August 20, 2012

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By Andy Hirsch

DANVILLE, Pa. — Instead of heading home after Bucknell University classes ended in May, and spending the past few months basking in the summer sun, Whitney Tatum was busy studying Clostridium difficile, a health care-associated infection that, if left untreated, can be deadly.

"People are typically infected after going to the hospital for some other problem," explained Tatum, a biomedical engineering major heading into her sophomore year. "Once someone is infected, they stay in the hospital about twice as long, they're charged about twice as much for their medical care and their mortality rate increases by a factor of four."

With support from the Bucknell Public Interest Program, Tatum spent her summer poring over Pennsylvania hospital records, researching answers that could help combat the spread of the infection.

"I'm looking for who is at the highest risk, and also what people who get infected are coming to the hospital for in the first place," Tatum said. "If we can answer those questions, we might be closer to finding a solution to help prevent this infection."

Tatum recently presented her research at the second annual Susquehanna Undergraduate Research Symposium. She was joined by nearly 60 other students from Bucknell and Bloomsburg universities, and student research interns from Geisinger Medical Center. The symposium, held at Geisinger's Henry Hood Center for Health Research, gives students the opportunity to showcase their skills, learn about other research methods and present their findings in a professional atmosphere.

"This is an excellent opportunity for undergraduates to experience going through the research process," said Amy Wolaver, an associate professor of economics and the co-director of the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy, which provided stipends to several of the undergraduate researchers. "They have to deal with uncertainty, they have to deal with constraints, they may not get it right and, while that can be frustrating, that's okay. They're learning how to become researchers."

The importance of educating the next generation of researchers was highlighted by Geisinger's Chief Scientific Officer, David Ledbetter, when he addressed the students before the presentations began.

"I hear physicians say, 'I don't know why I should do research, or even partner with research,'" Ledbetter told the group. "That's okay if you're a physician and every day you can diagnose and cure every patient in one visit. If that's true, then you don't need research. If that's not true, then your attitude should be, 'We can do better.'"

The presentations reached far beyond the field of health care, ranging from senior international relations major Mahilet Oluma's work on the perpetual poverty in some African economies to sophomore Helena Craig's research on how the news media is influencing the debate over charter school reform.

"Having a wide range of projects here is a learning experience in itself," said Kasey Segiel, a junior majoring in interdisciplinary studies of economics and math. Her research project focused on what she calls a dramatic increase in obesiety-related surgeries in Pennsylvania. Along with Tatum, Segiel worked as an unpaid intern for the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, or PHC4. "You get ideas from other people and their projects, and sometimes your ideas are able to help someone else's research. It's exciting."

But for many of the budding researchers at the symposium, the goal isn't just to learn how to do research, it's to conduct research that will make a difference in people's lives.

"It's nice knowing your work could actually help people in the future," Tatum said. "When you know your findings are going to have a real-world impact, that's a satisfying feeling."

Contact: Division of Communications


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