Bryan Bunning: Pursuing a passion for clinical research

Bryan Bunning

For more than 32 million Americans, taking a bite out of the wrong food could be a potentially fatal mistake: That's how many people have a  serious food allergy in this country

Stanford research assistant Bryan Bunning is one of those 32 million, and has wrestled with his own food allergies for most of his life. That battle came to a head one day in high school when he suffered an intense allergic reaction and was rushed to the ICU.

Solving the mystery of food allergies and working toward a cure or better treatment that reduce their severity has always been a passion of Bryan's. Now that he's part of the team at Stanford University's Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, he has the opportunity to take an active role in that pursuit.

What initially drew you to clinical research? 

When I was doing my undergrad, I thought I wanted to go to med school and become a doctor. It sounds funny, but my big realization was that I really liked math. And that's just not something that comes up in the day-to-day life of a doctor. So I wanted to find a career that combined these two interests: medical work that helped patient treatment with some quantitative research and reasoning elements. Clinical research was the perfect mix for me.

Why did you choose the Epidemiology and Clinical Research certificate? 

There were a lot of different certificates I could have gone with, especially involving data science. But this one, in particular, had a clinical spin on quantitative methodologies that really interested me. There was coursework on how to design and conduct clinical trials, for instance, or how to do statistical modeling on patient data. And you still got that hard data science component too. It had the best of both worlds.

Getting that more clinical and patient-focused side is huge if you want to work in healthcare. So for me, it was definitely the best option available.

What did you enjoy most about your graduate certificate program? 

Just the fact that you're attending class with other Stanford graduate students. You can't get a better learning environment than that. You're coming to class and sitting next to doctors and people who have been working in this field for years. This is the big leagues, and you've got yourself a seat at the table.

Another great thing about it was the flexibility. I attended class in person during the first quarter, but work conflicts started getting in the way after that. Being able to attend classes remotely on a flexible schedule really helped me find balance advancing my career and education while still holding down a full-time job. And all the TAs and professors were so helpful and responsive any time something came up or I had a question. I never felt out of the loop or treated as an afterthought.

Did you have a favorite course? 

Absolutely, I loved "Design and Conduct of Clinical Trials." The first half covered all the issues and problems you might run into during a clinical trial. A lot of guest speakers who were actively involved in ongoing trials came in to speak with the class. After that, we had to create our own clinical trial and go through each specific step. It was a huge undertaking, but it allowed you to experience what it's like to go through these processes in the real world. How do you apply all of this knowledge you've gained to a task you would encounter in an actual research center? It was great.

How has earning a graduate certificate helped your career? 

It's given me a concrete way to build a career around a subject I'm passionate about. The graduate certificate program basically bridged the gap between the lab work and the mathematical component to allergy research. It gave me all the tools I needed to excel in this field, and it gave real insight into what working day in and day out in a lab would actually be like. It really helped me decide whether or not this was a career that I was suited for and wanted to continue doing for the rest of my life.

The Sean N. Parker Center does a lot of pediatric trials treating food allergies and asthma, which involves both clinical trials and running statistical models. In my earlier education and lab work, I always heard about these trials, but I never really knew the methodology. During the course of completing my graduate certificate, I learned the specific best practices to conduct clinical trials.

What opportunities have opened up since completing your graduate certificate? 

The program really prepared me for the next phase in my academic career, which is getting my master's degree. I'm actually enrolled in a program at Columbia University, and will be starting up classes in the fall.

Taking online courses with Stanford really helped me get back into the groove of student life. Not only that, but like I said before, the other students were either doctors and professionals in the field or people attending or working at Stanford. You're not only learning from the best, you're working alongside them every day. It's an incredible educational environment.

What advice would you give anyone considering enrolling in this program? 

Appreciate the opportunity you have here. The coursework gives you a glimpse into this world and shows you the nuts and bolts of how clinical research works. Not only that, but you get to collaborate and work with experienced professionals who've already staked out a career in this field. This is your chance to learn and gain skills that directly translate to building a career of your own. Give it your all.