Exploring Research Opportunities in Medicine
Let me start with a bit of my own story…
When I was a college freshman, my senior peers and mentors told me that “research” was a vital part of my future medical school application. Everyone around me seemed to be involved in research – they would go to their “research job” for a few hours every week.
To be honest, I had NO idea what they were doing! I imagined that most of them were wearing white coats and lab goggles, ferociously wielding pipettes as they discovered the mysteries of the universe.
With this image in mind, I applied for a research position at a pharmaceutical company and spent two summers (wearing a white coat and wielding pipettes) working with bacteria and drugs, attempting to build the research part of my medical school application.
While the teams I worked with were marvelous, I quickly discovered that I had little interest in incubating bacteria or precisely measuring drugs. By the beginning of my junior year, I had discontinued all research work; I had appreciated and grown from the experience but I had no plans to conduct research in the future.
…Then in my senior year of college, I was required to take a research course for my psychology major. Even before I started, I was already convinced that I wouldn’t like it.
However, over the course of a semester I ended up designing a survey, administering it, and analyzing the results – a vastly different experience than what I had been doing earlier. Towards the end of the semester, I realized that I LOVED the project and I wanted to work on similar projects in the future. Just like that – my attitude towards research changed 180 degrees.
If I could go back to my freshman year in college, would I do anything differently? Absolutely.
Here are the big things I would have my senior-year-me tell freshman-year-me about research – in particular, what it is and how to better explore it in college.
What is research?
Pretty much anything that answers a question with the intent of increasing knowledge and bettering humanity. Research answers questions ranging from “how much of Drug X does it take to kill Bacteria Y?” to “do patients trust physicians with obesity?” to “which commercial weight loss programs actually help people lose weight?” Note that only one of those questions requires you be the goggle-wearing, pipette-wielding person. The others require the ability to search databases and compile information, or create and distribute a survey. No lab coat required.
So what are these other kinds of research?
Other than basic science research (math, physics, chemistry, or biology research, otherwise known as lab coats and goggles), there are clinical trials (giving patients new treatments/therapies and studying efficacy), surveys/datasets (asking populations questions or gathering metrics and analyzing the data), and reviews (looking at past research literature and synthesizing it in a thoughtful and meaningful way) among other large categories. Clinical trials, surveys, and reviews often have a more direct application than basic science, which many people find satisfying. Additionally, surveys and reviews are more short term projects and often are more college-student friendly in both participation and publication.
Can I do these other kinds of research as a college student?
Yes. Absolutely. College students are more than qualified to help out with reviews, even more intensive systematic reviews and chart reviews. In terms of survey research, students can be helpful when administering surveys, but probably require some statistical training if they want to work on analyzing them. If you are interested in surveys, take a few statistics courses early in college. (I actually recommend this regardless of research interests – statistics is just a useful thing to know.)
Where do I find research opportunities?
Aside from Google, usually colleges have department websites where opportunities are posted. If not, you can usually search professors’ names and look at what research work they are involved in, and talk to them. Many professors will take the time to meet with you and help guide you in finding research opportunities that fit with your interests and your skill set. You can do research in anything. Math, biology, chemistry, psychology, engineering…the possibilities are endless.
Do I really need to do research to get into medical school?
No. Do I think it’s helpful? Yes. Medicine is primarily about treating patients and bettering lives, and that is not limited to interacting with patients. You need individuals who are willing to study the efficacy of new medications, people who want to evaluate public health interventions, and practitioners who consistently review the evidence and come up with guidelines. Understanding medicine at those levels gives you a deeper appreciation of the people who work in those areas, as well as a healthy respect for “evidence-based” medicine and guidelines. On top of that, I personally think research has a lot to teach in terms of critical thinking and perseverance.
What should I be looking for when I’m trying to find a research opportunity?
Good mentors and a project you care about. A great mentor will not only provide you with more opportunities but an abundance of learning experiences. In terms of the project, you want to work on something that excites you. It is hard to invest yourself in something you aren’t excited about, and even fast moving research projects take a year or so to conclude – so pick something that you’d love to chat about with a friend over coffee, not something that you avoid discussing because you secretly hate it.
Ultimately, I ended up loving research. I took a year off of medical school in order to increase my research skill set and I plan on pursuing a career where I can combine research and patient care. Not everyone who dabbles in research will have the same experience – but I think everyone can have an enlightening and fun research experience that sparks an appreciation of the scientific rigor of evidence-based medicine and makes for a stronger medical school applicant.
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