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Exploring an important research question on behalf of veterans

By Daniel P. Smith

The email arrived in Jennifer Gaucin’s inbox about a year ago and it immediately captured her attention.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center of Innovation for Complex Chronic Healthcare (CINCCH) was offering a full-time summer internship to undergraduate students majoring in a health sciences field. Based at the Hines VA Hospital near Loyola University Chicago’s Health Sciences Campus in west suburban Maywood, the internship promised hands-on research experience in health services, outcomes research, and team-based science.

Gaucin, then a junior majoring in public health at Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health, was intrigued by the opportunity to gain valuable research experience. But something else appealed as well: the chance to work on behalf of the nation’s military veterans.

“I had never thought of working with the VA before, but I know veterans and wanted to do research related to people I know,” says Gaucin, who quickly completed her application.

After hosting three undergraduate students in 2022 – the CINCCH internship program’s debut year – the center hosted five interns in 2023, including Gaucin, the program’s first participant from the Parkinson School. 

Research on Camp Lejeune

Last June, Gaucin began the eight-week internship and met her mentor, Fran Weaver, a research career scientist at CINCCH and also a professor in public health at Parkinson.

The internship calls for students to work with their mentor to either develop their own research project or continue one of their mentor’s existing efforts. Though Weaver’s own research focuses on spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease, she noted Gaucin’s interest in female health and introduced her to water contamination issues at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, including potential linkages between water toxins and female infertility and miscarriages.

“I hadn’t heard of this before, but it definitely caught my eye,” Gaucin says.

Gaucin began an extensive literature review. She scoured more than 150 studies, specifically investigating two toxins – trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) – and their ties to miscarriages and infertility. It was a daunting, exhaustive process for Gaucin: her first research project and one characterized by conflicting analyses. Weaver’s support, however, propelled Gaucin’s inquisitive work.

“She was supportive and helped guide me through every stage – the research, the editing, and, eventually, the abstract,” Gaucin says of Weaver, a prolific and passionate researcher who has spent nearly 40 years at the VA. “I saw how much she’s dedicated herself to research and that motivated me to keep digging and investigating questions where there weren’t clear, evident answers.”

Weaver, meanwhile, enjoyed mentoring an enthusiastic undergraduate eager to learn and draw insights on a complex and layered research question.

“Jennifer was so positive and asked great questions about how to push her project forward,” Weaver says.

To be continued

In addition to the hands-on research, Gaucin’s internship also included learning about different roles at the VA by connecting with clinicians, researchers, and administrators across the agency. She also participated in workshops and training opportunities covering key research topics, such as writing a biosketch for a grant proposal, research methods, and engaging with institutional review boards.

“I found a respectful, collaborative working environment at the VA and so many people committed to supporting veterans, which inspired me to learn more,” Gaucin says.

In fact, Gaucin plans to return to the VA next summer to continue her research project, especially given the arrival of new fertility-related survey data from the Camp Lejeune population. Coupled with any recently released studies, Gaucin hopes the additional data brings clarity to an investigation currently deemed “inconclusive.”

“It’ll be exciting to find new information out there and draw more insights to this research question,” says Gaucin, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in health care administration. “This was such a special experience that opened my eyes to research and the great work the VA does, so it’ll be wonderful to keep it going.”