When Amy Hilla ’21 applied for a research assistantship with Ignite director Dr. Carrie Dolan, she had no idea she would eventually be the lead author on a resulting publication. Conducting a literature review for Dolan’s project—which traced economic impacts of the World Pediatric Project’s surgical interventions in St. Vincent and the Grenadines—led Hilla to identify a gap in methods.
“We couldn’t find any really helpful go-to guides for the methodology of our own project,” Hilla said. “Obviously, when you’re doing a paper in a field that has plenty of prior literature, you want to be able to base your own research choices on what prior researchers have done, but there wasn’t an easy summary of that.”
Dolan suggested that Hilla and her fellow research assistant, Victoria Reese ’20, add to the field of knowledge by developing a paper of their own that analyzed the strengths and limitations of existing methods. Hilla would be the lead author.
“From her work, we developed the quantitative measure that we then used in the formal economic evaluation,” Dolan said. “A lot went into how she synthesized the work. The critical evaluation of existing methods is what moved her research beyond being a general narrative expected of an undergraduate to actually be a contribution to the scientific literature.”
Hilla was completing a study abroad program in Thailand when the pandemic abruptly sent her home. Though she and Dolan were both adapting to new circumstances, their commitment to the project never wavered.
“I remember making a conscious choice that Amy’s paper wasn’t going to die due to the pandemic,” Dolan said. “As a faculty member, I had to develop a new set of tools that were transferable to an emerging researcher and do this over Zoom. In addition, we were working with collaborators in Ghana and a recent W&M graduate who were all pivoting to new methods of research collaboration. Typically, I meet with my undergraduates one-on-one to discuss next steps with research, and that was no longer an option.”
Dolan (left) and Hilla meet for a Zoom call, as they did throughout the pandemic to make sure their work stayed on track to publication. Dolan said she adapted her usual model of working with students—hosting one-on-one meetings—to a virtual environment.
In addition to the uncertainty of the pandemic, Hilla struggled to be sure that she was proceeding the correct way, especially once her article began receiving edits.
“I obviously have never gone through the publication process,” she said. “I did not know what an R&R—where they send you the peer reviewer’s comments and you have to respond to them one by one and say what you’ve done differently—even was … I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Dr. Dolan telling me how to proceed.”
Dolan’s continued guidance helped Hilla to feel more comfortable as time went on.
“The publication process is not something you take a class on,” Hilla said. “Even though I was swamped and didn’t know what was expected of me, Dr. Dolan… was really helpful in getting through that process.”
The project not only resulted in new knowledge and refined research skills, but also earned publication in BMJ Open, an esteemed medical journal. Dolan said she feels proud of Hilla for making the research assistant position her own, with the inquiry and committed spirit that so often drives projects at GRI.
“Amy has done meaningful research that then was incorporated into something important,” Dolan said. “She’s been able to learn a lot of new skills. When she first gave me the draft, it was like a book report, and she then turned it into this scientific publication that was accepted into a really great journal.”
Although the publication date was months ago, Hilla said this project has continued to influence her—especially when she spoke of being a lead author during job interviews.
“Even more than having classes and things like that, it’s really about concrete examples you can give of work that you’ve done and value you’ve provided to someone you were working for,” Hilla said. “Just like any entry-level position, that’s what you’d be doing: trying to provide services to your clients and provide services to your team, and so I think it’s definitely been really helpful to have really specific things on my resume.”