Month: February 2014

Why Do You Want to Become a Doctor?

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“Why do you want to become a doctor?” — everyone

Every premed has heard this question at different times in their career. As an emerging premed taking your first biology courses you’ll hear it maybe from your adviser, who after seeing the bulk of premeds waiver on their doctor goals, they’ll ask because they know the premed lifestyle and requirements isn’t necessarily for everyone. Classmates rationalizing their choice to go with plan J will likely question you, even more intent on finding your flaws, convincing themselves by trying to wrangle in their logic of complacency. While volunteering at the hospital staff while either congratulate you on your kamikaze mission, or try to live vicariously through you by offering warm discouragements. Unless your parents are dead set on you going into medicine, it’s likely they’re starting to question your ridiculously long term plan, who could blame them who often do people commit to deferring an adult income for over a decade? If you do research, your lab mentor might ask why you’re signing up for a position with long hours, high stress etc. Premeds are asked this question so many times, that by the time it comes up again officially on the medical school application and interviews it may feel like you’ve found over three dozen reasons why you want to become a doctor — in fact your answers may evolve, as you often do, with time.

My answer on this changes, as I grow, as will most people I think.

 “Why become a doctor when you can make more as ___, and more easily?” — the doubter

My answer: I literally couldn’t do anything else. It’s easy to evaluate my idea of how much money means to me, because if I won a billion dollar lottery I’d still go to medical school — I’d just have a much better lifestyle while in school and residency.  Besides that, I’m professionally poor, so I don’t mind another decade on Top Ramen, it’s not for everyone (medschool and Top Ramen included).  If you’re in it for the money, power to you because I have no right to judge your motivations, if you save people you could be doing it pay for your peanut butter hoarding for all I care. As like most medstudents, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, therefore I choose this.

“But, now that Affordable Care Act (ACA) is here, won’t you make less as a doctor since you’ll have an onslaught of patients and paid the same?” — the pessimist

My answer: I’m sure my answers will grow as time progresses on this. However, I signed up for this because I wanted to see patients, therefore having an excessive workload isn’t a surprise here. In fact, I’m pretty sadomasochistic, I enjoy the thought of being in the trenches with my fellow man. I’m sure slogging through long hours I might even have my flippant cynical response, everyone has a moment of weakness. But, I was a patient before I was a medstudent, as such I feel fortunate to be given the chance to reimburse medicine for how much time and money doctors/society spent saving me. It’s not that I’m above money, I simply have no clue what money is besides a bartering token, I’m wealth ignorant.  I’m lucky to get to do what I would gladly do for free and even take loans to do for a living (later). I will allow sanctioned molestation of my free time and sanity, I look forward to the weight, to pay it forward.

“Doesn’t it bother you to have to wait to have children?” — the oddity

My answer: why would it? I’m not sure where I stand on the children decision, but growing up as a poor one, I have a goal to not raise a child in the same position. People often treat me like I’m missing out on life when talking about kids, I’m not cynical about it at all. It’s just that, I choose to not have kids, just like others may of “choose” to have them. It’s hard to hear this question as a medstudent, as a postpone-r of attainment, people have even go so far as to treat me as if I’m ignorant on the happiness of life. But, I’ve often find these people move the goal posts about what constitutes happiness anyways. For myself, and many medstudents (or potentials), a child is a chose we’re willing to put off — I can hardly take care of myself, I shudder to think of what I’d do to a mini me (or her — me).

I was never good at Tamagochi pets (remember those, if you do, you’re old like me =X)

Do you have your own answers or opinions about this? If so, comment about how you’ve handled these questions.



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The most important rule is speed. The math isn’t hard, you just don’t have time to let it be part of your test schedule. So, being able to power through the math in a quick way is important. This is hard to have faith in if you haven’t been practicing math lately, or rigorously, as most people just spend time reading over review materials to study for the MCAT. The problem is only compounded by the fact that most premeds are biology majors, and have jettisoned all math skills out of their minds once it was no longer a requirement. Devote time to math skills every day while you’re studying for the MCAT, divorce yourself from your cellphone calculator:

1. Most on the MCAT are simple problems of multiplication and division and nothing more. The power of this concept shouldn’t be underestimated, because the rules that work for multiplication and division that you already know work for unit analysis. (See physics example below, because it’s a long example)

2. Learn to believe in estimation (science labs, ball park, then go for it, usually the ball park is good enough do to uncertainty). All values are calculable, but not all calculations have value. Keep in mind that each round of estimation will introduction error, just keep track of the direction of the error if you need a more accurate estimation — or you can just introduce less rounds of estimation.

3. You don’t need to master differential equations (or anything remotely close to that level), but all math concepts help. The most important thing you will take away from calculus are slopes and areas under the curve. But, you don’t need calculus to ever find a slope or area under the curve on the MCAT, it’s just useful if you’ve been introduced to these ideas already.

4. Become familiar with the log scale base 10, enough to estimate pH values within error of 1 pH point. (See Chemistry example below)

5. Any numbers written down larger than 10 should be written in scientific notation, if the number has pi, leave it till the end. Usually the problem will rely merely on basic math and scientific notation rules. You should become a scientific notation guru — don’t be over confident, devote practice to this. Getting this down is essential to being able to estimate, or ball park huge/tiny numbers. Do your groceries in scientific notation, just make it part of your life.

6. See relationships without doing that calculation (see 9). For example you have to have inverse and direct proportionality down cold, as well as inverse squares.

7. Natural decay (Aexp-t/T), half lives, be able to estimate them.  How much there is now is based on how much there just was but a moment ago. Patterns appear a lot in the universe, pi reflects some type  of geometric relationship (or rate), Euler’s number (e) in general demonstrates another rate of growth or decline, but instead of geometries, it shows growth (or decline) compounding on itself.

For example: if an experiment is done, and it shows that the cooling of a pool of blood on the cement from a particular crime scene can be described with regard to time with the equation Aexp-t/T. If it takes the blood 10 minutes to cool to half of it’s original temperature (98F), after 20 more minutes what is the closest approximation to the temperature of the blood if left to cool? (assume the temperature obeys exponential decay)

A. 49F

B. 25F

C. 12F

D. 6F

The trick to this is understanding what a half life means. A half life is simply the time it takes for some value to be half of what it was before. So, if it takes 10 minutes to have one half life, 30 minutes would be 3 half lives. First half life 98F/2 = 49F, then the second half life was 49F/2 or 25F, the third would be 25F/2 or 12F. This idea goes for anything that follows exponential decay (Euler’s number based powers).

8. Understand how to use (x)cos*theta or (y)sin*theta in a problem. These show up any time there’s a vector, i.e. a magnitude and an directional. Typically, the MCAT will tell you what the cos or sin of whatever angle you need, except the typical ones you should know, so don’t spend too much time worrying about the math. If you’re not sure if you should use cos or sin for a vector question, just use this rule of thumb:

If the vector is maximum at 0 degrees (to the normal) than it’s ought to be cosine, for example work performed while pushing a block at angle theta would use cos, because the maximum value would manifest from you pushing directly on the block. While the rule doesn’t always work, it works well enough for the stuff on the MCAT. Understanding this principle will take you very far, from the MCAT, to understanding the vestibular and auditory hair system and their relationship to action potentials in medical school.

Examples and Explanations

Example Mock Problem for Physics – Reference Number 1

Estimate the amount of time it takes to get to mars (Proving Idea’s 1 & 5)

It has long been said that in order for humans to survive inevitable extinction we will have to travel like our forefathers. But, instead of transcribing around the Earth, we will need to eventually move the human race to other planets. At the moment, the most promising planet is Mars. The photons of light originating from the sun only take approximately 4 minutes and 40 seconds to reach Mars after passing Earth. Mars, has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, in fact it’s atmosphere is only 0.6% that of Earth’s. Mars is frigid heavenly body, with the mean temperature hovering around -60 C. Combined with the fact that Mars has an ozone layer that is 300 times thinner than Earth’s, and has no active magnetic field, future explorers who roam the planet would be bombarded by ultra violet rays and other high energy particles we are usually shielded from on Earth.

1. There are plans to launch a probe to to orbit Mars, however the probe will only travel at 1 million times slower than light, assuming the probe has a constant velocity, how long would it take for the probe to reach Mars? (the speed of light 3 x 10^8 m/s)

You can see this question in another of ways: unit analysis, or calculate, or estimate because the answer choices are so far apart. Let’s try the first way, unit analysis:

A. ((300,000,000)(3000))/260

B. ((300,000,000)(260))/300

C. ((300,000,000)(260))(1,000,000)

D. 260/((300,000,000)(300))

A unit analysis problem usually looks like this. It’ll have a bunch of numbers, and you’ll have to figure out what the numbers represent, and that’s usually good enough to answer the problem. As you won’t get a calculator on the real test, it’s a typical question as there’s only so many math questions that are fair game. Let’s brush off our unit analysis:

The rules of unit analysis are the same for mult/div, that’s all you need to know.

First let’s recognize what each number was representing, 300,000,000 was the speed of light, with units of m/s because it’s a velocity. The question stem told us that the speed of light is 1,000,000 times faster than our speed, so that was just scientific notation. That is, since 300,000,000/x = 1,000,000, is that equals (3 x 10^8)/(3 x10^2) = 1 x 10^6, i.e 3 x 10^2 is “x”. Our 300 number is another velocity, so the units are m/s. The last bit is 260, I’ll save that for the last. Let’s see what we have so far:

3,000,000 number will have m/s

300 will have m/s

The final answer will be in seconds, and the m will magically disappear so if we take our units (I bolded it so its easier to track):

(m/s)/(m/s)  = (m/s) x (s/m)  = everything cancels

Yay, our units canceled out, but what about that 260 number? Remember the answer was asking about time, so as everything else canceled out we know 260 has to have the units of time, and since the answer is X secs, we know that 260 most be on top:

((m/s)/(m/s))(s) = seconds

In this problem it was enough to know this much because the answer has to be B according to unit analysis. If the answer choices were more similar, then you’ only need to go one step further and remember that (m/s)/(m/s) doesn’t equal (m/s)(m/s). In other words don’t let unit analysis make you think that 300,000,000/300 is equal to 300/300,000,000. So, you would simply have to pick which goes on the top or the bottom. Alternatively, you could of sat down and calculated the real number, but that would of taken longer, and wouldn’t be a choice selection anyways. Physics and chemistry problems are generally solvable with unit analysis and basic math. On the actual MCAT it’s more likely that they’ll ask you to convert the seconds into days, just to torture you, but the work is the same.

Example of Chemistry Problem – Reference Number 4

In human blood the pH is buffered by the interaction of carbonic acid with carbon dioxide. The hydration of CO2 with H2O is the rate limiting step, and the reaction can be described as:

[CO2] + [H20 ] <-> [H2CO3] <-> [H+] + [HCO3-]

[CO2] + [H2O] <-> [H+] +[HCO3-] (mediated by the enzyme carbonic anhydrase)

The buffer system will try to maintain an equilibrium described by:

K = [H+][HCO3-]/[CO2]

In logarithmic form it becomes:

pH = pKa + log [HCO3-]/[CO2]

Question 1.

Assuming if the pKA of HCO3- is shifted to 6.1 because of enzyme activity and if the concentration of HCO3- is 24 mM and the soluble amount of CO2 in the blood is 1 mM, what is the blood pH?

A. 6.97

B. 7.10

C. 7.48

D. 8.10

Now, the proper way to get to the answer would be to pick up a calculator. Type in…6.1 + log(24) = something. Of course you don’t get a calculator. Is this a memory question, should you remember the exact pH of blood (probably not, but knowing the range would be helpful, but let’s ignore that fact)? The question is actually a lot easier than it looks, you have to first understand logs, and be okay with estimating. First, we are dealing with log base 10, so every factor of 10 represents a change in one pH value:

log (.01) = -2

log (.1) = -1

log(0) = meaningless

log (10) = 1

log (100) = 2

log (1000) = 3

Looking back at the original problem, 6.1 + log (24), well we have a problem, because you an I both don’t know what the log of 24 is according to log values above. But, let’s just estimate for now, we’ll prove way this was okay later. So, let’s use a number we know from our values I listed, 10. So, if we put in 6.1 + log (10) we get 7.1, this is much easier than figuring out what the log of 24 was. Now, we just have to think logically, 7.1 can’t be the answer because the concentration was actually 24 mM and not 10 mM. So, that eliminates B, an the answer can’t be A, because that answer is even lower than B. The answer can’t be D either, because 6.1 and 8.1 would mean that there is a 100 times more carbonic acid conguate [HCO3-] than acid [CO2]. In other words, 6.1 + log (100) = 8.1, so this is a gross overshoot. The answer can only be C.

We can use calculus to prove that the pH will change in minute amounts with the equation:

dpH = 0.4343/[initial acid concentration] x d[H+]

What this means is that small fluctuations in the concentration of the protons added to solution will change the pH at a rate of (0.4343/initial concentration). So, let’s say we had an initial concentration of 1M, an you added .01M more of [H+ ]you expect the pH to chance to .004343. So, don’t expect the pH change from point to point to be intuitive, instead know how to use a less refined estimation for the MCAT.

Here’s the math behind that, which you’ ll never need to know. Just take it as a lesson that you should remember the log rule base 10, as opposed to expect to calculate it exactly on the MCAT:

More than you need to know. Just remember, estimating logs is the best way to go.
More than you need to know. Just remember, estimating logs is the best way to go.

[*correction 2/24: the last value in the pic above should be dy = dpH, I’ll fix it later * fixed 2/26]

Well, that’s all I have for now. I made up the questions, so if you see any mistakes let me know! Anyways, good luck and study hard, the math skills you pick up now will stick with you!

Thanks for Reading!

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I appreciate all of my readers, the loyal, the new and the re-curious.

Why Do I Blog at All?

My friend recently asked me why do I blog at all, and if so why put so much effort into it without financial reward. I can see what they’re saying, after all time is money as they say, and my time is dwindling as I’ve been drafted for medical school duty. However, I remember as a kid I wanted to travel the world, and meet all sorts of people and share ideas with them. I guess, for now, this blog is the closest I’ll ever get to that. Thanks for reading, commenting, sending me messages, and just plain carrying-on.

Have a topic you’d like for me to address? Just message me like others have already, thanks again!

Also, if you’d like the blog to take a certain detour, go ahead and vote — or don’t, and just enjoy the ride.

Finance February

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Hello All,

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, though if you’re a premed it’s likely the only use for the remembering the date 2/14 is that 1.4 is a pretty good approximation to the square root of 2 — useful in all walks of life.

Word of the Month – FAFSA

For now, it means just as much as it means: half way through February, so I better hurry up and get my taxes done if I want to have priority financial aid processing. I have already submitted my FAFSA, but I need to submit my taxes to correct my estimation. I have abjectly poor, so I don’t have to worry about them finding out about my next egg in Antigua. I suppose my only apprehension is my parent’s taxes, on FAFSA my parent’s taxes aren’t considered because I’m well past independent status legally and financially. However, there is another funding agency that does consider my parent’s income, and well most schools feel your parents will likely contribute to your education. My step is the sole source of income for my parents, luckily for them his income alone makes them well off. Though, let us take a recent example parents try to extrapolate my parents future contribution to my goals of medicine:

Mom: his white coat ceremony is in Boston, in August, we have to buy tickets to go see it.

Step Dad: we can’t afford that.

So, I don’t really expect their assets to be an asset to me, after all I’m below the poverty line and still managed to afford to fly around the United States, they are making six-figures and yet afford to fly out for a few days to Boston – go figure. In my undergrad years, I got caught up in a similar Catch-22: parents earned too much for me to get aid, but I didn’t have money because my parents weren’t willing to contribute in a significant way anyways. In this case, I think once my financial aid package is secure I’ll feel better I’m sure. On a tangential note, hug your parents if they’re bankrolling your premed/medschool dreams — there’s nothing to be ashamed, they worked hard because they believed in you.

I remember when my interviewer called me from Boston Medical to tell me that I was accepted, she said to me “Make sure to go out and celebrate with your family, they’re going to be so happy”. I’m really happy she called me, I’m really happy she was happy for me, because in all honesty those moments on the phone were my only sources of tangible celebration on that day — and all the days to follow it.

I Bought Pants…and Shoes! (non dress up)

To reward myself (and to not let this post end on a dreary note), I bought more clothes for myself. Recently, it occurred to me that I’d vested all my effort into getting into medical school, leaving myself disheveled. In fact, all of my pants (I deem wearable) have a hole in them. Now, there’s aesthetic holes that double the price of garments, and there’s “give that guy some change” holes, and it was moving towards the latter. So, I decided I needed several fine pairs of trousers. I needed to do something to celebrate getting into Boston Medical,  right? I look forward to meeting my new family and support network at Boston Medical, maybe they’ll notice my snazzy attire.

Till next time. =)

All the Things I Learned in Prison

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It was a somber sky on that Friday morning, I was told I could wear anything professional, as long as it wasn’t navy blue. I knew I was going to be in jail that day, I couldn’t decide which tie to wear, whats in vogue when in jail? Which knot would give me the most visual “street-cred” behind double rowed electrified barred wired fences I wondered. I tied a full-windsor knot. I rechecked my pockets before leaving the house, I knew I was going through a series of metal detectors and security checks, and I didn’t really want to have an awkward intimate pat down. I grabbed my keys, attached to it a curvaceous quaint black whistle, like the ones we played with obnoxiously as kids. I received the whistle several weeks prior during the crash course on prison safety and ways to not get stabbed, hustled, or black mailed while associating with the inmates. I keenly read the contract, and we were requested to denote from a list which classes we could teach. Apparently, there wasn’t a big demand for bio/chem tutors, so I had no idea how to pigeon hole myself into a slot. I had told the warden and program coordinator that I wasn’t sure if I’d be helpful, but I was a tutor, they told me run 1.5 HR workshops about academic advising and college. Around this time we all received our whistles, a novel way to alert the guards about all that stabbing they had warned us about — we wont go into the ridiculousness of this whistle. But, I had been reminded the morning of when looking at this whistle that I’d best reciprocate respect for my new students by going with a half-windsor knot.

I arrived early, it was mandatory, if you didn’t make it in time for the security check the gates wouldn’t open again for you. If you had been checked in, and you had worn navy blue, in case of a “lock-down” you may be shot on sight for not lying down on command because you’re confused for an inmate. As you may of imagined, I went with the standard black and white slacks dress shirt to avoid being shot or arrested while in inside the big house. I had brought a stack of print outs about “college stuff” to distribute, the guards told us we couldn’t bring it in, as it may be contraband, so we tossed it in the trash before entering the double gates of no return. The prison grounds were actually quite beautiful, the main compound consists of a thick stucco walled Spanish style series of buildings. I was told by one of the guards on the golf cart ride up to one of the cell blocks that it used to be a famous hotel back in the Gone with the Wind Clark Gable days. It struggled with the economy many decades prior, and was acquired by the military during World War II. During World War II many bungalows were built to house troops, these quarters now house inmates. The main beautiful structure is left empty, inaccessible, and now relic of a more extravagant past.

It was rough start, but after a couple of months teaching classes with these individuals, I had developed some type of prisoner repoire. These men, regardless of their past transgressions weren’t too different from my students I tutored in college — save having made opposite decision to the occasional similar circumstance. I worked with all works of life, from reformed violent offenders, even with sexual offenders who were quarantined from the rest of the population. Working with the sex offenders was particular personal challenge, but I learned to dispense my charity equitably. I told them I would treat them fairly, so I driven  to pull that off. I always waited to have the philosophical debate regarding my own feelings about them personally until I was on my way home.

The next session I was transferred to a unit with more “serious” crimes, some from racial gangs not on friendly terms with my own in prison. In fact, there was a stabbing between gangs in another part of the jail while we were there. So, it’s only natural eventually I was asked me why was I there each week, taking this measured risk. Most others in the program was of the criminal justice cut, or some type of social work, they wondered why a premed was there. It was asked not in an accusatory or malicious manner, but rather because they felt it odd. I chuckled, and responded back “Why not?”. I could now think of a thousand cool replies, at the time that was the best I could do. Weeks turned into months, I had help lead discussions regarding job skills, college majors, how to get financial aid etc. One day we were discussing interview etiquette, only to find out likely 4/5 of the room had never had a job interview. So, we made up some workshops on the fly. We assigned them homework, write up a resume as we had taught them, and bring it with them the following week for their mock interviews. We dressed the part. The confident inmates cognizant of the rules of prison were suddenly bashful and giggling with excitement about their pending interview. I did my best to rehash common interview questions I’ve heard throughout the years, as a native Californian I tried to put some oomph into my portrayal — really getting to know them during their interview. After the event was over, a stout diminutive man came over to me, and with tearful eyes told me “That’s the first time I’ve ever had a job interview”. I think it’s at that moment where I finally got why the man before had asked me about why I had come — it was perhaps one of the first time they had someone have consistent faith in them.

I certainly learned a lot of things while doing my medical volunteering: having a catheter placed twice in the same week sucks (try to avoid having to re-admit someone), it’s difficult to watch people suffer (good motivation to help them), people lie (there’s drug abusers who frequent ERs), but you should have faith in people (see the last clause for the eternal battle). But, perhaps in prison I learned the most valuable lesson of all: people are people and deserved to be treated as such.

Don’t limit your experiences to just the hospital premed, you’re going to serve the world, so see the world.

Thanks for having me!

Research Doing Research

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I never visited a premed advisor about my decision to apply to medical school. I didn’t have very good experience with advisors, in fact in community college I was told to settle for something more within my means. When I finally told other self declared premeds, as a late entry non traditional I was discounted as a smuck. I was ignorant to the premed code: I wasn’t a SDN zealot, I didn’t own a small library of inspirational books about medicine, I didn’t care about nor did I look up medical school rankings etc. I was unusually stoic about the whole ordeal, it’s hard to explain why, I’m just not that interested in those types of things. I’ve always been that way. Fortunately, this article isn’t about analyzing my quirky patterns. Instead, this article was written in response to a question I received about research. Instead, I’ll try glean my experience as an undergraduate researcher and my later work with aligning undergraduates into research projects.

Fun fact, of the entering class of Boston University Medical School of 2013 ~90% had undergraduate research experience. — MSAR

Initial StepsFind Out What Opportunities are Surrounding You

The first step in a survival situation is to assess your surroundings and see what you have to work with. It’s easier for some than others to find a lab, depending on your undergraduate institution, it’s easier to find a lab to join if you’re at a known research institution. On the other hand, unless you’re a co-principal (or primary) investigator then you should also expect to not have much influence over the project. This is especially true at larger institutions where your lab mates likely be graduate students or even post doctoral. At a small institution you may have a harder time finding a lab, but you may have more influence if that lab is smaller and (bonus) it may require more responsibility from even undergraduate researchers. Larger programs/labs will usually subdivide their labor for efficiency, smaller labs will usually put more weight on each member who’ll need to be a jack of all trades. The more impact you have on a lab the better your medical school application and the more you have to talk about during the interview because you weren’t just mindlessly running a gel nor were you a glorified dishwasher (albeit, an important dishwasher). I don’t think one way is better than the other, there’s ups and downs and a lot of grey in between. Instead, just keep in mind that there’s probably an opportunity at your institution (no matter the size) and if not then you can probably find something at a neighboring university (though, the grant process will be more precarious, you know if you want to eat).

So, before doing anything else, you’ll need to decide:

1. Do you want/need money?

It may seem like a silly question, but sometimes the opportunity cost is worth the profit loss — e.g. if you can get on a murine diabetes study, and you’re the co-principal investigator, then think of the experience itself as an investment. However, bills don’t get paid off of merit, so it’s totally realistic to seek grants, scholarships or stipends.

2. How far are the deadlines for stipends/grants/etc?

If you’re too late to apply for stipend programs, and if you can afford it, I’d strongly suggest joining a lab first. It’s a lot easier to apply for money when you already have a lab — my research stipend came after I already found a lab and I was already there for a years time. This may sound strange until you know how institutional research money works:

Each program most allocate a certain amount, typically if they don’t use that money they must self-report it to the state. The state will then take what wasn’t used into account for what’s needed for next years budget, i.e. if the school doesn’t use “it” it’ll possibly loss “it”. If you have a money surplus, and even if the programs have private investors it’s hard to ask for more money for undergraduate research. So, schools are very wary about offering stipends and grants to “at-risk” undergraduates who likely won’t complete their end of the bargain, so the people who are established have a better shot because you know they’ll likely finish.

Prior to finding a lab, a lot of well-intended undergraduates flake out on their research plans — I’ve seen it myself. So, when a student already has a lab it’s much easier to apply for programs.

Here is an example of the information you should find at your own institution, compiled by

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 2.51.11 PM

Satisfying Requirements vs. Maximizing Requirements

So, why bother doing research? Do you want to do it because you want to satisfy the requirements for a medical school or because you want to maximize your science experience prior to matriculating? While it may be true that maximizing your application would likely include research. The the reverse is not true, that is satisfying the perceived research expectation will not maximize your application. There are probably a number of reasons for this, most of it because just as I was ignorant about the premed tenants, premeds tend to have a mutual misunderstanding for the nature of research. You must understand, there are people just as serious about getting into a prestigious research lab as you are about wearing a white coat and stethoscope. Of course there are the future Noble Laureates, also known as the MD/PhD candidates who already know both sides of the coin, for them this will probably just be me preaching to the choir. If my point seems cynical, try seeing it from another perspective, imagine if you met a fellow premed who said “I’m only doing these pesky hospital hours so I can finally get into medical school”. That’s sort of how I feel when people are downtrodden on research and medical school. So, if you haven’t chucked a shoe at the screen in protest, let’s precede to my tips about maximizing your research experience as an undergraduate.

How do I find a research lab?

  • Bring it up during office hours after a great final exam/performance. The most typical way is simply by rubbing elbows, i.e. doing well in a challenging course and showing a legit interest in the subject matter. I was invited to my physiology lab where I received my science lynching initiation this very way.
  • Join/find organizations that foster research for undergraduates. Most universities have an underfunded department that no one knows about called the “Office of Undergraduate Research” or something similar. This office usually acts as a nexus, providing a way for professors and students to find each other, find funding, and conferences. If you’re in a club that is STEMS related try talking to the program coordinator if they’re a professor, typically they’ll be able to easily align you with possible faculty to take you under their wing.
  • Ask graduate students and undergraduates already doing research at your university. They’ll have the best insider information, though you’ll have to take some things with a grain of salt. They should be able to let you know which labs have space and need someone to start from the bottom.

How long do I have to do research for it to “count”? And, do I have to publish?

  • I’ve heard all types of opinions about this. I was invited to an admissions question and answer session at Stanford, from there I poised the question directly. The reply to the myself and the audience was they’d be satisfied with 8 months to a year. I’ve heard other schools say about a year would be ideal if you were to bother doing research at all.
  • I think all schools will more or less universally agree that publishing a non-retracted article is always a perk — however, most people accepted into medical school have not published. I’d even argue going into research with the intent to publish “something!!!” is the wrong mindset, and defeats the idea of research. This is because for most people, that mere resume boaster for you is likely a life and death situation for someone heading towards their thesis defense. So, you should be realistic about your goals. If you’re dead set on getting a publication I’d encourage you to try either clinical trials opportunities, or labs with large teams, as these entities are usually on the applied science side of things and publish a lot faster. If you join a pure research lab your team might be aiming to publish in Nature, in which case you might have to stay on for your masters or a few years post graduate to guarantee a publication. This is because in many pure science labs collecting data, performing procedures, and even processing data usually isn’t enough to guarantee you’ll be an author on a paper. For some labs you are not an author unless you literally write up a significant portion of the paper submitted, or fulfill other arbitrary amorphous requirements. Research labs can be notoriously cut throat about accolades, and that’s why you should ask other students first about what the work conditions are before joining a lab if possible. Fortunately, medical schools already about lab politics, so you can easily make up for lack of publications by presenting the project at different science conferences. Therefore, instead of focusing on getting your name on something, focus on getting the experience and the confidence.
  • You should be aware of what stage the project is in, is it still being drafted as a research protocol? Maybe it’s still in it’s literature review stages. On the other hand, maybe you’re on the receiving end of years of hard work that preceded your presence and you’ll be one of the twenty authors. Again, this is only possible to figure out if you asked other students of that lab — try buying them coffee or better beer, that worked well on me.

How do I join a lab if I have a low GPA? 

  • Start with acknowledging that you’re interested in a lab, for example an electrophysiology lab. Now, if you have a low GPA they might be a little weary about letting you touch their samples. I’ve heard of one student forgetting to shut the refrigerator for one lab’s samples, they lab lost about twenty years of data. I’ve never seen a professor look so depressed, and rightfully so. Thus, don’t be surprised if you’re on a probationary period at the beginning. Start with asking to just help in any way possible, this could literally mean starting off by scrubbing glassware.

How do I move from lab glassware lackey to co-investigator? 

  • I recall, one premed joined our lab this way, he started by washing the glassware. They were actually terrible at cleaning the glassware, and we lost about a month of data because our samples were always contaminated with soap scum or hard water stains. Therefore, you need to be the Karate Kid about whatever ‘menial’ task you’re given, because while it may not be ‘science-y’ to you it’s probably integral to the project as a whole. After you’ve proven your responsibility show initiative by presenting new articles with your analysis at lab meetings (labs frequently do weekly literature reviews), if that’s too scary start off sharing articles with your research team. But, you should be able to explain why it pertains to the lab and your current methodology. Basically, do whatever you can to show you’re hungry for more. For myself, my grades was palatable, I just had to prove myself because I was the only undergraduate in the lab. I presented a literature review/timeline I had worked on by myself for a few months, this literature review helped snowball other projects in our lab — and I won my co-investigator page.
  • If you want to be a co-investigator you should prove that you’re able to hold up your end of the bargain, for example you’ll want to attend free workshops about writing a research protocol, animal use and research, methodology, lab skills etc. This could also be as easy as completing your universities human protections (CITI) and/or animal protection certifications from reading a few modules and taking some online quizzes through your university. The training is usually free, although you could pay a fee to gain certifications, these carry a lot of weight if you go into other labs and want to prove your worth — stick to the free stuff as a premed.

If I hate research am I doomed?

  • Absolutely not, in fact a lot of schools don’t expect you to have undergraduate research, as a premed you’re busy with a hundred other things. But, instead you might want to consider what is it about research you don’t like. For example, if you hate the tedious tracking of data then you probably don’t want to be on a tail end of a clinical trial, that’s a sea of forms and data. If you don’t have loads of patience you probably should avoid ‘theoretical’ science labs etc. Don’t discount research, it’s just a good chance you haven’t found your fit.

What is my research background?

I’ve mainly dealt with electrophysiology, you can have a blast reading about it more on Wikipedia for more electrophysiology if you’re interested:

Electrophysiology Study: Effects of Extracellular ATP on Mammalian Muscle

In this project I was a co-principal investigator. Responsibilities included micro surgical preparation of muscle samples. A microscope was used to place micro electrodes into muscle tissue. Muscle tissue electrical signals were then amplified, and then properties such as conductivity and capacitance were assessed.  The data was then extrapolated and interpreted to describe the activity of the muscle cells in ex vivo such as capacitance, ionic conductance and ultimately excitability.  Various agonists such as ATP in low doses was shown to help excite muscle by inhibiting chloride channels, antagonists of P2Y1 purgenic receptor was blocked these responses.   

Electrophysiology proof of concept study: Measuring Action Potentials in Muscle using Electro-potential Sensitive Dye Di-8-ANEPPS ((4-{2-[6-(dibutylamino)-2-naphthalenyl]-ethenyl}-1-(3-sulfopropyl)pyridinium)

Was responsible helping for determining if the electro potential dye Di-8-ANEPPS could be used practically to measure action potentials in resected mammalian mouse disassociated fibers. My task was to perform electrophysiological measurements of sarcolemma action potentials, with toxins and with agonists.

Electrophysiology study of diseased muscle: Huntington’s Disease, the Correlation with Electrical Muscle Membrane Properties

For this project I was partly responsible for the maintenance, and Huntington symptom score assessment for mice.  My tasks also included maintaining gathering comparative electrophysiological control samples. 

I’ve also worn a hat as a Institutional Review Board and Animal Care and Use Committee member, where I help with ethical reviews of protocols, and inspections of research labs to keep the USDA and NIH appeased and furry creatures treated fairly. I also picked up an interim position where I’m paid off a grant to help organize research conferences and coordinate undergraduates with research opportunities. Just something to keep me occupied before medical school starts, helps to pay the bills of course.

Well, till next time.

My Interview with Admission Specialists:

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If you’ve already saw my Q & A with accepted, then your not missing anything by rolling to another article. I’m posting my interview directly here to make it easier for my readers. While I didn’t pay for admissions advising, knowing what I know now I can totally understand why people decide to do it. A little information goes a long way, trust me.

Anyways, here’s my interview from a few weeks back!

Accepted: First, can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? What is your favorite non-school book?

D: I grew up in Southern California, and like a typical Californian I’ve moved around a lot, but I’ve mostly stayed in Los Angeles County. I’m one of fourteen, second to youngest, I come from a large family of mixed lineage. Also, I didn’t grow up with most of my brothers and sisters as I was born out of wedlock. I attended California Polytechnic University of Pomona where I obtained my bachelors of science in Exercise Physiology and a minor in Human Physiology. My favorite non school related reads are just about anything from Bertrand Russell; my favorite book by him at the moment is “The Problems of Philosophy.” Overall, I prefer reading famous essays or opinions as I find them to be more entertaining — I’m not really into fictional reading.

Accepted: Congrats on your med school admit! Where did you get accepted and when do you start?

D: Thank you! I was accepted into four programs: Cooper Rowan, East Virginia Medical School, Oakland Beaumont, and Loyola Stritch. I am awaiting a response from Boston University early next month. While I’m overjoyed to gain acceptances, no one really prepares you for one of the hardest parts: selecting where you will develop into a physician and live for the next probable decade.

When I was compiling my school list I only applied to programs I could envision myself fitting in, while this was great when I got accepted, it was terrible when it came time to choose. At the time I was choosing programs it was important to me that the program I felt focused on service and collegiality. I’m still awaiting to hear back from my top pick; I’d probably go there if accepted.

I wanted to select a program that could make me the best patient advocate and supply me with the most worldly experience. I have previous research experience, so I also wanted to go to an institution where clinical research was strongly encouraged.

Finally, I wanted to relocate and try something new, so I’m pretty certain that I will find myself living near the eastern seaboard around this time next year.

Accepted: In your blog, you describe yourself as a nontraditional premed applicant. Can you elaborate on that please?

D: When I finished high school I was accepted into a university, but I was discouraged from attending by my parents who wanted me to attend a community college as I didn’t qualify for financial aid. So my tuition came out of my pocket I got a job and hit the labor force for several years while sampling courses. Eventually, I decided to focus on school again and transferred to the university I was originally accepted into out of high school ironically.

I had an exciting opportunity to do electrophysiology research, where I studied ion channels. The research and the scholarships I received had me focused on PhD programs. I didn’t want to limit my options, so I also took the premed requirements concurrently. But, I never thought I’d apply for MD programs, until one day I just felt pretty useless when a family member and friend passed away a month apart. After that I withdrew my applications for graduate school and took the MCAT squeezed in some volunteering and hit the AMCAS applications hard. It all worked out in the end with the acceptances, but it really felt like a huge gamble at the time.

Accepted: Looking back at the med school application process, what would you say were your three greatest challenges and how would you advise current applicants who are faced with those same (or similar) challenges?

D: I’d say the top three challenges for me were: the MCAT (self studied), secondary essays, and lack of support from some people in my personal network.

My advice for premeds who have to self study is they find a study package that works for them; once I found my study package and stayed with it my practice scores steadily increased. However, self studying isn’t for everyone, there’s no shame in taking a prep course if you can afford it.

For secondaries my only advice is to have research about each school already completed before you receive secondaries. At first there is a drought where you receive no secondaries, then there’s a deluge, so it’s hard to find time to finish everything if you didn’t prepare beforehand. Personally, I paid for the MSAR (you must get the MSAR full edition) and made a spreadsheet about the pros and cons and random details several months before secondaries, so I just referred to my sheets to save me time while writing essays. If you don’t buy the MSAR you’re doing yourself a big disservice.

And about the last point, you’re bound to have some friends and family who can’t understand your sacrifices and may even doubt you while being a premed. I’ve had some flat out tell me I should give up. Always be true to yourself, and make sure to build a good support network of like-minded friends and mentors who understand your lifestyle and the hurdles you’ll certainly face as you chase the medical degree.

Accepted: Can you tell us more about your blog? When did you start blogging? What do you hope to gain from the experience?

D: I just started my blog sometime in October or so this year (2013). It’s a blog that is intended to share my experience as a nontraditional premed, now MD candidate, and into the future as a resident. But when I started the blog the goals weren’t so lofty, initially I was just using it to write some tutorials for a few premeds who asked for advice on Twitter. To my surprise one day my page counter told me other people actually read my blog too, so I decided to try to make it as a resource.

When I was trying to figure out how to apply to medical school I felt pretty lost, so I hoped this site would serve as a foundation for others like me who drift into medicine.

My only hope was that someone would feel my blog was useful and inspire at least one person, fortunately I have received a few messages here and there from premeds who’ve reached out to share their personal experiences with me — it really brightens my day.

D kindly informed us that she’ll be attending Boston University Medical School. Here was our follow up question:

Accepted: Why did you choose BU Medical School? What are you most looking forward to?

D: When you apply to medical school you never really imagine that one of the hardest parts will be selecting from a program if you have more than one acceptance. This is obviously a better problem to have compared to the alternative. However, as premeds I think I was used to being told “what to do” for so long it was a curious feeling to finally get to decide what I “want to do.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about finding which school will be your home for at least the next four years, or as some schools call it “finding your fit.” The funny thing is when I applied to Boston University (BU) it felt like a long-shot, so when I received an interview I was sure they’d made a mistake and would withdraw my invitation sooner or later – I preemptively snatched up the first interview I could afford.

My first time ever being in Boston was for my interview, I found the campus and the city breathtaking. I was lucky to find a great host, an incredibly busy and knowledgeable M3 currently enrolled at BU. He gave me a treasure trove of information that was useful for my interview, this was my first active demonstration of the collegiality I yearned for in a medical school.

My interviewer and I connected during our session, we actually just about ran out of time during my interview, I even saw myself contacting her later as a possible research mentor after my interview was done. The dean of admissions was also very charismatic and down to earth, and I felt like we weren’t being pressured or rushed into the most important decision of our lives. I still remember the feeling I got when the dean was giving us our farewell speech, it felt as if he were speaking directly to me. I felt this medical program would help me fulfill my primary concerns as a MD candidate: gaining the tools so I can become excellent physician and patient advocate while staying grounded. I suppose, through the course of my interview day I slowly started to imagine myself walking the halls and growing as an individual there.

After returning from my interview I had to wait several months to hear back from Boston, in the meantime I received my share of acceptances and rejections from other programs. By the time the BU decision date was looming I had already been accepted into four schools, however knowing this didn’t assuage my fears of rejection from BU. I soon realized how emotionally invested I was, and how much it meant to me to be accepted because I had found my “fit”. So, when I received a phone call regarding my acceptance I was ecstatic to hear the feeling was mutual.

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