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Research from a Plumber's Perspective

SoAP Box: 
Clinical Pearls

Summer 2022

Scott Walters, PhD
Department of Health Behavior and Health Systems
University of North Texas School of Public Health

When I was a kid, if we had a leaky faucet, we would call my grandfather, a plumber. He would pull everything apart, choose a few favored tools, and fix the problem. It felt like magic; every problem had a solution. Fast forward 40 years, and I’m surprised how closely my approach to research follows my grandfather’s approach to plumbing. 

First, it’s important to have the right tools in your toolbox. I think it’s okay to use some of them a lot if they have good application for your work. Some of my grandfather’s tools were very worn, and he seemed to have no interest in replacing them. I saw him use the same set of locking plyers to hold some things tight and pry other things loose. I’ve likewise used some intervention approaches repeatedly to develop solutions for wildly different outcomes and settings.

Second, it’s best to approach the problem as if the solution already exists, and it’s your job to find it. Maybe the solution needs to be briefer, delivered remotely or by a different kind of provider, compared to what’s already been done, but it’s probably not impossible. In fact, parts of the problem have likely been solved elsewhere, so the more you know about the research in your area, the quicker the solution will appear. If you understand how a functioning sink works, that can help you fix a broken one. Furthermore, your solution to one problem may have application for your next problem. Believe it or not, a sink and a toilet share many of the same features. The intervention we designed to increase rates of colon cancer screening used similar strategies as our intervention to help people who use drugs get into treatment. It turns out that fear of getting cancer has some overlap with fear of losing a job or failing probation. Motivational interviewing, social cognitive theory, and the extended parallel process model were great tools for both problems. We even used similar visuals for these projects, which were reminiscent of work we did years ago with heavy-drinking college students.

And finally, pick research that matters to you. Why spend time writing a manual on fixing a kitchen sink, when you can actually fix a kitchen sink? Focusing on esoteric questions can lead to a successful academic career, but I think you might regret it later. As I’ve moved into the messier “pipes-under-the-house” work of implementation science, I’ve discovered that playing even a bit of a part in community-engaged research can be very rewarding. In the HEALing Communities Study, for instance, it gives me great joy to hear about lives saved because of our efforts. Actual lives. While it’s true that research funding and peer-reviewed publications are necessary to establish yourself as a serious researcher (and I would never have gotten a role in this study without them), it’s also important to know at the end of the day (or end of your career) that you did something you enjoyed and something that mattered. So that’s my hope – to leave the world with less drips and fewer flushes than when I arrived.

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