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Publication before graduation: Amy Hilla ’21 gets scoping review published in prominent medical journal

Over the past four years, Amy Hilla ‘21 spent much of her time in Williamsburg on Scotland Street pursuing diverse research interests as a SOMOS student researcher and a research assistant for AidData. However, Hilla’s crowning research achievement fittingly came just months before she will graduate in May -- a published article in a prominent academic journal.
Hilla, an economics major and data science minor, is one of two student authors on an article recently published in BMJ Open, a premier open-access medical journal. Alongside Victoria Reese ‘20, University of Ghana professor Justice Nonvignon and William & Mary kinesiology professor Carrie Dolan, Hilla wrote a comprehensive review that analyzed how best to measure the economic returns of surgical interventions in low-and middle-income countries. 
Amy Hilla ‘21Hilla’s journey from student researcher to published author began in fall 2019, when Dolan first started looking for two economics students to aid her with her project. Funded by the World Pediatric Project, the research sought to evaluate the economic consequences of surgical interventions in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small, lower-middle income country in the Caribbean. Dolan knew that the interdisciplinary nature of the research, which drew heavily from economics, public health and medical practitioning, demanded an experienced, seasoned student researcher. That thought brought her to Hilla, whom she had previously worked with on SOMOS, a medical outreach and sustainability organization focused on the Dominican Republic.
“For this project in particular, I was looking for someone who had a foundation in some of these core competencies and then also somebody that I knew had a lot of initiative and ability to work independently and could be a real contributor and collaborator in the project,” Dolan said. “That’s why I asked Amy, in particular, to apply. She represents all of those things.”
When Hilla began working on the project’s literature review, she came across something surprising: there was not any agreement among existing authors regarding which quantitative methods were actually best suited for this kind of research, derailing her original plans.
“There’s a lot of different methods for that kind of thing, and so economists basically assess cost effectiveness in a lot of different ways,” Hilla said. “When it comes to public health interventions particularly, there’s not a good consensus on what methodology is the industry standard. We dug into it … and there was a gap in the literature.”
From there, Hilla’s literature review evolved into a ‘scoping review.’ Alongside her student co-author, Hilla wrote an independent review of existing quantitative strategies estimating the impacts of surgical interventions, carefully appraising benefits and disadvantages of each approach. Her extensive work within the economics department endowed Hilla with strong cost-benefit analysis skills, and her previous experience working with SOMOS helped guide her through the intricacies of public health research. 
After several months of work, Hilla submitted her scoping review in April 2020, shortly after she returned home from a study abroad program in Thailand at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. From home, she embarked on the peer-review process, responding to comments and suggestions from other researchers about her work, an unfamiliar process that she said would have been almost impossible without Dolan’s steadfast support over email and Zoom.
“I obviously had never gone through the publication process,” Hilla said. “I did not know what an R&R [Revise & Resubmit] —where they send you the peer review and you’re commenting and you have to respond to them one by one and say what you’ve done differently—was. Some of the peer review comments didn’t make sense. … Dr. Dolan was super helpful and very frankly being like ‘Some of these you don’t need to respond to. This isn’t a relevant concern.’ And for some of them, she said ‘Yes, this is a relevant concern. You should make these changes.’” 
After multiple rounds of peer reviewing, Hilla’s scoping review was published in BMJ Open last semester, almost a year after she first began working on Dolan’s project. Hilla said having this incredible achievement occur during her penultimate semester of college has been a helpful leg up while searching for jobs, since she’s able to point toward her involvement—and leadership—in high-quality, interdisciplinary research. 
“I have a couple of job offers that I’m working through,” Hilla said. “I think that I can definitely attribute the fact that I’ve gotten multiple good offers from places I’m excited to think about working for… I talked about my research experience a ton in these interviews, and I think it made me a much more competitive applicant.”
Hilla said these research experiences, which have strengthened her analytical thinking and problem-solving skills, could have only really occurred at a place like William & Mary, which places special emphasis on undergraduate research. 
“I’m really grateful to have had these opportunities, because I think it can be pretty rare to have three or four really good, solid, challenging research experiences as an undergraduate,” Hilla said. “I don’t think a lot of other people my age could say that.”