fill out these screening questionnaires to help us gage their eligibility that couldn’t be easily perceived: such as whether they have sleep apnea, or whether they restrict their meals, and if they do how often they do it. There are ~10 screening questionnaires, and the grading functions were only inputted for three of them before I started on this. After scouring the internet to first understand the reason behind each questionnaire and gaging a vague idea of how to grade each one, I then started to code. Some were straightforward that only included sums, but some were much more complex – especially those that calculated multiple domains. My biggest struggle was the Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire, a questionnaire that calculated whether you have uncontrolled eating, cognitive restraint, and emotional eating. It was difficult to calculate each domain because there was a hypothetical situation for each question, and each question caters to a specific domain. Nonetheless, I persisted and ultimately accomplished the task. I was proud and felt like I made an impact, even though it was trivial, because now we can see whether a screening participant is eligible or not instantly in their first visit, before giving them an actiwatch to track their sleep, which is more efficient both time and inventory-wise.
With this upcoming poster session and presentation for SRI and Noyce, I’m feeling nervous and a little anxious because first, I’ve always struggled with public speaking. Secondly, I feel like this research project is still too much in the beginning stages to make an impactful and rich presentation. Third, there are so many dependent variables that we’re looking at about the individual’s health that I am having trouble picking the area to focus on and how to present the data we have of those multiple areas. Finally, and most nerve-wracking, is that some of the results, especially from the participants’ nutrition logs, are completely opposite from what we expected. Thus, we need to either research more to figure out the reasons behind our data trends or look back and see if we committed any technical errors. All in all, my goal is to be able to overcome both these internal and external obstacles to hopefully present my research experience in a well-prepared and impactful manner.
I initially joined this lab because of my interest in pursuing a career related to nutrition and because I was seeking for a different experience from the wet lab internship from last summer. I’ve learned a lot and am coming to the realization that I still have a lot to learn, but so far, I’ve truly enjoyed my experience in a professional setting like this one. I’m also enjoying the comfort that I’m beginning to develop more at work because of the relationships that I’m beginning to build with my coworkers, the research coordinator, and the participants.
The clinical research that me and my team are conducting looks at the effects of mild sleep restriction on mood, cognitive, and physical performance. There have been several previous research regarding how sleep deprivation or a significant amount of sleep restriction leads to negative health implications. However, the period under which these studies are conducted are usually with more severe, acute, and short-term sleep restriction. Therefore, this study differs from others because it looks at a more long-term and mild sleep restriction and seeks how that affects individuals’ health, particularly their risk to obesity. We look at numerous areas to assess an individual’s health, including their food choice, which is documented in their food logs, and their rate of metabolism, which is measured by a procedure called the doubly labeled water method. Participants are first screened based on their sleep efficiency determined by an actigraph monitor (similar to a Fitbit). Then, they are enrolled into two 6-week-sessions, one of which the participant is asked to sleep 1.5 hours less. Furthermore, in their weekly visits, different procedures are conducted depending on the stage of the session (eg. MRI scans or blood and urine samples). The reason why this study is being done is that it will educate us more on how sleep restriction will affect specific aspects of people’s health and provide justification for future public health recommendations pertinent to this field.
Because this study started in November, 2016, we are still in the initial stages of collecting data and recruiting participants. My job in the lab covers a variety of tasks. Some tasks include entering food log entries into the Nutrition Data System for Research (NDSR), conducting screening procedures describing what the study entails to potential participants, and entering data from questionnaires and tests such as the psychomotor vigilance test for future data analysis. I enjoy interacting with the participants and learning about their background and occupation during their visits. However, when there are less scheduled visits during the day, I’m working on entering and organizing data into Excel in the drive. Because there are numerous tests and questionnaires for each participant, the amount of data entry I’ve been assigned to do was initially daunting. However, now that I’m beginning to realize how inexperienced I am with Excel programming, I’m excited to learn how to expand my hard skills in this area. Currently, I’ve been learning to input formulas to combine the data sets across different tests. I’ve been googling excel functions nonstop, watching tutorials, and asking my research coordinator (who is an Excel connoisseur). Realizing how inexperienced I am with Excel, even though I’ve been exposed to this program since elementary school, has given me the perspective of how important it is to have a strong foundational skill set before building on top of that. Sure, I’ve learned the basics of how to find the sum, the average, and making scattered plots from school, but I wasn’t exposed to using INDEX MATCH and CONCATENATE functions until today when I need it for more in-depth data organization and analysis. On top of that, witnessing how powerful these functions are is quite fun and exciting as well! My goal for the end of the study is to expand my hard skills set, especially with Excel and with another statistical program that I’m trying to learn – R.
Besides trying to expand my hard skills set to be able to contribute more to the team, it’s also been quite fun learning about the theoretical aspects of the study. For example, recently I was talking to the research coordinator of the reason why the fMRI test is being conducted and what it contributes to the study. He was saying that based on previous research, it’s been shown that with sleep restriction, individuals’ inhibition to stop themselves from eating what they know is not healthy/beneficial decreases while simultaneously, their rewards circuitry increases. It also just so happens that food that triggers the rewards circuitry are most likely to be junk food. In other words, when individuals get less sleep, they are more unlikely to stop themselves from eating junk food, which simultaneously tastes better than it would before. From these conclusions, the study developed a hypothesis that sleep restriction causes an increase in the intake of high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods, which leads to a higher susceptibility to obesity. The fMRI test gathers data to either support or deny this hypothesis. During the fMRI test, the participants look at pictures of objects or food items. Subsequently, they fill out a questionnaire describing how appealing that item seems to them at the moment. My goal by the end is to not only understand the procedures of the study, be able to run all the procedures included in the study, but also to truly comprehend the reason why each test/questionnaire/procedure is conducted.
On top of working within the lab, I’ve also had several opportunities to learn from the medical professionals around me and to utilize the resources from the medical center. For example, I went to a seminar talk with another fellow intern where a professor from UCSF was talking about his research describing how brown adipose fat tissue cells are developed in response to the cold environment. He was also talking about his current research in regards to the kind of metabolism that is utilized in entering and exiting torpor. It was such an exciting scene, watching medical professionals bounce their questions and knowledge back and forth.
All in all, it’s been a fun and challenging (in the best way possible!) ride so far, and I can’t wait to see where I’ll be in the next few weeks.