Finding A Lab in Medschool

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Honestly, there’s no point in being around the bush, we all know that residency programs aren’t exploded with positions nor funding. So, as a consequence, medical students (masters of hoop jumping) are interested in both learning and forming a competitive residency application. There’s lots of pros to performing research, I’ll let you speculate on what they are and choose what is most important to you. Not everyone wants to do it, nor does everyone have to, but if you like research than don’t let medical school get in your way — you don’t have to be a MD/PhD or MD/MPH to conduct projects.

Know that there’s different forms of research in the medical community, and know the pros and cons. Every type of research has it’s niche problems and it’s own rewards. I have to admit that I’ve only have done bench and clinical research, so I’m limited on other types. So, I can only comment on what I learned from working on the IRB prior to medical school about the others:

Bench Research:

Likely the hardest in terms of taking successful measurements, in fact more than half of the project may be the team just sifting through superfluous or as some would say “hearing the data through the noise”. The fool-hearty go into bench research hoping for a publication, it’s best to expect to receive the baton and pass it onto the next generation. It usually takes several years to go from concept to publication, if everything lines up, so don’t expect any immediate rewards besides intellectual and networking gains. Though, if you join an established lab you may be able to stand on the shoulders of giants and gain a publication or presentation or two.

Quality Assurance/Control/Evaluation/Improvement:

Likely one of the hardest in terms of dealing with confounders and logistics, but if the research is successful you have a decent shot at seeing the ideas of the project be put into practice (or at least attempted). However, logistically, these projects may be monsters onto themselves. I can probably write an entire article of what can go horribly wrong on these projects, even if everything is done right from the researcher’s prospective, there is no reason to assume that the project will end successfully as there’s an abundance of things out of your loci of control.

Societal Research:

Confounders, confounders, confounders. There is an illusion that there’s low hanging fruit, i.e. just think of something and try it out and it’ll count as research. But, that’s pretty far from the truth. By definition, research is generalizable and has some sort of public benefit. As a consequence, it’s very difficult to actually think and perform a research project on societal issues and have it both be valid and generalizable. I know that’s a fuzzy definition, but haven’t you ever wondered why the surveys or senior thesis likely didn’t need IRB approval? Well, it’s because it wasn’t generalizable. This is not to say that receiving IRB approval means the project was/is legitimate research, honestly a lot of the time it was just a didactic exercise that certain departments tend to have — in fact, many institutions that pump out a lot of projects have an expedited process for projects that don’t necessarily fall under the category of research but still require oversight. 

My gross explanation doesn’t do any of the disciplines justice. My reasoning for bringing it up was just note that you might actually like research you may not particularly like a certain niche of it.

  1. Find a subject that interests you, don’t just aim for notoriety — seen a lot of bright people get disappointed by their projects despite joining an established lab/group. I have no idea what I want to specialize in, but I did know what I wanted a better understanding of cardiology — I’ve lost a grandfather and a brother who I’ve never met to cardiac problems, a grandmother to a pulmonary embolism (technically, of venous origin, a point for the lung field). Also, perhaps because I wanted to validate my time spent prior to medical school, I wanted something where I could transfer some of my previous experience (electrophysiology). If you got into medical school by working on the social determinants of health then continue that line of work if you so choose.

2. Use the internal search within your school’s site to find people you’d like to work with, follow up with some brief reading on PubMed etc. Don’t just research your PI to be Machiavellian in intent, instead find someone who legitimately interests you. Afterwards, just fire off an email, it’s much easier to get a response to talk to a physician or professor when you’re doing so as a physician candidate than compared to undergraduate years.

3. Meet with prospective PI, test for chemistry and expectations — it’s important that you not only are at their mercy, but you also should let them know your expectations. Do you want to be part of a well oiled machine, or do you want to be one of the people who develop the well oiled machine. For my PI, I eventually exchanged a verbal check-list of things I expected to learn: how to read ECG (with cardiologist input), patient exposure, and to be involved in the planning and execution of projects. Likewise, my PI gave me their check-list of things they expected from me. It’s better to custom right your own ‘wedding vows’ than accept a stock contract. Lastly, we have a very transparent understanding that I expect financial compensation, reciprocally I should make sure I work hard enough to deserve compensation. As an undergrad it’s important to learn how to bite the bullet and earn your keep, as a graduate student it’s important to know your value and feel appreciated.

4. Find funding – prior to medical school I had no problem putting in the extra time without compensation. Funding can come in multiple forms, financial, relationships, (team building and mentoring), and entry level experience. At some point, if you’re good at something I believe you should aim to get funded. A fed and housed graduate student is a happy graduate student. Funding can be tricky, but I promise you if you knew how fight for funding as an undergrad (and/or postgrad) the tricks of the trade are more or less the same: keepings your ears/eyes open and applying for a lot of fundings and getting rejected. I applied for several sources, I started off with the largest funding sources then whittled my way down to the more modest ones. Don’t be afraid to bite off more than you can chew on grant applications, at worst you just won’t get them: I tried and failed on big name grants only to get a NIH/American Heart Association one. If you’ve gotten into medical school, being rejected shouldn’t be a new feeling, so don’t mind the endless rejections on funding. It has been a lot of work, but I’ve raised a significant amount of discretionary spending funds and have had a chance to accept just a few less loans:

  • list serves – check list serves, sometimes your line of work already qualifies you enough to at least apply when an opportunity comes up

  • research office and development – they’re really good about aligning you with opportunities that fit both your niche research and your background

  • your PI can be a huge source of leads – a good PI will gladly help you find money to help keep you around, especially if you’re pulling your weight

Again, this isn’t meant to be a definitive guide, I’m just explaining how I personally found a research opportunity and how I decided to handle the negotiations.

If you’re a premed, you might want to read up on the older articles about how to find research as an undergrad:


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