Training days

February 8, 2016 – The DCRI’s Abby Johnston is preparing for both the 2016 Summer Olympics and a career in medicine.

Medical school is a challenging time for any student. But few of them have to balance the demands of their education with an Olympic training regimen.

Abby Johnston, a participant in the DCRI’s Medical Student Research Training Program, is preparing for a career in medicine even as she readies herself for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Johnston, who won a silver medal in the synchronized 3-meter diving event at the 2012 London Olympics, is spending her first research year of medical school at the DCRI.
There, she is working with Adrian Hernandez, MD, MHS, and Schuyler Jones, MD, on the ADAPTABLE trial, the first demonstration project to be conducted through PCORnet, the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network.

abby-johnston-news“Abby and I started working together in last summer,” Jones said. “She has been working on a variety of projects that include an observational study, a qualitative review article, and a randomized controlled trial. And she’s been doing this while completing a rigorous training program.”

“I didn’t have any experience with clinical research before I joined the program, but I was intrigued by the idea, because you get to work directly with patients and see the results of the studies you’re working on,” Johnston said.

Johnston’s inexperience was short-lived. Soon after arriving at the DCRI, she began working on ADAPTABLE, which is designed to assess whether low- or higher-dose aspirin is better for the prevention of heart attack and stroke in patients with coronary artery disease. The study’s investigators plan to enroll 20,000 patients who are at high risk for ischemic events.

“ADAPTABLE is a project that has the potential to make a huge impact on the patient population,” Johnston said. “It’s exciting to be a part of this kind of project.”

With her new responsibilities, Johnston has had to make some adjustments to accommodate her preparations for Rio. Most medical students spend their second year doing clinical rotations in a hospital, followed by a year of research. Johnston realized that a clinical rotation would make training impossible, so she petitioned the medical school to switch her second and third years.

“Doing my research year earlier gives me a bit more a regular schedule than I would have doing a rotation in the hospital,” she said. “I couldn’t really do my training without having that flexibility.”

Johnston’s daily schedule is grueling even by the standards of a medical student. Her day begins with diving practice from 6:30 to 8 a.m., followed by about a few hours of research before she puts in another hour and half of practice. The rest of the day is devoted to research. Attending competitions across the country also means lots of travelling.

Both diving and medicine have been interests of Johnston’s since she was a child. She began her diving career in earnest when she was 13 years old, ultimately winning two state championships in her native Ohio. She began training for the Olympics in her teens, joining the Duke diving team when she arrived as an undergraduate in 2008. Johnston won her first national championship in 2011, earning the title in the three-meter springboard event.

Meanwhile, she continued to work toward her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Johnston took pre-med courses at Duke and entered the medical school after graduating in 2013. By that point, she already had one Olympic medal, but wasn’t ready to bring her diving career to an end just yet.

Having completed most of her work on the ADAPTABLE project, Johnston is now focused on her capstone project, a study of quality of life issues for patients with peripheral artery disease. Although Johnston is not sure if she will ultimately pursue a career in clinical research, she has already found her time at the DCRI a valuable experience.

“Before 2012, diving was my most important priority,” she said. “But now, medicine is the most important thing in my life.

“I’m not yet sure what I’m doing with my career. For now, I’m enjoying my time at the DCRI and enjoying the opportunity to pursue all of my interests.”