Friday, January 20, 2017

Developing a Thesis: A Journey

At the University of Pittsburgh Genetic Counseling Program, students often have the opportunity to pursue a research project at their work positions. My position as a genetic counseling student worker in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition has enabled me to develop a research study that will ultimately culminate in my Master’s thesis. The development of my own thesis project is an ongoing journey that has cultivated not only my research and management skills, but which has also refined my critical thinking and adaptability.

The Hereditary GI Tumor Program encompasses a diverse medical team that specializes in cancer genetics and research. My work with the team has provided me with the opportunity to participate in the development of a new study entitled “Hereditary GI Tumor Project and Patient Engagement Study.” This year-long pilot study aims to analyze outcomes among high-risk cancer patients participating in genetic counseling. This study is important in furthering the understanding of patient engagement in their health. Patient engagement has been associated with higher patient satisfaction, better health outcomes, and overall decreased cost to the healthcare system. Studying the changes in patient engagement before and after undergoing genetic counseling aims to identify improved means of engaging patients, promoting risk-reducing behavior changes, and ultimately, improving both cost effectiveness and patient satisfaction in the healthcare system.

Finalizing my thesis study however, required ample time and multiple revisions. The contributions of both members within and outside of our team were essential at every phase of the process. Our team worked alongside both the UPMC Health Plan and various University of Pittsburgh faculty members in order to define and refine the current project. The protocol, specific aims, and even the hypothesis were all adjusted many times. Changes were made to deliver the best possible data available.

 Embracing changes was not always easy, and solutions were sometimes difficult to find. During the progression of the project, it was important to balance the goal of the research project, while also remaining flexible. However, having a team available for support drove progress and provided alternative methods of improvement. It was therefore imperative throughout the process of developing my thesis to engage in active communication. Email updates and conference calls on a regular basis allowed for various input, shared experience, and proposed solutions.

As my thesis progresses, my responsibilities have shifted from developing protocols and writing IRB applications, to enrolling subjects and analyzing data. New and different analytic concerns have likewise surfaced, yet with each challenge my project becomes more definite. The evolution of my thesis project is a testament to the time and work shared by myself and the entire team. Not only has my work empowered me to grow as a student, but also has provided me with the foundation necessary to design future investigations. In the months to come, I look forward to finalizing my project as a cohesive thesis presentation that will reflect the time, effort, and the development of communication and flexibility skills that I have learned in throughout the process.

- Anna Zakas, Class of 2017


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