The Research Sonographer

Research sonography is not a common term when talking with fellow sonographers. There is no specialty exam or formal training involved. I would like to say research fell into my lap, but I was determined to learn as much as possible about ultrasound research in my earliest days. As a student at Thomas Jefferson University, I spent a lot of time hanging around the Research Institute. During my first job at UCSD, I started volunteering with the contrast ultrasound research team. I volunteered my lunch breaks and came in early before my shift at 7 am.  An opportunity opened to work on 2 simultaneous CEUS clinical trials as a research coordinator/sonographer. Looking back, I had no idea what I was doing but I knew I was up for the challenge.IMG_1175

Together with help from my mentors, we created a research sonography position. I asked A LOT of questions. I learned how to write research protocols and submit for IRB (Institutional Review Board) review. The clinical trial monitors were gracious enough to teach me source documentation and the regulatory aspect. When the clinical trials ended, I spent nearly 10 years at Philips learning the medical device side of ultrasound. Eventually, I followed my passion and went back to clinical research when an opportunity opened at the FDA as a contractor; and now I am pursuing my master’s in clinical research management-Regulatory Science. Opportunities are always created if you follow the instincts that drive you.

The first hurdle is funding a research position. Whether funded by a clinical trial or applying for grant money, the process can be laborious. Sometimes a lapse between awards can occur but, in general, the budget is stretched so there is no loss in coverage. Every year, the project or position can be up for financial renewal. Planning for the next financial award is always on the horizon. Therefore, research sonography jobs usually hire for short-term employment, unless a Radiologist you are working with has grant money for a project. I recognize this path is not a stable one, not nearly as long-term as a departmental position would be.

Some crave the stability of 10–20 years ahead with one employer. I think the Research Sonographer is one that likes to accept challenges; is interested in science, research, and development; and has a yearning to think outside the clinical box and challenge the status quo in a way clinical sonography does not present itself. But this is not for everyone.

There are differences in clinical and research ultrasound. The investigators’ research protocol is the imaging parameters that will be followed, not The Standards, CPT codes, or departmental protocol. I ascertain this as a challenge; once you have the transducer and start driving, it is difficult to not diagnose and document images in an orderly fashion. Instead, we are examining a hypothesis and proving specific aims. There is a shift in cognitive thinking that needs to occur. Setting up a controlled environment with repetitive imaging to prove a hypothesis is imperative. It is most important to re-create the same controlled imaging environment on all subjects and then analyze the data off-line.

How does one become a research sonographer? Situations arise that are different in every corner of the country. Align with a research-based physician, coordinator, or mentor, at a university hospital or outpatient center that performs research. Start on a small project, volunteering your time and evaluate the differences. You may find research is not at all interesting for your personality type. Search for clinical trials in need of a sonographer, usually posted on on-line ultrasound job boards. A good website to search for on-going or upcoming trials is Search for clinical trials that involve sonography, ie, fertility, where the exam times are usually early morning before the volunteers go to work. Remember research sonography is not the same as performing an entire pelvic exam. The sponsor will only want images on what the protocol states, so exam times and ergonomics are reduced. You might be measuring the bladder volume or the volume of an ovary, in total. Align with a mentor that will help you carve out your path, follow your instincts, and seek out opportunities that will lead in your direction.

Are you a research sonographer? Share your experience. Comment below, or, AIUM members, continue the conversation on Connect, the AIUM’s online community.

Karen Alton, BS, RDMS, RVT, is a graduate student at Arizona State University, an owner of Karen Alton Consulting, LLC, and is an Ultrasound Imaging Research contractor at the US Food and Drug Administration.