Adam is the Academic Director of the Health Sciences Scholars Program where he teaches a year-long course on health and health care in addition to directing the program’s academic mission at large. He was previously a Senior Researcher in the UM Division of Pediatric Urology, where he started as a Research Assistant as a freshman in college. Outside of UM, Adam is an independent consultant on issues at the intersection of LGBTQ health and health policy. Adam designed his own undergraduate major--Determinants & Inequities in Health Care--through the Honors Program at U of M, and earned his MPH in Health Behavior and Health Education with a focus in research methodology at the School of Public Health. He was a UROP student with Terri Voepel-Lewis and Alan Tait in Pediatric Anesthesiology. After graduate school, Adam completed a policy fellowship with the Gill Foundation in Washington D.C., where he worked on LGBTQ-related policy before returning to Ann Arbor.
Why did you decide to participate in UROP?
I did UROP my sophomore year as an undergrad, and it was kind of weird cause I was already doing research my freshman year, just not through UROP. One of the folks I was working with in urology had a colleague in anesthesiology she said was doing really interesting research and I should try to get a position with them. She only took students through UROP, so I found her project and applied and ended up getting to work on her project. I continued to work with urology and anesthesiology for my sophomore year while I was doing UROP and then after my year in UROP I just stayed with urology. It was kind of cool cause we were able to do a collaborative project between the two departments after I was done working in UROP. So I still got to work with my UROP research mentor as well as the folks I was working with in urology. Basically it was just to get in that specific position and kind of also take advantage of the infrastructure UROP had already built cause as everyone knows, this place is so huge it could be hard to find opportunities… the ability to streamline and sort of do a project was really nice.
Do you still keep in contact with your mentors?
Yeah! I do! She’s stayed a friend of mine over the years. Now she sort of comes in and guest lectures in my class that I teach and I guest lecture in her class that she teaches, so it’s really fun - we had a great working relationship.
What do you think you learned from your UROP experience?
I learned a lot about the behind the scenes work that goes into a lot of clinical research - when you’re just reading papers that people have published you don’t think about all these relatively small things that are kind of the backbone of these research projects and wouldn’t allow it to happen otherwise.
We were doing a project on risk communication and health education for patients who are undergoing cardiac catheterization… as someone who then eventually went on to grad school for health behavior and health education, that really opened my mind to this whole other field I didn’t know existed within healthcare.
Terri was a real great mentor, and taught me a lot about the technical aspect of doing research, but also about the generation of ideas… what’s a good idea? and what’s a feasible idea? And how are those sometimes aligned? And how are they sometimes not necessarily aligned? I learned a lot about project management… Terri was like always balancing so many things and consulting with other faculty in the department to help design their stuff. I learned a lot directly and indirectly from her just about how to juggle all of those moving parts when it comes to managing a bunch of different projects, which I then ended up doing as I progressed through my career in urology.
Who did you work with?
I worked with Terri Voepel-Lewis and she ended up getting mentor of the year award during my year; I nominated her and she won. So that was a pretty fun experience!
How did the experience shape or inform the next steps you took in your academic and professional journey?
It was really informative, I think academically and in her life in general, Terri has a really strong social justice bend and she made me really think about a lot of those things in research and elsewhere and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to major in at the time and I had a lot of conversations with Terri about that sort of thing. She also ended up connecting me with one of her colleagues who ended up being one of my thesis advisors and helped me design my own major. A lot of that blossomed through conversations that were related to nothing at all with the research we were doing - it was more so having Terri as a mentor and getting her perspective of the world. In terms of research I learned a ton from her. She was doing a lot of different research than I had been exposed to in urology so I was able to bring back a lot of what I learned once I was done in anesthesiology and just working in urology and use some of those methods to do my research. Terri was an informal or formal consultant on a lot of projects I designed as I moved through my career in urology - So like I said she’s continued to be a great mentor until this day. Yeah, so I would say it really ignited a lot of fire underneath me to keep going with research and now I am doing research with a different lense in terms of education, public health and policy stuff.
What type of impact did UROP have on you and what advice would you give your younger self?
Going off of what I just said, it (UROP and research) really pushed me to think more and think better about the research I wanted to do and eventually the research that I did. Just kind of having Terri’s perspective that taught me all these things was really helpful. It also taught me to really value undergrads who work on projects because now that I’ve been the PI of projects; I remember doing the data entry and the administrative stuff that no one really wants to do but undergrads are eager to do cause that’s their way to get into research. It really has taught me to value them (undergrads) and to also see my role as more than just a supervisor but as a mentor. People have mixed experiences with their mentors in and out of UROP and I am so happy that mine with Terri was so productive and just amazing that I really try to form those sorts of relationships with my mentees both inside and outside of UROP now. That’s been probably the most impactful thing thinking about where I am in my career now.
Advice that I will tell my younger self?
(pauses to think) probably that it’s okay to screw up and make mistakes and that it happens all the time… Because back then I thought that any sort of tiny glitch would ruin a research project (laughs) but what I learned through my own mistakes is 99% of the time they can be fixed and the 1% of the time that they can’t they probably didn’t have that big of an affect on the project anyway. I think that would be the biggest advice because I was always very anxious about entering data wrong or saying something wrong when I was interacting with a patient.
Was there anything that Terri told you that you tried to incorporate into your own mentorship when you added students onto a project?
One of the big things is, everyone who has worked with Terri as a student or as a colleague knows that Terri works her students very hard, it is not a position where you are going to sit and have time to do your homework and do your readings for classes, like some other jobs kind of let you, but at the same time at no point during all of that work did I ever feel like I wasn’t valued or that I wasn’t contributing to the main mission of the research. And I think that was because Terri was very good at showing the connections between what we were doing and the bigger picture of the research and that’s what I really try to do with students now. Even outside of research when they’re working on a project for our program or for my class or something. I try to really connect them to the big picture of how this matters to more than just this very isolated issue you’re studying in a project. I think that was really important and I think another thing that she really really focused on is building empathy in students for those who want to go into healthcare. She would always say “let the patients talk to you if they want to talk to you, even if they’re about things that’s unrelated to the study.” She would say “don’t feel like you always have to be in a hurry to get back to the office” and I really took that to heart. I remember three patients still to this day that I had really meaningful encounters with. I really try to encourage my students to pursue things that excites them. If something is going on that excites you or invigorates you go down that rabbit hole and chase it for a bit… I don’t care if you spend an hour looking at something that doesn’t lead to anything productive - it’s productive that you are running with your curiosities. Terri showed me that through the way she interacted with patients and also in the way she would let people explore an idea. I think that that is very cool.
What led you to become a UROP faculty research mentor?
I would say it was 100% because of the great mentorship I had both through UROP and through just my job in urology. I started taking students in urology, in pediatric urology we had never really taken UROP students before and for us it was just really exciting to get more undergrads involved in our research. For me, it’s really fun and I love working with UROP students because they’re usually freshman and sophomores and they haven’t yet become super jaded (laughs) so they’re still super curious and they ask all of these super interesting questions that only a wandering mind would ask. A lot times they ask questions that really make you think deeply about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it that way. Because they don’t understand what you’re doing and when things don’t make sense to them they ask and then you’re like “wait, why am I doing it this way?” and you kind of have to think through it. That’s why I love working with undergrads they really keep you on your toes and they’re really excited to be doing the work. I think that’s really one of the beautiful things about U of M, we have such an emphasis on getting undergrads involved in research - so they come in here with that hunger for it. It’s not one of those things where you have to try and pick students off campus and they don’t really want to do it - these are students who are really committed to doing research and they really want that to be part of their undergrad experience. The best part of my job is not publishing papers and presenting at conferences, it’s the interactions I get to have with my research assistants.
Now that you are a UROP mentor what advice do you have for current UROP students?
Really take advantage of the opportunity you have to work so closely with a faculty member. Because as a lot of students who come to talk to me about help with finding a research project know, it’s not just a given that you can be paired up with a faculty member and get paid or get credit to do research. It really is a special experience that UROP facilitates for students. I hope students really take advantage of the opportunity, because like I said, Terri was a mentor, then she became a friend and a colleague and she’s still a mentor and that all came from just that year of being her student. I think another thing is that it’s okay not to love research after going through UROP… you know, so many people come here, especially pre-health students and they think that they have to be doing research for 3 or 4 out of their 4 years that they’re here… that’s one of the great things about UROP, it provides the exposure that students need to let them figure it out. It lets them figure out would they rather be working with data or people? And I think that’s really important. On the flipside of saying that it’s okay not to like research… always remember that what you’re doing in your UROP project is just a tiny sliver of all the research that’s being done out there and just because you don’t like “that” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you wouldn’t like doing clinical research or community based research or stuff like that. I think that if you’re still intrigued by sort of the curiosity or the question and answering aspect of research, go through UROP and do your project and then try something new and work with someone else.