Public Health/Clinical Research Alumnus Interview

Drew Weko is a 2019 graduate of Virginia Tech and is currently working as a Clinical Research Coordinator with the University of Virginia’s Department of Neurology Stroke Division.  Prior to beginning this role, he completed an MPH in Public Health Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh.  Below is his interview:

1. Who or what inspired you to pursue clinical research?

My biggest inspiration truly was learning. I have this almost unhealthy obsession with digging deeper in all topics, continually asking questions, and simply trying to make better sense of the world. This led me to working in various research labs at Virginia Tech and William & Mary, but I always felt something was missing. I enjoyed contributing to research in rodent labs and assisting with data entry for cognitive studies, but it was missing human interaction. I then spent a summer as a Teaching Assistant at a gifted student program, where I also fell in love with teaching others, particularly those with minimal knowledge of the topic at hand. Getting to build the foundational framework of knowledge is challenging but fun, and getting to learn alongside those students was its own adventure.
With these factors considered, I wanted to find a path in which I could further research, interact with the patients/population being impacted, and educate others. This all drew me towards clinical research, which also includes the added benefit of coordinating with varying levels of students, doctors, and interdisciplinary care professionals.

2. What did you major in and what inspired you to choose this/these areas of study?

I double majored in Cognitive & Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychology. It was not a direct process, as I began solely as a Psychology major, then added CBNU as my second major, eventually making it my primary degree before graduation. Falling in love with the molecular components of psychology drove me into neuroscience, eventually leading me towards a desire to dive even deeper. The challenge was my lack of interest in pursuing a PhD, and surely not an MD. My passion lied within research and patient interactions, so I pursued my Master of Public Health degree in Public Health Genetics. This degree allowed me to explore the population level metrics while affirming my passion for research and making an impact in the lives of others. All of my time within neuroscience, psychology, genetics, and public health equipped me with countless tools to interact with patients, various levels of health care providers, and continue researching novel interventions and treatments. Today, I work for the University of Virginia’s Department of Neurology Stroke Division as a Clinical Research Coordinator.

3. Were you successful on your first application attempt and if not, would you like to share your story with the students on how you recovered/planned for the reapplication?

As I mentioned I did not take a direct path. I actually debated studying exterior to the College of Science coming into Virginia Tech, but I could not imagine studying anything else looking back. Fortunately I was accepted to all undergraduate institutions I applied to, but it was a different story for graduate school. My original plan was to pursue Genetic Counseling, which is an incredibly challenging application process that takes many people up to four years to be accepted. One institution offered an interview, three immediately declined me, and the fifth never provided a response. It was defeating, but University of Pittsburgh felt I would instead be a good fit for their MPH in Public Health Genetics program. Given it was only one of two such programs in the nation and they are an incredibly well-regarded school in the field, I had to evaluate the path I would take. They did permit student in the MPH program to apply to the Genetic Counseling program to extend the 2-year MPH into a 3-year MPH/MS-GC program, but I deferred that option when I was enrolled and loving what I studied.

My biggest recommendation is to not consider it outright defeat. All paths taken are different; it takes some people one cycle to get accepted, some people many more. Consider every path because they may be more illuminating or valuable than you initially considered. My own path has likely changed 10 times since starting at Virginia Tech, and I anticipate it will continue to change as I continue forward.

4. Do you feel that you were prepared for your interview? What preparation advice would you give?

My own preparation for graduate school was admittedly not enough. The inability to decide which path I wanted to pursue hindered me from diving deep enough to get the experiences and coursework desired by many programs. However, my application to my profession was incredibly different. I treated applying to jobs as a full-time 3-credit class, combing through job posting sites and applying for any job I remotely qualified for. With my somewhat broad experience between neuroscience, psychology, genetics, and public health, it allowed me to submit around 20 job applications only within Virginia, with 5 being at UVA for clinical research. I received multiple interviews for different departments, but the Department of Neurology just happened to fall into my lap. With the division head being a genetics and population-health driven physician, it was a perfect opportunity to not only read his publications and discuss them with him, but also permitted me to let my own excitement about those topics shine through. It felt incredibly natural because I was excited, and worked out incredibly well in my favor.

Ultimately, I would advise others to let themselves show their excitement when it truly is something they care about. Do not be afraid to ask questions when you know less about a topic, as it shows you are willing to learn and are willing to reach out for help in learning. In my own experience, most physicians are happy to educate others when they sense that share excitement in topics.

5. What surprised you the most about clinical research?

The biggest shock was the amount of trust placed in me in such a rapid timeframe. My hiring took place in March of 2021 while I was in my final semester of graduate school in Pittsburgh, so I had to relocate to Charlottesville to begin work while completing my degree. My manager worked with me to ensure I was adequately trained and comfortable, but I was able to take on the full workload within my first 3 weeks. This involved doing comprehensive chart reviews of admitted patients, screening for study eligibility (with some studies having 20+ criteria), communicating any orders to be placed to the attending physician/clinical care team, and many other time-sensitive tasks. The biggest shock of all, however, was being on-call for the stroke team pager within my first month. Given some studies require a full process of potential participant identification, eligibility review, consenting, randomization, and preparation/administration of study drug within a 2-hour timeframe, it was a lot to take on so quickly. Regardless, I was able to do it and many of the physicians I interface with trust in my own perspective enough to help direct decision making when it comes to research. It admittedly is a lot of trust to place on somebody who has been at the job for only a few weeks, but it has only helped us be more effective as a team.

6. What memory stands out the most from your first few weeks of working in clinical research?

My academic background prepared me for a good portion of the information at my job, but I did not realize how little I knew until I stepped foot into the hospital. It was its own world of communication, with verbiage that I had not been previously exposed to. I spent an hour every night after work simply googling terminology, acronyms, anything I could think of when reviewing patient charts. This extra effort in educating myself has allowed me to help the other newly hired researchers, but also communicate better with all other professionals in the department. It has also allowed me to spend more time asking direct, specific questions when the physicians are able to take time to help me with many nuances in the clinical side of the research tasks.

7. Did you have any fears going into clinical research?

My biggest fear was one of impostor syndrome given my daily interactions with individuals who have decades in practicing medicine and/or research. Being a recent graduate who is willing to listen and learn is great but only gets you so far. Ultimately this was quickly alleviated as all professionals recognized that I at least was trying, which was the best situation possible. Furthermore, they understood my lack of knowledge in some matters but breadth in others, and persistently asked my perspective on potential candidates for research. This open dialogue has allowed for us to work effectively as a team while having tons of fun doing it!

8. What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

My biggest motivation is the impact we are making on a daily basis. Working with stroke patients is incredibly challenging due to the cognitive deficits many people endure, the vast unknown of how/if the patient will recover, and how life changing the event is. By offering opportunities to contribute to research many patients feel empowered by the opportunity to help others down the road rather than just sit idly by. Not only that, but many of the patients are just happy to talk to somebody who is not entirely a clinician. We get to serve them by being somebody to listen to the challenges they are facing and also give them opportunities to learn while we learn from them. It is incredibly rewarding, even in the stress of balancing 13 studies and coordinating with so many stakeholders.

9. If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential health professional student, what would you tell them off the top of your head?

Anybody considering entering a health profession, whether it be to pursue medical licensure, clinical research, or anything in between, must be prepared to rely upon their peers. It is imperative for individuals to be adequately trained in a broad spectrum of topics, but also be cognizant of when to defer to somebody who has more specified knowledge. Physicians must be willing to defer to specialists (e.g., Respiratory Therapists, Speech-Language Pathologists, etc.). Researchers must know when their skills and knowledge end, and defer to the clinical team when questions are raised about a patient’s standard of care or well-being. This is not to belittle anybody’s knowledge, but being aware of what is within your realm and when a question can be better answered by somebody else is key not only to not stepping on toes, but optimizing care for patients at all levels.

In my short time in this field I have already witnessed medical students who are prepared to only rely on their opinion because of their licensure. When telling this to physicians who oversee their education, they simply mention that it’s not how the field works, and that the student has a long way to go until they realize the value of all team members. I have witnessed skilled professionals make significant ethical and legal blunders because they decided to follow their gut instinct rather than ask a researcher the proper protocol. These instances of being individualistic hurts the patient and the team, so being a cooperative member of an interdisciplinary team is vital to this field, no matter the specific path you venture down.

In short, be confident in what you do and do not know. It’s always better to consult others when necessary, especially when it enters a specified topic or field.

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