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A Year Has Passed Since I Applied to Medschool

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A year ago, on this day, I submitted my AMCAS. I held off on submitting to edit a few things, I think the effort & risks were worth it.

During that period I brushed the dust the cob webs off of my disused Twitter account, started blogging, and tried to keep myself occupied. I do better under stress if preoccupied. I then tried to report to you all about what I’ve empirically learned during the application process, being sure to only post about things after I had experienced it. As you may recall, the point of this blog is to record my process from premed to medical school. My first day of school is on August 4th, and I’ll be relocating to Boston permanently on July 30th. I’m pretty excited to meet my classmates!

A year later, I’m still learning my way around Twitter, still blogging, but this time I’m also in medical school. My problems last year are replaced by welcomed medstudent problems — though, it’s a problem I opted into!

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What My Medschool Interviews Were Like

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BUSM Class of 1885
BUSM Class of 1885

I received 8-interview invitations, but after consulting with my wallet, I only went onto 5-interviews. Anyways, about $7K and 5 dry-cleanings of ubiquitous charcoal suit later, I was accepted into all 5-programs. Some people have asked me recently what the interviews were like, so this post is dedicated to that.

The interviews will be told in no particular order, as to not identify the school and reveal their interview process. It was a gentlemen (gentlewomen) agreement we all made during our interview. I won’t cite specifics, but I’ll include what I can tell give you an idea of what interviews can be like.  In general, each school does a pretty impressive job at “aligning” you with an interviewer, or at least that’s what other’s around me on interview day also felt — sometimes it’s less intense, and feels a little more general.

Interview 1

This was a panel interview: one PhD, one MD, and one medical student. We sat around a board table, all of us sticking to one corner. I could see but not read some of the pages of notes about me, and the signs they’d preemptively annotated on my AMCAS and secondary printouts, I instantly appreciated how well my interviewers new my application. I was comforted by the fact that no one knew my application better then me: I wrote it, proofed it innumerable times, and even had a print out in my luggage just in case. And surely enough, point by point they had me verify my commitment, my ideals, and beliefs. They asked me to to explain my research, and it’s importance in medicine, so I did — we even started talking about what was the latest geopolitical news. I naively tried to answer the question given to me by the MD, “How would you fix health care”, I gave them my best shot, while remembering that this wasn’t really a question I was expected to find an answer to. As  non traditional, I had a little more life experience than coursework, so we just had a lot more things to talk about — in fact, one interview did voice their disdain for  younger traditional applicants by saying, “If the biggest problem you faced in college, we’re not sure if they’re ready for life never mind medschool”. Towards the closing of the interview, one interviewer asked me how I felt about the ethics of my grandmothers treatment, this was the only time during my interview trail where I was emotionally weaker than normal (she was my second mother). However, as an adult I knew I had to tackle this question prior to applying to medical school, so I had already mulled over the issue for some time. So, overall it was a rather friendly interview — we actually laughed a lot during the process. After the interview, I was pretty hungry, so I asked about what to eat locally, we spent another 10 minutes after the interview talking about food. The interview itself lasted for about an hour, but it felt like 20 minutes.

I should note that the dean did come, but for a few minutes, gave a hello and left. No interaction.

Interview 2

This interview day was pretty interesting. Apparently, part of the test of getting into the program was finding your interview, because you were given a map and told to scuttle across the medical campus to find your interview. I sort of enjoyed this independence, not everyone did that day. I found my interview room, I had to take two elevators and a bridge and then use a phone with a password to finally find my interview room. When I arrived, we walked to my interviewer’s office. There was a beautiful view out the window, I actually asked to have a moment to take it all in (You see, in California we don’t have this thing you other people in the world call “weather”, we have  “nice”, “hot”, “really hot”, “too damned hot”, and randomly “kinda cold” — though my coldest winters are summers in San Francisco).  So, during my interview trail across the east and mid west it was my first time seeing what autumn should look like, it was really my first time seeing the rest of the country past Colorado. But, I do digress. My interviewer saw had a thick packet, no doubt my application, in her lap.

– She said, “You have an *insert compliment* application, so we don’t even need to discuss it really, instead I want to learn about you — your life story”, to which I responded, “Sure, from when?”, her “birth”. And so, I told her my story for 45 minutes. I didn’t really pay attention much really, I had told this story many times each time holding details back. This time, emblazoned by my night out drinking with my hosts I decided to just tell her everything. My interviewer then got a little teary eyed, this was sort of surprising, and I asked her if she needed a tissue. Not that a had one, it’s just a polite thing people tend to say to each other, after all it was her office. Apparently, a lot of things I said was reminiscent to her own experiences with life she later revealed. I actually did the most prep for this interview, I had already performed all of my homework on the plane, but in the end I was just happy I knew myself. Though, there’s a reasonable likelihood that I was accepted merely because I was capable of finding my room, I’d like to think it’s because my interviewer and I clicked in a short period of time.

One of the deans actually hosted the entire interview day, from morning till afternoon. I was rather impressed, and I really appreciated the time spent with us. Some extra perks of this interview was being able to meet multiple doctors (trauma surgeon for example), and ask them about the program.

Interview 3

Typically, a medical school will wine and dine you with a breakfast, a tour and a spiel on why you should go to that program if given the option to choose. This program just flung me into an interview upon arrival. Unknowingly, I met my interviewer in the lobby, she seemed like a nice person, she even paid me a morning greeting. Though, during the interview, the tables turned. She picked apart my application, criticized my view points and answers on things for about 20 minutes and we argued about something for another 25, and about 10 minutes talking about the program. In the last 5 minutes she told me, I was just being ‘tested”, and she thought I was a strong applicant and was just playing devil’s advocate.

After that interview I had a lunch, and had to prepare for another interview with a medical student or another 45 minutes to a hour. This interview was fourth year, on the verge of graduating. She was extremely friendly. She asked me a few off the wall what if questions, those were actually rather fun. We then talked more about why I chose that school, what was good about the program, what problems did I recognize over the weekend that I stayed in the city. A lot of my interview, I was also asking her things, because I didn’t get that expected generic tour.

After the interview was done, we then sat down with people who didn’t tell us they were the deans of admissions. This was also done to “test us”, we were told directly. Apparently, this program believed in some type of “ninja endurance training”.

Interview 4

The interview day started off with me chatting with the dean of admissions in the lobby or 20 minutes. Then, during my actual interview it was a MD and one MD/PhD. This was an interesting format. One interviewer knew everything about my AMCAS application, while the other one didn’t. The fun part is that I didn’t know who knew. So the trick here was to, again, know my application well and be able to quickly convey what’s important and why. There was some discussion about why I choose that specific program, and because I had done a lot of homework on the school I knew exactly why I wanted to go there, so I just told them why. We spoke of social programs needed to help people, my experience with the indigent and under-served, and they shared their experiences. This was a friendly interview, they weren’t there to hurt me, they were there to see why I wanted to entire their program.

There was also a MMI (medical) interview. This is where they pay actors to pretend to be patients, and you pretend to be a doctor. II had 2-3 minutes to read a prompt case history, then I’d go in and get a history from the patient in 5 minutes. Sounds pretty straight forward, except there’s bound to be something. I think my first mock patient was a “yes” or “no” person, and really all she was there for was to get an unethical prescription — I rejected her gently, while offering her alternatives. The other mock patient came in with a bum joint, from an injury so they wanted a handicap placard. Though, when I asked how long ago was the injury, they told me about 4-5 years ago. So, my “ethical sense” went off, I tried to talk them into rehab while they’re young and fit as opposed to depending on a placard. She seemed disappointed, but rather accepting of my answer, she even agreed to try the rehab. At another interview I saw MMI actors get rather argumentative, so I’m happy I appeased my mock patients.

I met the dean a few more times throughout the day, very nice guy. We spent a lot of time talking about music, jazz, and going out to drink (without letting it get unprofessional of course ^_-).

Interview 5 

This interview day had two interviews, both MD both interviews took place at a hospital. The first interview was with an overworked physician who was also in charge of the implementation of the hospitals electronic medical records (EMR). I could understand how frazzled he was, at the time my job had also volunteered to ensure the successful release of an electronic system for research protocols at my workplace. We laughed about our experiences in “troubleshooting”, and being yelled at for a system we didn’t create but must implement. I’d like to think that this interview gave him a period to relax, because afterwards he was a lot more loose. I actually wish I had a chance to speak with him a little more, it was only about half an hour.

The second interview was also friendly. He didn’t say much about my application, other than paying a compliment. We spoke about the economic down turn that was causing a lot of problems in the US, and we also speculated on the effects on patients and healthcare overall. A significant portion of this conversation was actually centered on naming reasons why I wanted to go to that school and serve that particular community. Luckily for me, I had edited a premed’s personal statement in that state, and they let me stay at their parents house — this saved me a lot of money in boarding. At their parents house, I got the whole run down on the local politics and their opinions. Since I heard my “ears to the ground” so to say, I felt comfortable speaking from experience of what I’ve heard recently. This was another good interview, where I wanted to definitely have a drink with my interviewer, the interview actually went over 15 minutes because we wouldn’t stop talking (even when they were knocking for me to come along).

At this interview, the dean also did a quick stop by, and nothing more.

 

Awaiting Financial Aid for Medschool

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Hi Everyone!

As you probably already know, I applied for medical school last year, interviewed and was accepted. I will be starting in August — white coat ceremony is on day 1 of school!

If you’re curious how it feels, well, pretty damn good. I’m not accustomed to hard work begetting rewards, I had grown up with a empirical truth that hard work correlated to nothing more than hard times — thus, you best enjoy the journey — and so far I did. People often ask me a few questions:

Q: did you party like a rock star after getting into medical school?

I wasn’t showered in confetti, I didn’t go streaking down the street (I sort of imagined that’s how I’d celebrate, but alas now’s not a good time to pick up a misdemeanor), I didn’t take an extravagant excursions to Borneo, nor did I go spelunking. How do I celebrate? In a small way, for example “Man, maybe I shouldn’t buy this shirt..wait I got into medical school”. Those small rewards for myself are enough, because like many college students, I was trying to rival a monk on making due without for years — so, now I’m easy to please. Though, I’m amendable to my readers celebrating vicariously for me.

Q: given the smashing debt, why go into medicine at all?

It’s no secret that medical education is expensive in the US. The average medical student walks out about 180K in debt (not counting their previous debt from getting into medical school in the first place). I really had to ask myself this question, because well I turned down a full tuition scholarship to one medical school, and almost 100K from another. Now, I’m left waiting for my financial aid to be process at BU, and I’m not sure if I’ll be paying the bill by myself or with scholarships. I’ll let you all know soon how that worked out financially. Now, this may seem counter intuitive, especially considering how much I spent on applying. But, I think if anyone is going to use that annoying YOLO, it should be a medical student. You see, I grew up thinking I’d never do much for myself, in fact I thought as a child I’d be a trash man like my mom’s boyfriend  — I even considered the utility of going to college, being the first to go. So, now that I’m going, I decided to just go for it. The person who inspired me to take that chance was my research mentor, and pseudo older brother.

Now feelings aside it’s an investment, because even if I spent 180K on lottery tickets tomorrow, I’m still statistically very unlikely to receive a return that makes the investment worthwhile. I believe that a good ratio of your pay to investment of education is your expected salary versus the investment, obviously you’d like to make more than you spent. So, for example, if you paid 60K for a masters I’d think you’d like to make around that amount annually to stay financially solvent (because I am expected to pay this money back). With that example, you may pay for 60K masters and make 20K for 10 years, this would be a great intellectual and personal investment but perhaps not a financial one. On the other hand, if you paid 150K for a BA in Underwater Basket Weaving, then you may be in for a rough ride if you don’t have a follow up plan. I don’t expect to buy a island in the Caribbean, put showgirls through college, or play golf with the mayor. Heck, I grew up with one solid dream, that is make enough so I have: running water, power, and have a home (because at some point in my life I’ve not had one or more of those). Besides, how many people actually get paid to do what they want to do? So I feel pretty lucky.

I’ll keep you updated about my financial aid package (or lack thereof) in the coming weeks, should be coming soon. Be ready for the possible massive face palm, or the lackluster celebration on my part. On the side note, I think there’s something almost liberating about owing a 1/5 of a million dollars — it really puts every day expenses into perspective, and I find myself rewarding myself a little more than I used to.

#doctorbust find me on twitter @doctorORbust

 

Physiology Research – My Work/Activity

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“It’s a little too morbid…you might offend someone if you include that part in your presentation”, he was right, I decided to cut certain details out of my presentation at Berkeley symposium that year. I never delete slides, I simply hide them with the mighty right click, so in this post I’m going to discuss some of those slides/explanations that never made into my presentation. It’s going to get a little descriptive, and well, it may even offend you a little bit. So, read on at your own risk.

Prior to being accepted into medical school, a study produced by my former lab was recently published (I was not an author, just a contributor). It was an electrophysiology study, and I helped collect data on this project, and several other pilot projects, so I’m pretty happy about this. i started at this lab when my research mentor, my principal investigator (PI) and former physiology professor, offered me a wonderful experience in his new lab following a satisfying performance in lab and lecture. There was a catch he emphasized, the lab wasn’t actually constructed yet (new lab), nor were there many projects lined up (winging it with science), oh and we’d be learning as we go as it’s a new frontier (kiss your *ss goodbye). At first, I thought it rhetorical, wasn’t all research supposedly on the frontier so to speak? Though, I soon learned he meant everything he said, in the literal sense — in fact, once he asked me “do you know how to solder”, I knew I was in trouble. By new lab, he meant new lab, as in nothing but wall, tiles, and cobwebs. Neither the less, our goal was to get a cellular membrane electrophysiology lab up and running from scratch. We were cavalier on obtaining new equipment, it turns out many pharmaceuticals have blowout sales or giveaways every now and then, presumably with a reward of tax reimbursements. While amassing the fancy equipment, we filled the time by critiquing historic literature (Fatz & Katz, Huxley, Bertil Hille) and emerging research. We lowered our self esteem by spending time trying to decipher Maxwell equations, implications of Brownian motion, and the innards of electric fields and all it’s joyous pleasures — I learned, after taking a year of physiology by that time, that I still knew absolutely nothing. We merged weekly lab discussions with the legacy lab across from ours, another membrane studying lab. But, they had several people interested in medicine, so we had to purchase a tomb called Medical Physiology. To sharpen our fangs on theory, we had to take turns presenting and being torn apart by your peers and several physiology professors (it was good times). I suppose it was here that I finally started to get my answers on how medicine, physiology, and physics were all entangled. It was also the first time that I learnt the main problem/fun of science, the closer your examine the problem the fuzzier it gets, and the less adequate is all the tools you used to get to that point.

After several months of theory work, literature review, technique practice I was finally able to conduct an electrophysiology experiment, independently, from start to finish. Without going into a long, and somewhat esoteric background, let me just tell you (or perhaps remind you) that it’s long been known that electrolytes such as sodium, potassium have an important function in organisms. First year physiology teaches that it’s the gradient of charge, intracellular to extracellular, is vital for the function of most cells. And, it’s long been known that these charges can be created by electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, and for a while only these electrolytes got a day a fame. But, what about chloride? For a long time It was thought that chloride was just an ion that went along for the ride, and the channels that allowed for its flow did so without control — in other words, that chloride was just this channel that sat wide open and didn’t do much. We thought this both weird in evolutionary terms, and although a lot of labs at that time still went against our hypothesis we thought the chloride channel had to be regulated.

*In case you’re curious, the intracellular side gets it’s charge both from the charge gradient and proteins that created the net negative charge within.

Long story short, we verified our beliefs, found out our study had implications with Huntington’s Disease (Nature), and I learned a lot about ion channels. The study also finally gives some leads to some medical mysteries such as some symptoms of certain muscle diseases. Here’s a little bit about how it was done:

A day in an electrophysiology lab:

1. Go to animal facility, sign out mouse to be euthanize. The mice came out of money from lab funds, or research grants brought to the lab.

2. Euthanize mouse with isoflorane. This would asphyxiate the mouse within seconds. You have to be careful about the level of the gas, the dose is very important. Federal regulations mandate a redundancy in euthanization, this is seen as more ethical than proceeding with the rest of the process without being sure that the animal will not be in pain any further. Some labs use a guillotine (no joke), we went with the standard brute cervical dislocation while the mouse was unconscious with it’s heart presumably already stopped.

3. Harvest the muscles you need using a scalpel after skinning the dead mouse, sheers, a dissecting scope, some enzymes, and steady hands. We’d take out 2 muscles usually (sometimes three), two in the palms and one in the neck region (picture not shown).

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We took muscle group 8
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We took muscle group 10.

4. We either kept muscles as whole myofibers (easier experimentally, but less accurate results), or we dissociated them (notoriously difficult to work with, but gives very accurate results). After we prepared a sample, we then had to visualize it on a microscope, and impale the cell with ridiculously sharp electrodes. *Not all electrodes need be sharp, some experiments keep a end “broken”, it sucks a section of membrane in, making a seal and it’s a type of patch-clamp, we didn’t do these types of experiments*. So, the picture was my work space for hours on end.

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This is what we affectionately called the rig. You could spend up to 8-10 hours with it at any given day, after a while more of those fancy dials make sense.
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The foil you see there houses a copper case, it’s a ghetto-rigged Faraday cage. Our measurements are very sensitive, so we do a lot to isolate signals that might have originated from the equipment itself. The vials are so we can add stuff to keep the tissue alive, or toxins etc.
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That pink blob in the middle is whole muscle tissue, excised from the neck of a mouse. Those giant glass rods plunging into them are the electrodes, impaling the muscle without killing it with the electrodes is an acquired skill. We controlled the electrodes with a machine, it was like playing a background/inverted “claw” catching game, but on steroids.

Last step: find a good muscle cell, photograph it, and measure it’s electrical properties.

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The horizontal strands are muscle, the lightening strike shaped stuff going down are nerves that innervate the fibers. This was taken with my cell phone, and a lot of patience.
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I was sent to Cal Tech to help acquire this image, this is a muscle cell totally dissociated from others. It’s read because it was using a laser to image the image instead of white light.

And at the end of all of that, you analyze a bunch of squiggly lines, and pretend like you know what you’re talking about. A lot of the formulas I used in this lab later showed up on the MCAT, though in a more “useful” form. All experience is cumulative. Before I thought medicine was for me, I learned a lot on the scientific process, and strongly considered a PhD. Now, I’m getting my MD, but I’ll never forget how much I learned what I didn’t know, and how much I probably won’t ever know.

But, at least I know that we were right =)

 

Personal Statement — How to Get That First Draft – 6 Simple Rules

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join the conversation on twitter @doctorORbust

*I used the first rule right now*

Recently, after I responded with comments for a reader’s Personal Statement, I received a follow up email with the question of “Just how do you get started on a draft in the first place?”. Good question, so that’s the topic of this entry.

After graduating college I was looking for a job, I saw a position as content writer for: nutrition, health, and technology. Since I had never written for cash before, had no editorial experience, I naively submitted one of my writing samples from my lab days after several glasses of wine at 4 AM. About a month later, I received a call an editor, a phone interview was held, and I was hired on as a content writer. What I didn’t know is that typically people pull off an internship or two before asking for cash, so I had to pull out all of my procrastination lessons learned in college to write my almost 100 contributed articles.

Rule 1 — Write the conclusion first: it’s often pretty hard to start writing, but once you start things do seem to roll down hill from there. Never the less, the activation energy required for the first draft is through the roof (if that reference went over your head you’d best make sense of it before the MCAT). A common question you’ll receive if you receive a primary or secondary application is where do you see yourself in 10 years? That answer to that question is an excellent conclusion. Move past just “getting in”, project to what you’ll do with your credentials. Don’t oversell your future (don’t say I’ll win 34 peace prizes), but do let them know why admitting you would help the community. Since you know where you’re going building the rest of the plot/premises shouldn’t be that difficult.

Rule 2 — Identify about 3 premises that explain your argument, qualify premises don’t pontificate your point.

The best way to get a rational person to ignore your rational premises is to argue them in an irrational way. You could rebut, but wouldn’t it be irrational to ignore someone’s rational premise based on the pretty package it came in — well, tell bad, if you can’t communicate effectively then you’re ship sinks before it sails. Stick to a few points, don’t make a laundry list, it’ll make you sound like your either over compensating or didn’t have that much depth of involvement. If you can’t pick 3 premises, that’s fine, just make a huge draft with all of them, then go back with critical friends and identify the best ones that lead congruently to the ending in your conclusion. Though, the premises you do choose should improve/fill gaps in your application, since the process of acceptance is rather holistic.

Rule 3 — Beat your reader to the punch when it comes to weaknesses in your argument.   

Currently my job is in ethics and risk assessments for research involving animals and research. As such, I spend all day reading people’s research protocols with them trying to obscure their weaknesses in their applications (not always true). People want to graduate, and often they feel I am the golem blocking their path, so some feel maybe if they had their weakness then maybe I won’t notice. This is wrong, I still notice, but now I also think you have something to hide. The same went for when I wrote articles, or wrote lab write ups. You’re a lot more convincing when you’re critical. Critical doesn’t mean you abuse yourself, it means you see both sides of the coin. So, it’s okay to bring up bad grades/scores, just leave it to one or two sentences. Above all else, own up to it, but it is okay to explain how it happened. But, it wouldn’t matter if Godzilla came and gobbled up your organic professor and your “deserved grade”, even if you don’t know where Godzilla came from it’s best to just say “damn, but won’t happen again, learned my lesson” than “woe is me”. With that in mind, remember to not over compensate for those weaknesses (everyone has a boo-boo on their application).

Rule 4 — Never write without an outline made from the premises brainstormed in Rule 2. Maintain a separate simplified outline, and feel free to move the outline premises around as you please. Keep outline short, it’ll make sure things keep fluid — the longer your outline becomes the more useless it becomes IMHO. 

Being aware of your premises, and having a structure will help prevent wasteful passages,sentences, and structures. It will also help get rid of redundancies. Let’s face it, things are almost always clearer from afar than up close, i.e. outline versus the actual draft.

Example outline (note that while the conclusion is at the end, the premises can be slide around or removed completely):

– Conclusion: accepted into medical school, training interns as resident, fellowship, community center for public health education for BP/diabetes etc. (note, I wrote this first, I actually had no idea what to write, and the rest just came)

– Premise 1: establish why I want to go no matter what – qualify with life long learning examples in X, show with examples of hospital where I helped X and learned X.

– Premise 2: establish I got the brain fire power, and I can stand after failure – qualify with slight mention of awards, after and only after first telling about my initial hardships to make sure I establish an upward trend in the narrative. Maybe mention some research here, let the research speak for itself. Help establish why I have the muster for how hard medschool will surely be.

– Premise 3: establish that I understand what service is, make my essay service oriented. — mention hosptial volunteering exp (related to premise 1), and correctional facility volunteering for non med community, make sure I explain the lessons learned to become a better physician/medstudent.

Rule 5 — Write the introduction last.

Golden Rule: Always know where your PS is going, knowing your conclusion will set you up for this. And, with a solid outline, and a draft with elements to qualify your response writing the conclusion typically isn’t that bad. Writing the first sentence may be difficult, but after you’ve seen your whole draft its a lot easier to “capture” the spirit in the introduction.

Rule 6 — Never procrastinate. 

Never rush a piece of art. Rushing at the end will only end in your despair. If you outline early, work with premises early, then the PS just sort of falls together over time. But, it falls together in a beautiful way. If you rush it, it’ll show in the editing/structure/premises/arguments/style, why rush the most important PS you’ve ever written? If you pace out your work writing a PS is actually quite systematic, albeit meticulous, process. A bad PS is a great way to get rejected.

Good luck!

#doctorbust

Research Doing Research

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Toss tomatoes at me, or chat with me on twitter https://twitter.com/doctorORbust

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 Accepted.com:

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http://blog.accepted.com/2015/01/26/pre-med-summer-undergraduate-research-programs/

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 Q & A Session with Accepted.com

Posted on Updated on

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Hi Everyone,

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by http://www.accepted.com, an organization with a primary goal of helping students apply for graduate programs.

You can find the full interview at their website: http://blog.accepted.com/2014/01/21/a-non-traditional-med-applicants-journey-to-multiple-acceptances/

I would like to thank Sarah Pritzker for a very professional and friendly interview.

Thanks for having me accepted.com.