This past summer, I was fortunate to participate in research with Dr. Erik Jensen and Dr. Sara DeMauro at the Neonatal/Infant Intensive Care Unit (N/IICU) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). The project I helped with is called “Efficacy of Zinc Supplementation for Improving Growth in Preterm Infants: an Observational Study.” Many of the infants being cared for at the N/IICU are preterm and are at higher risk for growth failure. Several studies have demonstrated that zinc supplementation could be an effective means for significantly improving growth rates in infants and children, especially in developing countries where population zinc deficiency is common. Though the United States population is not zinc deficient, preterm infants, because they are delivered early, may not have substantial zinc storages, as zinc accumulates in the last weeks of pregnancy. Zinc supplementation could theoretically improve their growth. At CHOP, almost 100 infants in the past 4 years were given zinc supplementation. The overall goal of this project was to see whether zinc supplementation significantly improved the growth of preterm infants being treated at the CHOP N/IICU.
In order to answer this research question, I looked at data from the already existing hospital records of patients who received extra zinc. 62 infants met the entrance criteria; infants must be <37 weeks gestational age, initiated on enteral zinc gluconate >7 days after admission, and treated for 30 days. We recorded all available measurements of length, head circumference, and weight for one month before and after the initiation date of zinc supplementation. All statistical models were adjusted for factors such as gestational age, birthweight, and sex. The statistical analyses found a significant increase in length, from an average of 0.089 cm/day before to 0.116 cm/day after initiation (P<0.001). In the fall, more data collection and statistical tests will be done to fully complete the analysis.
Because I was involved with this project from its very start, I learned about the entire research process. In the first couple of weeks, Dr. Jensen helped me in learning how to write an Institutional Review Board proposal so that the project, which concerns human subjects, can receive ethical approval. During this time, I also spent much time simply reading tons of articles about zinc and its effects on human growth rates. After gaining this background, I presented a plan for the trajectory of the project to a group of doctors and researchers at the N/IICU. They gave me suggestions on how I can best collect data so that the project runs smoothly. With their advice and the help of amazing N/IICU data analysts, I was able to help collect much of the data which, in the last week, went into statistical analysis.
Though the project itself sounds quite simple, multiple perspectives are often needed to overcome both inevitable and unforeseen obstacles. I learned that research necessitates the collaboration of many minds, and I was honored to receive the help of so many research and clinical specialists.