Lessons Learned from Premed Research

When I started my pre-med coursework, I asked myself a universal question premed students ask: “Do I really need research experience?”

Which, let’s be honest, is not a question that has an easy answer. After all, plenty of students are admitted to medical school each year with little or no research experience. From what I can tell though, those stories are becoming more scarce, suggesting research is becoming an unspoken requirement. Because  I subscribe to the don’t-knock-it-‘til-you-try-it philosophy of life, I made the choice to pursue a research project in order to get some experience.

Now, it would be nice if I went to an enormous, well-funded university hosting a variety of research projects that have direct applications to the field of medicine, but was not the case. Instead, I found myself working on a project examining the effects of population density on mortality and bone ossification in African clawed frogs. Yeah, I know, my paper is never going to be cited in NEJM. What matters was  I could get a research experience, build connections, and figure out whether I wanted to do research work.

The three things that I got out most from my research as an undergraduate (well, post-baccalaureate) student:

1) You form close relationships with some of the best professors in the world.

Not only has she been an excellent sounding board for my hare-brained ideas, she also got to know me well enough to write me a strong letter of recommendation. Apparently, despite a few broken pieces of glassware and other minor (and sometimes major) lab mishaps, I managed to convince her that I’m actually competent. Maybe she’s not so smart after all.

2) You learn to work in team environments

Because my teammates and I all have full-time professional Look At Me I’m A Grown-Up jobs, we came up with creative ways of addressing the logistical problems of our work when meeting face-to-face was  not feasible. Just like patient handoffs, frog (well, data) handoffs are critical.

3)  You get a real sense of accomplishment

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I come from a culture that de-emphasizes personal accomplishments, which is kind of a bummer. I mean, you work hard, you overcome a challenge, and then you have to shut up about it lest someone respond dismissively. Well, after a year of spent tediously rearing our tadpoles, painstakingly collecting data, staining our specimens so we can visualize their developing skeletons, and cataloging the presence or absence of dozens of bones in hundreds of specimens, we are finally putting together an abstract for submission to a conference. And I am going to buck my culture and say yes, I am happy with what we have accomplished!

Which brings us to this past week. At our last meeting, the three research students were hunched over our laptops, alternately exclaiming “YES!” and “Wait… Noooo!” as we fiddled with our graphs in an effort to discern trends out of noise. We are not at the home stretch yet. Abstracts need to be finished, posters have to be started.

Conclusion

So, with over a year of experience, am I a convert? Does research light my fire? The answer is… I have no idea. Maybe? Probably. Who knows.

There are dozens pf things I enjoyed about my project, yes, and a decent number of them are things that are not project-specific but rather applicable to research as a whole. And there are plenty of aspects of medical research that I might love that are wholly absent from the project I have the most experience with. . All I can tell you for now is that I don’t hate research, and I am not terrible at it, and I might enjoy it a bit more if it was in a subject I found more engaging.

With this in mind, the typical advice of “It doesn’t matter what kind of research you do, just do some research,” may be bad advice for many of us. Maybe we ought to amend it to “Admissions committees don’t care what kind of research you do, but you should pick something that’s either medically relevant or personally interesting.” Too bad that’s not quite as pithy.

What do you think, readers? Did your undergraduate research experiences affirm or destroy your interest in research, or do you just feel mildly uninspired?

(PS: For those of you playing along at home, as of this writing, I’ve received eleven interview invites and three rejections. I’m flying out for the first interview at the end of August and could not be more excited. This is really happening!)

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