Miles Oliva is a part-time research coordinator at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. At the same time, he is earning a Master of Public Health degree. During his year of postbac study at the NICHD, Miles researched how T-cell receptor signal strength influenced T-cell development in Dr. Paul Love’s laboratory. Check out our Former Fellow Follow-up with Miles to learn more about his unique career choices following his postbac.
Can you tell us a little about the role of a research coordinator?
A public health research coordinator can work in a clinic, a non-governmental organization (NGO), or a university—anywhere where research is conducted. They work on one or many projects. For each project, alongside the principal investigator (PI), they organize and conduct research.
They collect data through many methods, some of them being outreach, interviewing, or patient files. They develop or maintain a manual of operations and procedures (MOP), which is a document that details the research and its protocols. They can also work with the institutional review boards (IRBs) to make sure the research project stays up to ethical codes.
While you were a full-time research coordinator, what was your typical day like?
Day to day, I conducted community-based research, such as detailed interviews, chart reviews, and patient surveys. I maintained up-to-date research documentation with the IRBs. I assisted with data analysis and modeling. I organized sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing outreach events, and I did STI testing and counseling with our clinic population.
What do you find most exciting about being a research coordinator?
I love becoming an expert on my particular research project. As a coordinator, you must know the ins and outs of your project and be ready for anything that comes up, like an adverse event. Being a coordinator also gave me a chance to collaborate with my PI closely.
What do you find most challenging?
Adapting to a clinic environment was difficult at first. There are a lot of moving parts compared to bench science. The social workers, nurses, physicians, and research staff all have to work together and communicate effectively to make sure everyone can get their jobs done without delaying patients’ care.
When did you start thinking about a research coordinator position versus a PhD or MD program following your NICHD postbac fellowship?
After living in DC for a year and working at the NIH, I participated in the NIH Academy and worked part time at the DC Center, an LGBT community center. Both of these experiences, along with guidance from my lab supervisor, opened my eyes to job possibilities in community health.
I needed to take more time to understand what I wanted out of a profession in health. Taking a job directly in public health as a research coordinator was a great opportunity.
How did you find the position?
I directly emailed dozens of PIs at Hopkins and other universities who were doing research I was interested in, and a few with open positions got back to me.
Please describe the application/hiring process. Did it take a long time?
I emailed my CV to PIs in my interest area around May, went for an in-person interview in June, and was offered a position at Hopkins in July.
Which skill sets from the lab best apply to becoming a research coordinator?
Bench research required me to keep a precise log of experimental data. This really helped me in knowing how to organize research material and to keep track of day-to-day operations.
What activities or resources at the NIH helped prepare you for your career transition?
After about two years as a full-time research coordinator, you began a Master of Public Health program. Can you tell us a little about how/why you made that decision and the process involved in joining an MPH program?
I worked in bench science all throughout undergrad and while at the NIH. During the next two years, I split my time at the clinic doing sexual health education with patients and researching pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) usage in adolescents.
From there, I had enough experiential evidence to know that public health was the right health field for me. I parsed out that what I most loved doing was working with big scale data and resources, while keeping a population—or people—perspective. A public health education is perfect for this interest level, and I’m really enjoying myself in the public health program at Hopkins so far.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about entering a similar career field to a research coordinator?
A research coordinator takes care of many aspects of the research project but doesn’t necessarily have the power to change big picture ideas about the research and doesn’t get to direct the research in the same way that the PI does. Keep that in mind before committing to a position.
A lot of the time, these positions are stepping-stones to other higher-level positions. This is true for me and many other research coordinators I know. These positions are really useful to develop public health skills and to prove to future bosses that you can contribute significantly to a research project.
Do you have any advice for fellows who are thinking about pursuing an MPH degree?
Make sure the institutions you apply to have faculty with research interests that overlap with yours. As part of the coursework, you’ll work closely with a faculty member, and it’s important to have a project you’re passionate about.
If you have questions for Miles, please contact him at Miles.firstname.lastname@example.org.