Research Doing Research

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Toss tomatoes at me, or chat with me on twitter

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.


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