When COVID-19 caused a shutdown of lab facilities last year, medical student Andrew Collins was forced to change the research project he was completing for the Focused Inquiry & Research Experience (FIRE) module – a required two-year research project for M.D. candidates at the College of Medicine.
His revised project on masks to protect front-line healtcare workers from infection was recently honored as the winning clinical research project at the recent national American College of Physicians’ Internal Medicine meeting.
The annual event is regarded as the premier scientific meeting in internal medicine. The conference, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, featured Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert as a plenary speaker.
Collins’ initial FIRE project was to test the efficacy of periodic glove changes in reducing bacterial contamination during shoulder surgery. However, with COVID-19’s lockdown and physical distancing restrictions, he couldn’t conduct the lab work required. So he pivoted to look at the effectiveness of N95 respirators versus surgical masks in reducing viral respiratory illness among healthcare workers in hospitals.
“The idea for this research came about as we wanted to ensure that frontline healtcare workers were adequately prepared to treat patients with COVID-19,” says Collins, a rising third year medical student. “We noticed a lack of consistency in personal protective equipment [PPE] protocol amongst the CDC guidelines and hospital systems that they work at. This prompted the idea to develop an evidence-based protocol for respiratory viral disease protection.”
Guided by research mentor Benjamin Service, an orthopedic surgeon at Orlando Health, Collins conducted a meta-analysis of previous data showing the infection rates of viral respiratory infections in healthcare workers, looking specifically at whether they were using N95 respirators or a surgical mask during the time they were infected.
“What we found was that there was statistically significant evidence showing that N95 respirators do have a protective benefit against viral respiratory illnesses over surgical masks,” Collins says. “This is something that has not been shown before in the literature, and we’re hoping that once we get the word published, it will help create guidelines for arming our frontline healthcare workers ensure they are protected.”
The FIRE module is one of the most detailed and extensive parts of the curriculum for first- and second-year medical students at UCF. It is designed to instill a spirit of inquiry in students by requiring them to do scientific research on a medical topic about which they are passionate. The UCF College of Medicine is one of a few medical schools in the country that requires its students to do medical research.
“I find that research is very rewarding and is an important aspect of an academic medical career,” says Collins, whose project also received honors at the 2021 FIRE Conference. “I hope to take the experience I have gained from UCF’s FIRE and continue exploring research in other medical fields.”