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:


Research, I Missed It — Also Known as Funding Summer

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So, I get to approach patients from a different perspective, this summer I will work with patients for research purposes. I imagine this is coming for most medical students. During the summer, we aren’t funded — as far as financial aid is considered, we just disappear off the face of the earth, then we reappear out of the blue in the fall (to their credit, this is totally feasible at a quantum level). Thus, we do things during the summer to make ends meet. Some just have pared expenses, and have enough to scrape by for the summer. Others, they return to their home state or stay with nearby relatives because it works out budget wise. Many do research projects, paid (CNA) nursing exposure program, others traveled to foreign countries on stipends, and some give an extra hand as a student doctor at satellite community clinics.

The very fortunate, they do a well deserved nothing. If you’re one of those people, please, party a little harder in my honor as I live vicariously through you. 

For myself, I think I’ve mentioned it before that I’ll start working on a cardiology project. I wanted to avoid the stress of trying to find a summer project, so I contacted the doctor I’m working with now early in the fall quarter. This may sound sort of ridiculous, but I did it early because I knew that most of the deadlines for scholarships come in February. And, it’s a lot easier to accomplish research related stuff like funding, required medical human research training (a lot of online modules and quizzes), writing a proposal etc. I’m a lazy person, so I knew I had to space these tasks out or I’d feel overwhelmed. Most projects involving people or animals will involve those steps, with the only big modification being the level or type of online ethics training they’ll need to do. There are different ethics training you can do, NIH, CITI, depending on the place you’re at. However, that CITI one is usually considered gold currency between institutions. The reason why I’m saying all of this is because I was fortunate to have a lot of my old ones roll over, because I had to do a lot of them for work before (you always use the same account for ethics training, it’s ethical!).

To back things up a bit, and to make a point, I think you should make it a point to do research only if:

1) You found/know where to find money.

Finding money is a big deal in research, no matter the purity of intent, plenty of great ideas go unfunded. Also, unless you’re helping the unfortunate, you shouldn’t be afraid to not want to eat Cup Noodles ever again when trying to raise money for the summer. In undergrad, I did a lot of free research work/labor, sometimes paid usually not. Admittedly, it was a lot of the unpaid portions that probably help catapult me into medical school. Therefore, I can entertain the argument that there’s more to research than your stipend. Indeed. And, if you can find a landlord that accepts “good spirit” as a form of payment and I’m with you. But, life is unpredictable and you can’t determine when you’ll have a random expense you didn’t see coming (in my situation, just found out my landlord is selling the house so it’s time to hit the market, again 😞.

2) The subject/purpose really matters to you.

A seminal event for me, was the death of my grandmother. She was a second mother to me. Her death was untimely. But,  who’s death is timely? She died of a pulmonary embolism during surgery to remove a stent, secondary to the stent that had built up plaque on it — in fact, these stents come with huge contraindications. Understanding that my grandmother, who grew up physically cripple and illiterate but full of spirit and love, essentially drowned in her own fluids until her heart finally failed never sat right with me. It was also the lynch pin event that sealed me to sign my soul away into medicine. For myself, I wondered what life would have been if I were a physician in training instead of chasing my curiosity. I suppose, now I feel the answer lies somewhere in between. So, I’m doing research in cardiology.

Started training and sat in several meetings to prepare for the project.

For the project, last week I had a required session for electronic health records training, the system we use is called EPIC. This is just a computer system for patient charts/hospital records, physician notes, prescriptions, surgical histories, labs etc. — part of my project involves going through a lot of charts. Boston has the most physicians per capita in the US, number two I believe is New York, and so we have a lot of hospitals and clinics. Beyond that, a lot of large hospitals have interconnected health records. So, when I’m at the community clinic I see primary care physicians using EPIC; they use it to chart and look up patient medical histories after (while) interviewing. Even while shadowing at the main hospital, EPIC is also used at the hospitals where I shadow. In other words, I will have to learn how to use it, might as well do it now.

Part of my project, or rather part of my grant, involves co-mentoring and running journal clubs for 10 undergraduates who were invited to Boston University (with free housing and a research stipend). I just saw the schedule, apparently we have a journal club meeting every week, and we’ll take them out on the town several times to seduce them into science. The rest of my days will be spent doing my project.

I won’t bore you too much with the details of my research, other than saying it’s a project in atrial fibrillation (AF). I’ll be recruiting patients, and possibly analyzing (preliminary results) extensive ECG records. So, to prepare for that the principal investigator (cardiologist) and with my research partner (fellow classmate/friend) and I, spent most of the early morning discussing AF: epidemiology, socioeconomic factors, statistics, etiology, genomics, physiology, and finally the impact on patients as people. He gave us a tour of the parts of the hospital we’ll be working. Our hospital is a medical complex, so there’s several buildings, and many floors and buildings built later than others. As such, it’s like maneuvering through a catacomb, underground dungeon included. We met several physicians, nurses, spoke to several coordinators, and many other friendly faces.

Tomorrow, I’ll help the undergraduates move into their dorms. I so rarely go to the undergraduate campus, so it’ll be an adventure. But, before that I’ll meet with my research partner and we’ll practice running the research consents past each other. We figured if we stammered through it with each other we’d better feign competence when working with patients. This weekend we’ll be spent reading the eight research papers our PI just sent us, and of course making sure to take time out for a beer.

To summarize, or distill something useful from this post:

1. If you know what you want to do have things lined up so that you may apply for grants and scholarships (scholar programs) early, it’ll remove a lot of the last minute scramble. Keep in mind that a lot of deadlines come in February of the year you start medical school, so it’s easy to miss these if you’re not aware of them.

2. Don’t be afraid of the occasional double booking of plans, as long as you don’t commit it’s okay, because some plans fall through (PI ran out of funding, or something like that). Don’t try to double dip, but do make a plan A and B. My plan A was this opportunity, my plan B was an amyloid cardiology project. I was honest with my plan B, I told them that I had plan A, and they told me to come to them if plan A fell through.

3. Don’t be afraid to apply for outside funding as well, especially since institutional money (usually as spread out as possible) won’t be given to everyone who applies. Also, I enjoyed feeling removed from the competitive pool when people were wondering who got funding and who didn’t. I applied for several scholarships and didn’t hear anything back from any (including a Tylenol grant). But, applying to medical school means being rejected by a lot of places and hopefully gaining acceptance somewhere. So, it didn’t feel that bad to hold out for help since I wasn’t facing any real deadlines yet about earning money. In the end, I received a NIH partnered with American Heart Association grant/scholar program. It’s important to say that I didn’t just solo mission, I also used the resources given to us by our school and followed tips about who to talk to when I got the chance.

So, even though I have a lot of work ahead of me, some coursework, meetings on meetings, patient screenings, and data splurges, I’m just happy I have money for both rent (including enough to search for a new place) and security that I can fly to see my parents and friends this year.

Thanks for reading!

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).

We took muscle group 8
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.


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.
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.
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.

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.
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 =)


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

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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.