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Monday afternoon found me wandering from building to building in the research park, clutching a bag containing a slip of pink paper and someone else’s urine sample in one hand and my car keys in the other.

Let me back up.

The summer between first and second year of medical school is really the last free summer of my academic life. This isn’t really too traumatic from my perspective, since I’ve already been a part of a workforce that doesn’t get a two-month vacation every year. Still, for many medical students, these eight weeks (ten for last year’s class, and how is that fair, I ask you) mark an important transition on the way to adulthood.

There are a lot of ways to spend this final summer. Some students go abroad to do research or learn a new language. Some put their feet up and embrace laziness for the last time in the foreseeable future. Other students, like myself, make a few extra bucks (or rather, earn back a pitiful fraction of our tuition) by helping out with research projects at the university.

I landed my gig by putting out a plea to the neurology department in general, and ended up working with a clinical researcher. In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, a clinical researcher is someone who is doing research with actual human patients, as opposed to bench research in a laboratory or chart reviews on a computer.

This was perfect for me, as I skipped out on a lot of bench lab skills by taking all my science courses in a single year. So for the summer, instead of having to learn how to pipet or stain slides or even look properly through a microscope (harder than you might imagine), I spent my days in professional dress and a white coat with a clipboard chasing down possible study subjects in a neurology clinic.

I actually helped with a couple of projects over the summer, but the one that counted as “my” project involved asking patients to fill out a long packet of surveys and collecting a urine sample. Simple enough, except for a few key points.

First of all, tracking down patients in a busy clinic is not an easy task for a wayward rising second year. No one quite knows where I fit into the usual hierarchy of things. On the one hand, I was attached to a particular attending, so my study had the weight of her position (and occasional presence) behind it. On the other hand, between the other attending physicians, the residents, the third year med students on rotation, the nurses and the general clinic staff, I rated somewhere below the janitor in terms of clout. (And let’s be honest, at least the janitor is directly useful on a day-to-day basis.) I spent a lot of time trying hard not to disrupt the goings on of the clinic, while somehow managing to get in everyone’s way.

I also ran into quite the snag when it came to paying for the urinalysis that was vital to our research. Even now I can’t explain exactly what was so complex about billing a six-dollar lab test to a readily available research fund, but suffice to say it involved my mentor making angry phone calls to administrators between patient visits, a brush with insurance fraud AND the possibility of several physicians not getting paid. For the record, none of that was my fault, but it was a stressful couple hours.

The urine samples also had to end up at the laboratory somehow. Usually this was a straightforward matter of leaving them in a cooler in the blood draw room, or calling for a pickup from a box in front of the building. Of course one day things didn’t go as planned and I found my samples sitting right where I left them after I returned from a nice, relaxing weekend. That was how I ended up wandering the parking lot of the research building, sample in one hand, keys in the other. “Just drop them off, directly,” my mentor told me. The glamorous life of the summer research student.

Ultimately my research involved a lot of waiting. Waiting for patients to show up for their appointments, waiting for them to finish filling out all of the surveys, waiting outside the bathroom for the tell-tale flush signaling a successfully obtained sample. I did a lot of reading. I chatted with the third year medical students doing their neurology rotations. I picked up tips from the occupational and physical therapists who came through. I learned a ton. But there is only so much expertise you can get through osmosis, and by the end of the summer I was ready to get back to the business of becoming a physician.

And our first unit now that we’ve returned? They changed things around a bit. Instead of starting with cardiology we’re jumping right into the urinary system.

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