Photo by Kebance Photo

Bio and Society Alumna Pursues Her Passion in Urology

The Beginning

Photo by Taylor Rearick

After many years in a very small, competitive preparatory school, I made the decision to attend one of the world’s largest universities on the opposite side of the country. I arrived at Arizona State University (ASU) in 2014 as a Midwest transplant, unsure about how a theater and dance kid with no formal research or hospital experience would ever become an academic researcher, let alone a viable medical school applicant. Truthfully, I didn’t even know what it meant to “do” research. My understanding was based on the more common lab work I watched my pre-med peers do, and pipetting at a bench did not sound fulfilling to me.

I was interested in women’s health, so a research program called the Embryo Project, which the Barrett Honors College advertised at an activity fair, intrigued me. The program described a history and philosophy of science research opportunity involving writing scientific articles. Prior to college, I prided myself in my communication skills because communicating to me meant writing a lot. I’ve always done that. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The group of researchers who make up the Embryo Project (EP) work within the Center for Biology and Society at ASU. Students collectively research, write, and workshop original encyclopedia articles in the EP Writing Seminar and edit them in the EP Editing Seminar. If the articles meet the publication’s very specific typographical and linguistic standards and complete the rigorous editorial process, they get published on the Embryo Project Encyclopedia, an open access scientific resource. There was always a mix of graduate and undergraduate students who wrote many original encyclopedia articles grounded in history and related to any subject broadly connected to development and reproductive science. All of this showed me that this was not your typical research lab.

Embryo Project Training

What topics did we write about? That was entirely up to each author, and one of the most liberating and thrilling aspects of the work we did. During my time at the EP, clustered topics that my peers researched included the aftermath of birth defects following exposure to agent orange during the Vietnam War, the Watson and Crick Semi-conservative DNA replication experiments, early historical association of birth defects with mythical creatures and monsters, and the history of the government supported practice of eugenics in the United States.

 At first, my specific research interests surrounded nineteenth century “female physicians.” In my research, I characterized and contextualized the role they played in women’s reproductive healthcare and pregnancy management by filling a niche that the medical field was not addressing prior to the early twentieth century, despite having little to no formal medical training themselves. I later explored further how gender expectations, medical misconceptions and moral traditions of the 1800s shaped the reproductive care that women received for the following two hundred years.

Graduation photo of Rainey Horwitz and Jane Maienschein by Rainey Horwitz
 

My mantra had always been: “Write a lot and use big words.” But the first articles I wrote were indigestible, filled with jargon no one without a science degree could understand. I received my first documents back covered with red edits and every sentence structure ripped apart. This deeply invalidated the academic confidence I had developed during my high school years. The structure of the program required students to recommend edits on each other’s written work and share their revisions during in person round-table workshops. Initially, having a room full of academics critiquing your work in real time took some getting used to, but soon I found myself grateful for the environment where we could all grow together.

Ever since joining the EP, my confidence as a researcher, scientist and soon to be physician has grown tremendously. By encouraging the writers to cluster their articles around a very specific concept or event, effectively finding their niche, the EP instructors encourage safe experimentation with writing and investigating, including allowing me to explore writing about science and sex without fear of repercussions or censorship.

Photo by Taylor Rearick

With extreme patience and continued work to meet the standards of the project, in my first semester the Encyclopedia accepted two of four of my submitted articles for editing and potentially publication. After my first Embryo Project class, I returned the following semester to continue my work. That second semester turned into five more. Over time, I became more and more confident about receiving edits and giving my feedback to other students. I received positive reinforcement from the editors, who eventually encouraged me to train to be an editor for the Encyclopedia. Fall of 2018 was my sixth and final semester as an EP writer and second semester as a trained technical editor with over 24 publications, a Barrett Honors Thesis and Masters Thesis and Degree and in Biology and Society under my belt.

            I had been so wrong. Saying a lot or using big words isn’t effective communication at all. Communication is about informing different audiences with different reading levels and perspectives effectively. Communication is about tailoring one’s message so that the recipient can easily access the concept, a principle that is so closely tied to the patient-physician relationship I am now navigating as a medical trainee. I can now explain scientific and medical processes to most people in accessible but still accurate language. Doing so promotes a better understanding of health and wellness in the community.

My evolved understanding of what it means to be an effective communicator caused me to view my life and goals differently, especially after being accepted to medical school and later beginning my clinical training. I found myself using the linguistics skills I had sharpened during my time at the EP when meeting a new patient for the first time in the Emergency Department to take a medical history. I also found myself using these skills when formally giving a concise oral SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment, plan) presentation of a patient to an attending physician on hospital rounds, more easily picking out the pertinent details in my mind that warranted our immediate attention. I also grew an increased awareness of my peers who had not had the same communication skills training and struggled to form effective patient and professional relationships.