How Undergraduate Research Became More Than a Resumé Enhancement

Olivia Means

The 2012 Summer Research Institute at the Florida Mental Health Research Institute (SRI@FMHI) was my introduction to the research process. The most exciting thing about this experience was the opportunity to develop my own research study. I really had to spend time thinking about what I was interested in researching. I thought about my past experiences and I realized I was interested in how people access health care services and how certain barriers prevent people from gaining adequate care.

What I enjoyed most about my project, Barriers to Seeking Help for Mental Health Issues in Women Ages 22 – 64, was the opportunity to speak with women about their mental health issues, hiding symptoms and difficulties accessing care. I remember spending a lot of time at the homeless facility where I recruited one group of participants. Many of the women were uncomfortable sharing their mental health diagnosis or needed help filling out the questionnaire, so I talked with them and waited patiently until they were ready to share. After completing the questionnaire, one woman thanked me. I thought she was referring to the compensation, but then she said, "It’s just nice to know that someone is asking these questions." Another woman from my University sample group commented that she learned so much about herself by participating in my study. I was so pleased to hear comments like these.

I worked hard in compiling the questionnaire, and even though there were things that I wish I had included or excluded, it was nice knowing that it was still effective in its current form. Probably one of the most memorable comments I received was about the compensation. I gave the woman $5 and thanked her for participating and she remarked, "Thank you, now I can eat today." I think her comment took me by surprise because in hearing it out loud it was so honest and so sad. It was not her words that were so shocking, but after spending so much time helping her understand the questions and writing her responses, she showed me why research is so important and why I hope to continue with it throughout my education. Initially, I saw research as something that would look good on my applications and resumé, but in that moment I realized that the true purpose of research is to contribute to better understanding of people, places, diseases–anything with the objective of helping people. I realized that even though this project was outside my major and different from anything I had studied, it was right in line with my career goals of becoming a physician, working in rural and under-served communities. I want to become a physician because I have a passion for helping people, but now I am excited to get involved in more clinical research so I can be of even more service to others.

My advice for getting involved in research would be to explore different options and find something that really sparks your interest. When I first pursued different research positions, they were all within the lab setting and so I had a very narrow view of research and where it can be done. I am fortunate to have found the SRI@FMHI program because I learned so much, had a wonderful mentor, and realized a new passion for research. Most importantly, because I found a research program that allowed me to develop my interests, what I lacked in experience or knowledge I made up for with my desire to learn and motivate myself. I was interested in my project; so conducting the literature review, creating a study protocol, working with the IRB, and writing my final were all exciting. As a result of this project, I continued my study of mental health by participating in an undergraduate research project about children’s mental health advocacy. I hope my experiences in research have provided an example of how to conduct research outside your major and find more opportunities that push you towards your goal.