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When It Comes to Being a Research Coordinator, Think Superman--Not Frankenstein


I am a research coordinator for Texon Technologies in Vancouver, a medical diagnostic device company that is conducting clinical testing on two noninvasive products. One is a tracheocardiogram (TrCG), which is a front-line screening device designed to evaluate the health of the heart by measuring the dynamic pumping forces.

We are testing the TrCG's ability to do three things: determine whether chest pain is related to the heart, test for blockages in the heart (ischemia), and predict risk of heart failure before a heart attack occurs. The second device is the UBA. It uses ultrasound to evaluate the quality of bone by measuring the bone mineral density separately and concurrently from the structure of the bone, so that people can monitor small changes and measure the effectiveness of drug therapy.

Health technology is an amazing, dynamic field to work in. The increasingly long wait for beds in emergency rooms is causing the aging baby boom population to start to really push health issues, such as heart disease and osteoporosis, to the forefront of public awareness.

When Texon offered me the opportunity to be in charge of their clinical testing, I immediately conjured up the stereotypical images of Frankenstein's lab: large, complicated equipment, mysterious liquids bubbling in a corner, etc. Well, I am delighted to say that this kind of work has turned out to be more exciting, dramatic, interesting, and rewarding than I ever envisioned. The experience has been much more akin to an episode out of a Superman comic than old Frankie's lab.

Let me extend the analogy, and you will see what I mean.

People's Lives Are at Stake

I test heart patients, and the hardest thing I have to do is answer one question: "So, ahh [nervous laugh], how am I doing?" Waiting for the response is the worst because you dread it. You look at the equipment for what feels like a minute as you contemplate the very poor results you see on the screen--the results that tell you this person could die soon. These people are scared, yet they try to put on a brave front so they don't worry their family and friends. They look up at you after you have done the test, kind of laughing and yet at the same time terrified. I respond, all at once relieved yet guilty and safe inside the rehearsed reply: "I am sorry, I am not a doctor. Until the government has given us its approval, I am not allowed to give you a diagnosis."

They search your face, and sometimes they can tell what you are thinking. You hold your face steady and look them in the eye, hoping they can't read you. You wonder what your face looks like and hope it isn't betraying you.

This Is Not a 9-to-5 Gig

Like a superhero, you can be called in at any time. If a person is having a heart attack or myocardial infarction, you have a very limited window of opportunity to get down to the hospital and collect the necessary data before the patient is taken into the operating room. If you are too slow, you could arrive too late and miss out.

Medical diagnostic companies have a very high burn rate, so time is definitely money. The longer it takes to get the data, the more time it takes to get Food and Drug Administration approval. Your prime directive is to get data as fast as possible, which means you are on call all the time. It isn't that bad. I use the time to exercise, study, and have coffee with friends.

Never a Dull Moment

A want ad for this job should read, "Only those who relish a changing environment need apply." The type of work fluctuates constantly. I interact with people as well as machines. I am involved in outlining the protocols and planning the testing. I teach others how to use the equipment and effectively communicate what our technology is about as well as conduct demonstrations at trade shows.

You Have Superhuman Powers

A new device gives you the ability to see the human body in a way that no one else has done before. Every time you start with a new product, there is a huge learning curve until you get up to speed with all of the technical papers. What you discover is fascinating.

You Are an Instant Celebrity

There is a lot of prestige and mystery surrounding cutting-edge devices. Your friends and family will be impressed with what you have learned, and it makes you an instant hit at cocktail parties. The doctors you work with are sometimes a little standoffish; however, their curiosity usually overcomes the distance.

I am very fortunate that I have a fabulous product. It would be a lot more embarrassing if I were testing a new type of bedpan.

Moonlighting Is a Requirement

Clark Kent, eat your heart out. If you want to break into a career in product development or sales, I would definitely advise becoming a research coordinator first.

Product management is a key responsibility. Because I field-test the equipment every day, am responsible for training people to use it, and have the most contact with the target customer, I have a great deal of influence on how the final product will turn out in terms of human factors engineering. A large portion of my time is devoted to exploring, documenting, and resolving usability issues. It is kind of like being the person who test-drives Ferrari automobiles and gets to pick out what options will be available.

If you are looking to get into medical sales, then clinical testing is for you. You get to look at the product from the user's perspective, which makes it easy to explain the technology and convey the benefits in a way that will be understood by both laypersons and highly technical people. You also come in touch with the crème de la crème of the health science industry. Get to know as many people as possible and keep track of everyone you meet, as the contacts you make during your travels will be invaluable to any budding sales career.

You Fly All Over the World

If you like to travel, this is the job for you. There are doctors and medical experts all over the world. Depending on the product you are testing and the location and dispersion of the market for it, you could be doing testing anywhere. I travel quite a bit. This year I am going to Scotland, Lisbon, New York, and all over North America.

It Is Perfectly Acceptable to Change in Phone Booths

Not to mention hospital administrative offices--which, if you have ever been in one, you know are about the same size. You run out the door, rush to the hospital, throw on your lab coat (so you don't get accosted by hospital security), and rush into the emergency room.

So you see, clinical research gets a lot of bad press (as did Superman), but I wouldn't trade jobs for the world. It is the best career I have ever had and would highly recommend it to anyone.