Traversing a ‘two-way street’ ’tween research, clinical care

UW students describe what compels them to bridge two worlds

By Jake Siegel  |  HSNewsBeat  |  Updated 10:45 AM, 06.01.2016

Posted in: Education

  • Phillip Hwang is researching links between sleep medications and Alzheimer's among military veterans with post-traumatic stress. Jake Siegel
Phillip Hwang grew up wanting to make a difference. He long assumed he’d do so as a doctor.

His father had died of lung cancer when Hwang was 6, which set the stage for a lifelong interest in science and medicine. In the midst of med school, Hwang decided to also pursue a master’s in public health. 

In that pursuit, he developed a passion for research that sparked a revelation: He would make a difference in the lab rather than at a bedside. 

“Ultimately I wanted to improve people’s lives through better heath,” said Hwang, a student in the University of Washington's School of Public Health. “Research isn’t necessarily as direct or immediate as patient care, but as a researcher I can make a difference for as broad a population as possible.”

Medicine and research of course go hand in hand, and countless students in the health sciences forgo the clinical world for the laboratory. But Hwang doesn’t view his path as an either-or proposition. He is one of a dozen UW students who won grants that specifically support translational research, which aims to speed scientific discoveries to clinical settings. 

“It’s really a two-way street between clinical care and research,” Hwang said. “Hopefully my research benefits patients. But interacting with or even just observing patients still inspires me. So I won’t stray too far from the patient setting.”
Hwang and two other students describe their road to research below.  
Jake Siegel
"Clearly there needs to be a better understanding of the basic science of and treatments for Alzheimer’s," Phillip Hwang said.
picture of UW Public Health student Phillip Hwang
Phillip Hwang, second-year doctoral student in the department of epidemiology, UW School of Public Health 

Current research project: A 15-year retrospective study of veterans with post-traumatic stress, examining the association between sleep medications and Alzheimer’s disease

Why veterans?  “Sleep is connected with PTSD. Some biology supports the idea that insomnia and sleep disturbance, more generally, disturbs the body’s ability to clear out toxins or proteins that cause Alzheimer’s. Through this research I want to start supporting the link between sleep and dementia.” 

Why Alzheimer’s?  “I came to UW because of the association with Fred Hutch and all the great cancer research. That’s what I thought I was going to do. Cancer was personal, because of my father.  But Alzheimer’s is also personal for me. After my dad died, my grandfather came from Korea to be with our family. He helped raise me. He moved back to Korea, where he was diagnosed with dementia. Going back every few years and seeing the rapid decline in a once-strong man was shocking. So my personal interest ultimately shifted from cancer to Alzheimer’s.”

What do you hope to accomplish as a researcher?
“There are limitations in medicine that need to be addressed. Right now, 99 percent of clinical trials in Alzheimer’s show no results or fail. Clearly there needs to be a better understanding of the basic science of and treatments for Alzheimer’s. As a researcher, I hope to help push the science a little further.”   

Tiffany Jones, third-year doctoral student at UW School of Social Work

Current research project: Assessment strategies for social and emotional learning in the Seattle Public School District

How did you end up at the School of Social Work? “I worked in community mental health from 2007 to 2013 in Los Angeles. Over time, more and more of our funding switched to evidence-based practices, but culture was never addressed in these programs. Nobody was asking if they would translate. The clinics I worked in were 90 percent Latino, and the people who developed these practices were asking me how they would translate. I didn’t think this was the right way to go about it. 
That was the main driver for me going back to school. I thought it was important to include the people we’re working with, but that wasn’t happening.”  
Coutesy of Tiffany Jones
"Everyone believes these programs are doing great things by our kids, but not a lot of research looks at whether there are different effects for different groups," said Tiffany Jones.
picture of UW Social Work student Tiffany Jones
Talk about your research.  “One reason I came to the UW was to focus on prevention. When I think about the people I worked with in LA, so many things could have happened sooner. And there’s a new way of thinking about prevention called social and emotional learning programs, which is being implemented in a number of places, including Seattle Public Schools.  This project is meant to sit in that space between what’s happening in research and what’s happening on the ground. I get to work with a school that’s putting this into practice and seeing that in real-time while I do research. 

Everyone believes these programs are doing great things by our kids, but not a lot of research looks at whether there are different effects for different groups. It’s important to study whether these ideas of how best to socialize and handle emotions translate across cultures. I’m super excited to look at that data.”

Claire Richards, fourth-year doctoral student at School of Nursing

Current research project: Clinician-family communication in pediatric and neonatal intensive-care units

Why did you decide to pursue a career in research?
“I got my nursing degree in 2009 and started working in a surgical trauma ICU. I experienced a lot of ethically challenging situations in ICU about how we treated end of life. I started to read up on palliative care, and then had a transformative experience at Bailey-Boushay House (a facility that cares for HIV patients). The philosophy was one that respected the autonomy of patients and recognized we were working in the patients’ home. For example, I remember one patient saying he didn’t want his blood sugar checked at 6:30 in the morning. That wouldn’t fly at the ICU; it was the best time for the nursing staff. But since we were in his ‘home,’ we changed it for him.
Courtesy of Claire Richards
"I don’t view my path as ivory tower vs clinical practice. It’s why I chose nursing science," said Claire Richards.
picture of UW Nursing student Claire Richards
My research interest was molded by that experience. As clinicians, we’re in an environment where we need to be efficient and deliver safe care. But how do we do that in a way that’s also satisfactory to patients and their families? It is important for the system to support clinicians in being flexible enough to respond to patients and families’ needs and not have care entirely dictated by medical goals. 

Will you miss working with patients? “I love working with patients and families. I think I would need some kind of hybrid educational/clinical position so I can still stay in touch with what the important questions are. I don’t view my path as ivory tower vs clinical practice. It’s why I chose nursing science. It's using science in a practical way – to change the way we practice clinically.”

You won a grant, but is money a concern as a researcher? “I don’t worry about funding so much because if my research questions are informed by what are the pressing issues of policy and practice, I should be fine. I really believe that I will land upon a research question that’s relevant and timely and important and that someone will pay for it.”
Contact us about this story.