Spotlight on Immersion Term: Garrett Beeghly, Ph.D. Student

Garrett Beeghly (center) and friends

Name: Garrett Beeghly (center, above photo)
Hometown: Charlottesville, VA
BME Concentration: Tissue Engineering
BME Lab affiliation: Fischbach Lab
Immersion Term Year: 2019
Immersion Adviser/area of practice: Jason Spector, MD/Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine

Garrett Beeghly in scrubs
Garrett Beeghly, in scrubs at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

Describe your immersion term experience overall, including both research and extracurricular points.
During my clinical immersion term, I worked with Dr. Jason Spector in the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine. I completed a clinical research project in his laboratory and shadowed his team in the clinic and operating room. The goal of my project was to collect mammary adipose tissue from women undergoing elective surgery and compare how their tissues varied as a function of their demographics (e.g. age, race, menopause status, body mass index). Understanding how features of mammary adipose tissue change with these demographics may reveal why certain women are more likely to develop breast cancer than others. In the clinic and operating room, I was able to observe numerous cosmetic and reconstructive procedures. The cosmetic operations primarily consisted of scar revisions, breast reductions, and abdominoplasties. The reconstructive procedures were more varied but primarily centered around transplanting flaps of skin or muscle from one region of the body to another in order to reconstruct tissue defects caused by injury or illness.

What was your favorite/most enlightening experience and why?
My favorite part of the immersion term was getting to know the patients in clinic. I would often see the same patients every week for post-operation follow-ups. This allowed me to see the progression of their recovery over time and also get to know them as people. I found myself forming connections with them and looking forward to their next visits.

What was the hardest/most challenging thing about immersion term and why?
By far the most difficult aspect of the immersion term was seeing Dr. Spector break the initial news to a patient that he or she would need extensive reconstructive surgery. Even with tactful delivery, this process was often overwhelming for the patients. I could see them processing the consequences of his words and considering how theirs lives could change. Fortunately, I got to see several of these patients successfully recover after surgery.

What about the experience was as expected and what was unexpected?
Overall, working in a hospital was a faster paced experience than working in a research laboratory as expected. I was constantly moving around the wings of Weill Cornell Medicine to see different patients and personnel. On the other hand, one of the more unexpected aspects of the immersion term was seeing how many people are involved with coordinating surgical care. This process involved employees at multiple levels from administrators in charge of scheduling the operating rooms to staff keeping notes during surgery, nurses transporting patients around the hospital, technicians sterilizing instruments, engineers inspecting medical equipment, and pathologists examining biopsies mid-operation.

What did you do for fun during your down time?
I ventured through Museum Mile, walked along the High Line, saw Wicked on Broadway, ate at Chelsea Market, picnicked in Central Park, and watched the sunset over the Hudson. I tried to make the most of my time in the city.

How has the immersion term impacted your experience at Cornell?
The immersion term experience changed how I view the potential impact of basic research. It made me reconsider how to direct my scientific questions. I saw firsthand that the simplest ideas often had the greatest impact on patients rather than complex studies published in leading journals. It allowed me to see that I could effect meaningful change by appropriately identifying clinical needs and engineering straightforward solutions to them.

What advice do you have for next year’s immersion term students?
I would advise incoming immersion term students to come prepared to make the most of their time in the city. Set realistic goals for research and reach out to physicians early to arrange for time in the clinic and operating room. The seven weeks will go by quickly!

Favorite memory, quote, lesson learned, bit of advice from the experience that you carry forward into your work/life?
Moving forward, I think I will remember the importance of listening and connecting to a given patient. Ultimately, as scientists, we are often removed from these kinds of interactions. I was reminded of the potential of our research and able to see firsthand those we strive to impact.

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