Reflections of a BRAIN Lab Research Assistant

By: Anna Billowits, BSc

About Anna: 

Anna recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with her Bachelor of Science in Behavioural Neuroscience and a minor in Indigenous Studies. She is a research assistant with the ROAR CANADA study at Red Fish (formerly BCMHA). Her research interests focus on land-based healing and the relationship between substance use and trauma. In her free time, Anna loves road trips, hiking to beautiful places, rock climbing, and playing guitar.

During the Fall 2021 semester, I volunteered as a research assistant at The BRAIN Lab for my research engagement (PSYC 393) course at Simon Fraser University. I was part of the Reducing Overdose and Relapse – Concurrent Attention to Neuropsychiatric Ailments and Drug Addiction (ROAR CANADA) team at Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. This was my first involvement with psychological research and I enjoyed learning about the process and the treatment of substance use and concurrent disorders. I pursued the Research Assistant position at The BRAIN lab because it aligned with my interests in substance use disorder treatment and research with individuals living with substance use disorders. I was especially drawn to the clinical setting of  ROAR CANADA at Red Fish since I wanted to supplement my learning from a previous directed readings course with applied experience. I was lucky to volunteer at a brand-new facility such as Red Fish where current research is implemented to improve treatment programming. This setting allowed me to learn from participants, researchers, psychiatrists, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners. Outside of data collection, I appreciated the opportunity to discuss substance use and treatment approaches with other knowledgeable members of The BRAIN Lab who share similar interests.

I came into the lab with theoretical knowledge of research design, ethics, and statistics. During the onboarding process, I had the opportunity to refresh myself on these concepts. The TCPS 2 ethics training was thorough and the information was engaging when I thought about its application to ROAR CANADA. Good Clinical Practice built on TCPS 2 to explain how clinical research projects are developed and reviewed. GCP had new information that revealed how much goes into research before data collection begins. It was interesting to learn how accountability is maintained throughout the clinical research process. Seeing research design, ethics and statistics applied at Red Fish expanded my understanding. Beyond my role at Red Fish, being a member of The BRAIN Lab gave me the opportunity to learn more about experimental design and the daily life of a researcher.  Other researchers were proposing and running multiple studies and sub-studies simultaneously. At weekly lab meetings, I heard about their progress which gave me insight into the many layers of research. It was interesting to hear about the different levels of review that researchers submit their proposals to and the information requested by regulating organizations. I now have a better idea of the need for flexibility, while keeping sight of your priorities, when planning new research.  

ROAR CANADA is a large, multi-site study funded by Health Canada that investigates the experiences of those who are receiving treatment for severe concurrent disorders. Thus, all of the participants I worked with had been diagnosed with substance use and a mental health disorder. I was primarily responsible for data collection and tracking for ROAR CANADA at Red Fish. My weekly duties included meeting with participants to go through the informed consent process,  administer face-to-face surveys, and record their progress. The documentation portion of the study was a great learning opportunity. I used active memory to ensure I remembered confidential information without writing it down. Working in this way needed me to be present and to always act with intention. Interacting with participants came naturally for me and I  enjoyed building rapport. Initially, I was nervous about going through the surveys alone with participants since the topics are very personal and potentially trigger negative emotions. However, after running through the surveys a few times, I noticed that the participants were not upset by the questions.  The informed consent process, which ensured awareness of the survey topics before agreeing to participate, may have facilitated participant comfort levels. Once I understood our study protocols and got to know the participants, I practiced my problem-solving skills if something came up. I enjoyed investigating why something was not working and coming up with a creative solution. 

Assisting with ROAR CANADA also prompted personal growth. For example, coordinating the shift priorities took time-management skills. I avoided interfering with meals or the treatment programming, so it was important to be on time when a client wanted to participate. It was hard to anticipate how long each person would take to complete a survey, so my next steps were always changing. Having backup plans facilitates working with a team of other research assistants. I grew a healthy sense of unattachment which has extended into my other courses and has reduced my stress. My confidence has also improved. A part of data collection is going into the nursing station and asking if clients are in a good place to do surveys that day. At first, I was intimidated because I knew they were busy and might not want to help me. Once I got used to asserting myself in those situations, I gained confidence. That carried through to talking to participants and asking them to do surveys. I learned that being friendly and confident goes a long way. After some time, the confidence and time-management skills I had gained empowered me to take on more responsibility. Near the end of the term, I helped to train new RAs, which improved my leadership skills. I think that, overall, I approached this experience with more apprehension than necessary. I feel that I have overcome my preconceived ideas of people who use substances. All my interactions with participants were overwhelmingly positive, re-affirming my belief in patient-controlled research and care. The most impactful part of being a research assistant was listening to the participants share their life experiences and their experiences with treatment. Several people have shared that they were willing to participate in surveys to improve treatment for other people in the same situation. Many even said that they would participate without the gift card compensation. These conversations were very meaningful to me.  

It was interesting to do this research engagement while also applying to graduate school and related grants.  Gaining practical research experience has informed my proposals for intended thesis projects and hearing about the processes for applying for large research grants was enlightening. Further, I was fortunate to have conversations with senior lab members who shared their knowledge of programs and careers to guide me. Their advice has helped shape my goals for the Master’s programs I have applied to. Previously, I had not considered research a path that was well suited to me. I am glad I volunteered because it widened my view of what research entails. My goals are to improve substance use disorder treatment to support client-driven outcomes.  What I had previously failed to consider, though, is that the only way to learn how clients want treatment to change is by doing clinical research like that at Red Fish. Although my interests still lie in implementation as opposed to knowledge-gathering, I am open to pursuing a medical degree after my Master’s so that I can integrate both. This experience has confirmed that I would like to pursue a career in holistic substance use disorder treatment. In this sense, I would like to extend what I learned at Red Fish to include Indigenous ways of knowing. In particular, I would like to learn about land-based healing for substance use disorder.