Optimizing the Health and Performance of Military Service Members: The ORISE Department of Defense Fellowship Experience

Jan 01, 2020
Vincent conducting a DXA – a means of measuring bone density – on an enlisted Soldier

To ensure the robust supply of scientists and engineers to meet the U.S. Department of Defense’s future science and technology needs, the ORISE Department of Defense Fellowship program places individuals from the academic community (students, recent graduates, and faculty) in DoD research projects. The ORISE Research Participation Programs accept applications from students, recent graduates, and faculty researchers year-round. Research appointments can vary from three months to one year and may be renewed for additional appointment terms. The program provides a salary, training, and travel allowances.

We talked to Vincent Pecorelli, an ORISE Fellow of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, to learn more about the program and get some application tips.  

1. What inspired you to apply for the ORISE Department of Defense Fellowship?

I applied to the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education Department of Defense (ORISE DoD) Fellowship Program because I desired to pursue a research career that positively impacted the public. Initially, I hoped to use my health science degree to apply to a graduate program, at first contemplating physician assistant school, then physical therapy school. Over multiple years, I took time during the school year and summer to shadow various health professionals, trying to identify what I hoped for in a career. Research was something I had a deep interest and respect for, but I had little exposure to it. Upon completing my first year of college, I applied to an endocrinology internship at the UConn Health Center (UCHC) to gain more research experience. I was accepted, and I began working on my first research assignments.

While at UCHC, I conducted genetic chromatography analyses and created Excel spreadsheets documenting the relationship between the reduction in A1C rates among diabetic Medicaid patients and the completion of a state-sponsored diabetes mellitus education course. I was also able to learn about all aspects of medical inpatient care while observing rounds with physicians, physician assistants and pharmacists. I deeply enjoyed my internship and wanted more experience. I reapplied and was accepted to complete my internship during the summer of my sophomore and junior years. These internship appointments allowed me to work on a variety of research topics. I began completing data entry for a mental health study, looking at smoking cessation in women who used reduced nicotine content cigarettes. I also started working on a project for the Internal Medicine Residency Program, looking at provider-to-patient communication effectiveness. I administered communication assessment tool surveys to inpatients of the UCHC John Dempsey Hospital, and I assigned quantitative values to qualitative data in Excel. Upon completing my junior year summer internship, I continued assisting UCHC with the communication study as a volunteer during my senior year until the study was finished.

All of my research experience made me rethink my career opportunities. I realized inpatient care was not the only way to make a positive impact on various public health outcomes, and I started gravitating toward a research career. During my senior year, I had the opportunity to assist my exercise physiology professor on a study looking at how hydration levels and nutritional intake affected senior citizens’ mood states. This study required me to learn new data entry platforms and use questionnaire surveys. 

When I told my professor that I was interested in pursuing a research career, she became my mentor. She was the one who told me about the ORISE Program when I was applying to graduate programs. The ORISE Program enables people in the STEM field to conduct research in a federal laboratory under the supervision and mentorship of a senior researcher. She also spoke highly of one of the ORISE Program’s host facilities, the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), an Army medical laboratory based in Natick, Massachusetts. USARIEM studies how extreme physical, mental and environmental stressors can affect warfighters’ health and performance during training and on the battlefield. The institute’s research findings are used to develop a wide variety of biomedical solutions that optimize warfighters’ health and performance, so they can complete their training and missions and come home safely. USARIEM was looking for a research fellow who had experience in phlebotomy, maximal muscle performance testing, and data entry in addition to having a passion for injury prevention. I had all of the sought-after technical skills, and I was working part-time as a personal trainer for elderly, high-risk clients, focusing on injury prevention. I felt like the fellowship was perfect for me; I applied and was accepted. 

Vincent completing data entry and reviewing a research article

2. What have you enjoyed most about your fellowship so far?

This ORISE fellowship has significantly contributed to my professional development thus far. The principal investigator for the main study I am working on is also my mentor. He has encouraged me to propose abstracts, take continuing education courses, and network with others in the scientific community. USARIEM frequently holds seminars from researchers of various universities. These seminars allow me to learn about a wide variety of research fields that are often relevant to improving military health outcomes. USARIEM also has a bone journal club, where each month a different member will choose and present the findings of a scholarly bone research article.

Soldiers experience physical and mental demands in combat that are unlike those in any civilian occupation. I appreciate that this fellowship has required me to build an understanding of military careers, traditions and culture. This transition was made easy with the help of other fellows, civilians and especially active and retired military personnel, who are often researchers themselves. It has been a privilege to be in an environment where I directly collaborate with military personnel. USARIEM offers a “Greening” day, where ORISE fellows are allowed to learn firsthand what it is like to be a Soldier and participate in common military practices. This year’s Greening day began with a cadence run, featured a class on military hierarchy structure, and ended with a lesson on Soldier marching terminology. 

As an ORISE fellow, I am assisting in an injury prevention research study of Army trainees, which means I am often required to travel to Army basic combat training bases for field data collection. I also have the opportunity to attend national conferences. It has been eye-opening and humbling to see firsthand the conditions and training that Army trainees undergo. Prior to this opportunity, I had never attended a scientific conference or visited a military base. Now, I am developing an abstract to present at a military conference, and I plan to work on drafting other research proposals when the opportunity is available.

Vincent (right) discussing weekly survey findings with another ORISE fellow

3. What tips would you give others applying to the Department of Defense Fellowship? 

I believe everyone’s path to a position like this is different, but there are often similarities. I think it is very important to start gaining experience in one’s field of interest as soon as possible. It shows further dedication for a given cause if you have years of multiple experiences volunteering or contributing to your cause of interest.

Had I not pursued a research internship or worked with my professor during college, then I may not have been as passionate about pursuing a research career. It is very important to keep your options open and to be willing to try new things. I volunteered at a pediatric and family care doctor’s office so that I could learn various technical skills that certified nursing assistants conduct, one of which was venipuncture (phlebotomy). By taking the initiative to volunteer and work on various related health and research assignments, I gained technical skills that I now practice regularly in my fellowship.

It is never a straight path, and most do not have a picture-perfect idea of where they see themselves in four years or after college. What is important is to identify your passion and gain experience. For anyone planning to apply to the ORISE Fellowship Program or others I would say: make sure you have a background of experience relevant to your fellowship of interest, anticipate an interview that may last an entire workday, and understand the implications of your responsibility when considering a fellowship.

Vincent Pecorelli, an ORISE Fellow of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, assists in supporting injury prevention research on trainees in basic combat training. His responsibilities include supporting the conduct of blood drawing and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) and High Resolution peripheral Quantitative Computed Tomography (HRpQCT) scanning, as well as administration of lower extremity power assessments and surveys and data entry. His previous experience in research and work with injury prevention among high-risk personal training clients helped to mold his career interest. Vincent has been involved with research efforts at state-, academic- and now federal-level settings. He has a BA in Health Sciences from the University of Hartford.

Interested in applying? Bookmark the ORISE Department of Defense Fellowship to your ProFellow account.

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved.