Embrace your non-traditional path is the advice Beth Prusaczyk, Ph.D. would give to graduate students and future researchers. As a first-generation student, she didn’t have a “pipeline background” or any role models in academia so she often felt confused with the process but believes this experience also has its benefits.
Inspiring others with non-traditional paths
“I have learned to embrace my low-income background and my journalism undergraduate degree because it has made me a more valued team member and colleague,” she said. Many scientists and researchers have gone straight through from high school to their doctoral program but “the more people talk about their non-traditional backgrounds, the more it will inspire others to do the same,” she said. “Our unique experiences make us more valuable and it makes our science and our research better when we have different perspectives. So, embrace the non-traditional.”
Her non-traditional background includes a meandering path, in part because she didn't know what her options were since she didn’t know anyone in academia. But she wouldn’t trade how she got to where she is today. “I know that I made it to the place where I wanted to be,” she said.
She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Webster University and worked for a weekly paper in Illinois, outside of St. Louis. She started her research career with Washington University (WU) by interviewing patients who were at dialysis clinics getting treatments. She said, “they needed somebody to go in, walk up to the patient, cold and be like, ‘Hi, I'm Beth, I work at Wash. U. and I'd like to talk to you, would you talk to me?’”
She didn't have a science or research background but she knew how to interview people thanks to her journalism experience. Once she got into the job, she found out she really liked research. “It was fun and interesting, and it just clicked with me.”
As time went on, she felt she needed to earn a master’s degree to advance in research. She used her real-world skills to think about which master’s degree would be “practical and feasible.” She chose a master’s degree in social work from WU because she’s always been interested in health and helping people in the community. When she sees a group of marginalized people, she wants to help them.
During her master’s degree program, she concentrated on mental health and interned at a psychiatric hospital. There she became “upset and disheartened” seeing the patients on the children’s unit receive many visitors but not patients on the older adult’s unit. This shocked her system, she said. “When someone reaches 65 years old, we look at them differently when we shouldn’t and we often forget about them,” she said.
The experience left its mark on her and she went on to earn a doctorate of philosophy in social work from WU where she focused on older adults’ healthcare research.
Dr. Prusaczyk chose to earn a doctorate “partly because I wanted to do my own research and ask my own research questions,” she said. “If you’re a research coordinator, or a research assistant, or a program manager, you're working for someone else. So, they're the ones who get to decide what research is done, and you just carry it out, which is fun and interesting, and I liked doing it, but I wanted to ask my own research questions.”
She said her “weird trajectory” path has been beneficial since not everyone has a bachelor's degree in journalism. “I’m unique, I’ve had different experiences and people want me on their research teams. They need people from different backgrounds and it makes the science better,” she said. “Having seemingly random experiences in education and in life make me a better scientist and researcher.”
This led to her desire to teach other scientists how to talk to non-scientists. She said there are wonderful scientists who cannot communicate their scientific findings to the real world. We are losing out on their knowledge because they just talk to each other and don't know how to communicate their knowledge in layman terms, she said.
“We have such smart, talented scientists and they are not getting their information out to the policymakers or to the hospital executives or to the people who could actually use the information to change the world. Instead they publish the papers that only other scientists read,” Dr. Prusaczyk said.
Applying science to the real world
This is why Dr. Prusaczyk gets excited when research gets used in the community, which is the focus of her primary research field, implementation science. “I'm very interested in those real-world questions like, ‘How do we help doctors better connect with their patients? How does that make the patient's experience better? How does that make their health better? And does that make healthcare better? More affordable? More effective?’ I love those really complex real-world questions.”
Her research position is a compliment to her previous experiences as a journalist and as a social worker in the community. “I don't feel fulfilled unless I know I'm making a real change in people's real lives. I'm not going to cure cancer, somebody in a lab is going to cure cancer. But once they come up with a way to cure cancer, how can we take that cure and make sure it is delivered to everyone who needs it in the community?”
She is currently an instructor at Washington University's School of Medicine, specifically in the Institute for Informatics in the Center for Population Health Informatics (CPHI). Her work specializes in improving healthcare for older adults and other vulnerable populations by understanding how to better turn research findings into real-world practice and policy through the use of healthcare data and systems. At the CPHI, she and others develop and study innovative uses for data and technology to improve communities’ health. “We use all the techie stuff to improve the community's health,” she said.
Dr. Prusaczyk became interested in this work when she saw the amount of healthcare data that exists, such as that from electronic medical records and data from health departments, that is not being used widely and not getting a return on investment. “We’ve collected data and set up these huge IT infrastructures, we create apps - there are a billion trillion apps - but how come we're not using it for really important reasons?”