What Is Research Anyway? (Don’t worry, I had no idea either)

By Youssef El Mosalami ‘24

After a grueling online semester full of  multiple spontaneous FaceTime calls, outings in NYC with other Pomona students who lived in the area, and turning off my camera during class to nom down on some lunch (don’t tell my professors), I definitely missed being able to give friends hugs when I saw them or just being in the physical presence of others that I love.

For my summer, I really wanted to be on a college campus, seeing students face to face and completely separating myself from Zoom and the stresses of WiFi troubles and concerns of whether my hair looks too weird on my self-view. So, during my second semester, I applied to as many summer programs as possible. Our Career Development Office (CDO) helped a ton in finding programs to apply to because of how wonky this year was as opportunities for the summer dwindled in the transition phase between pandemic restrictions and widespread vaccinations. After speaking with Chelsea Ahn (Assistant Director, Experiential Learning & Career Advising), I spoke with the Assistant Director of the Quantitative Skills Center and who leads the Pomona Scholars of Science (PSS) program, Dylan Worcester, about any programs that he knew about or professors who might have any information for interesting summer programs. After multiple dead-ends, I found my current program: the Undergraduate Clinical Scholars Program (Pathways to Clinical Research Careers). I absolutely loved the idea of being able to get hands-on research experience where I finally was able to talk and work with patients instead of working in a wet-lab on one bench. And after finishing my application in January, I found out in mid-March that I got the position!

From that point on, I faced a ton of logistical tasks; the scariest part was finding housing BY MYSELF!!! With a LOT of worrying (because it was something I’d never done before), I tried for a few months to find a place. Finally, I   found a cozy studio apartment that had more than enough space for me. I visited the place a month before moving in on May 30th, 2021 and loved the variety of options and stores available in a cute city. Having always been surrounded by people in  my packed buildings in Brooklyn and used to the hustling nature of Manhattan, Philly was definitely a change of pace — in a nice way.

Visualization of coronavirus multiplying with a background of people at a train station concourse.
visualization of virus multiplication, an aspect of epidemiology

Once I moved in, the 9-week program soon started. So far, academically, I’ve been taking Introduction to Epidemiology with our incredible program director Dr. Meena Bewtra teaching us about different studies and the multiple social issues in medicine and biostatistics through STATA software with Dr. Nadim Mahmud. For my research project, I’ve been able to work with Dr. Peter Reese, a transplant nephrologist and epidemiologist. During the summer I have and will continue working in the Biostatistics and Epidemiology Department under the Division of Renal-Electrolyte and Hypertension. The title of the research project is “Prevention of Urinary Stones With Hydration (PUSH)” which will enroll approximately 1,642 participants across 6 research hospitals!!!

For the study, we will remotely monitor fluid intake of participants through a “smart” water bottle to make sure they’re drinking at least 2L of fluid a day. This will test whether increased fluid intake will result in reduced risk of another stone disease progression over a two-year period. My role is to pre-screen patients by analyzing EPIC Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) of PennPatients who are > 12 years of age with >1 symptomatic stone event in the past 3-5 years and decide if they are eligible for our study by looking at multiple components in their chart, such as vitamin C consumption, history of recurrent urinary tract infections,  congestive heart failure and many more.

Later in the summer, I hope to shadow Dr. Peter Reese in Telehealth check-ins for live kidney donors and contact eligible patients to get them onboarded to our study. For example, I will send them a water bottle and help them  to fill out any necessary surveys that’re needed, or to participate in periodic 24-hour urine collections through a litholink (basically where patients pee in a fancy bucket for an entire day to test the chemical components their kidneys are secreting, and we test if there’s a high concentration of dangerous chemicals like calcium oxalate that can cause recurring kidney stones)!

Onto the more social events!

So far in the program we’ve had weekly Friday movie nights; the most memorable one was a late-night horror movie night where we watched The Conjuring. The people who were scared out of their minds from the movie rushed back to their apartments. But we decided to haunt them :))). In the movie, suspense builds as the haunted ghosts knock three times on the door to mock the holy trinity.  I and a few others in the program went up to another  person’s dorm, knocked three  times and hid. They screamed – multiple times – and when they went outside to check what was happening, we jump-scared them. I would say we were pretty successful after one person fell to the ground screaming. Really felt bad for the neighbors though…

group of 9 students smiling for selfie shot outside
After exploring Center City in Philly!

But we’ve also had more wholesome moments, I promise! We’ve supported a friend in the program by walking to the dog park with them so she could hand out her newly printed business cards (literally made on Canva and cut 30 minutes beforehand) to dog-owners at the park. AND good news! She got her first gig dog-walking just two days later1! I’ve already invested in the small business. We watched In the Heights together at the local movie theater, and I definitely didn’t cry a single time (just twice), and we took the Septa public transport to Chinatown in Philly to try some amazing dumplings, scallion pancakes and other amazing chicken dishes, plus we went to our program coordinators’ house to have a pool party with her 6- and 9-year-olds. Some friends also went rock climbing at a local climbing center, and we had many cooking competitions and late-night dorm-room conversations with delicious cookies in the oven. It’s only the third week of my program, and everyone in my cohort has been absolutely incredible. I’ve loved every second with them and can’t wait for so many more weeks to come!!! This summer has honestly been wonderful as I’m going back home to Egypt at the end of July  as soon as the program ends and then straight to Pomona’s campus after that (so nervous and excited!!!!!)

Pro tip: Megabus has tickets from UPenn to NYC for 15 dollars and is actually what I’m using to return home this weekend to see a Pomona student (for the first time!!!) who’s doing research at Columbia and to see my family :D.

Warmly with all the love and kisses!

Youssef El Mosalami