Research Spotlight: Q&A With Emily Olsson, CCRP & Julie Gras-Najjar, CCRP

FMC's Emily Olsson and Julie Gras-Najjar work with UNC's Hypertension Research Program and help coordinate research studies across the department. Emily and Julie love working with patients, and they especially enjoy collecting data and learning from each study.

Q: How did you get into research?

               Emily:  Completely by accident.  I had always volunteered in healthcare settings growing up, but when I graduated from UNC in 2006, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  After a brief stint at an art gallery in Raleigh, I knew I wanted to return to Chapel Hill and applied to any interesting opening at UNC.  I was incredibly lucky to start my career in research as an administrative assistant in the Clinical and Translational Research Center at the hospital.  I found myself in an inspiring environment where everyone was there to help. There were researchers passionate about pursuing new innovations, sick participants committed to helping find breakthroughs, and healthy participants volunteering their time to contribute to scientific knowledge – everyone was working together and toward a purpose. I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to be a part of that.  I am now a Certified Clinical Research Professional and have been running studies and seeing participants here at UNC Family Medicine for the past 6 years.

 I found myself in an inspiring environment where everyone was there to help.

Q: What would you like people to know about researchers like you?

Julie: We love what we do! We’re equal parts nerdy and people-person.  We love working with patients, and we also get really excited about the impactful data and knowledge that we learn from our studies! This is our career and we are committed to the safety and protection of the patients who volunteer to help us gain new knowledge. Participating in research is always your choice. We know that no matter what the study, you are volunteering your time, and we are so  grateful that people like you help us find new solutions and improve healthcare for everyone

Q: What has been your favorite study to work on?

               Emily:  It’ so hard to pick! They’re all so wonderful and fun in their own way. The first large study I worked on will always bring fond memories for me; we were studying something called Masked Hypertension, which is basically when a person’s blood pressure looks normal in the doctor’s office but is actually high during their daily life.  I worked with 420 participants over 2 years and took more blood pressure readings than I ever thought I would!  This study provided a lot of great knowledge and information that helps doctors to identify patients who might have Masked Hypertension. One of the most interesting studies I worked on involved a new kind of contact lens that can measure the blood pressure in your eye; that information is very important for people with glaucoma and allows doctors to see if medications are doing their job.  We called that one the “cEYEborg” study since participants wore a futuristic looking lens in one eye. You can’t ever say researchers don’t also have a sense of humor! Each study is just so different – some just involve a few questionnaires, some will just take your blood pressure a bunch of times, some involve new devices to help both healthy and sick people, some involve finding better ways to use medicines that doctors already prescribe, and some try to find new medicines.  There really is something out there for everyone to participate in!

Every existing medication, treatment, and even the procedure the nurse uses to take your blood pressure can be tied back to research studies and clinical trials.  It’s so exciting to be a part of improving the lives of patients on such a large scale!

Q: What do you love most about your job?           

Julie: The best part of my job is working alongside the patients that volunteer for our studies; they are the heart of the research and we could not continue to learn and innovate without them. I love getting to know each new group of participants and to guide them through a study and know that we’re part of something bigger.  Every existing medication, treatment, and even the procedure the nurse uses to take your blood pressure can be tied back to research studies and clinical trials.  It’s so exciting to be a part of improving the lives of patients on such a large scale!

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