Post-Bachelors,  Pre-Med

How To Start Conversations In Research

This blog is meant to accompany my Get Involved in Research blog. It is best to start with that blog prior to starting this one!

So you made the decision to get involved in research, congratulations! As stated in my last blog, research is a great way to integrate the different concepts that you are learning as a pre-medical student. The How To Start Conversations in Research blog will share student testimonies and practical advice to get you on your way to being the best student researcher you can be. I cannot wait to hear your successes!

It is never too early or too late to start research.

  • Lay out your goals. What do you want to complete in one year? five years? ten years?
  • Ask yourself: Is research going to help reach those goals?
  • If yes, look at yourself in the mirror and say: “I can do this!”

No matter your age or past qualifications, you can start research. Do not let yourself be overwhelmed by the achievements of great researchers and scientists. I spent too long of my undergraduate research experience thinking I was not capable of finding the “right answer” in my hypotheses. There is no right answer! Failures are just as important as successes in science. After you’ve told yourself that you can do this, let’s move on to the next step.


Be realistic with the time demands of other commitments.

The ultimate weapon of the pre-med is a planner. Whether electronic or paper, keep a planner and to-do list that you check hourly or at the very least daily. Prior to finding a research investigator, schedule out your time. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I commit 5-10 hours a week in the laboratory?
  • Can I commit 1-2 hours a week reviewing research literature or training in a new laboratory technique?
  • Do I want to prepare a poster for X conference? When is the abstract due by? When is the conference?
  • What other commitments do I have?
    • I need to prioritize my organic chemistry tutoring sessions.
    • I need to prioritize 5 hours a week for MCAT problems.
    • I need to prioritize 7-8 hours a sleep a night.
    • I need to prioritize 1 hour at the gym daily.

 

"I asked if my professor needed any help in his lab, whether that was cleaning up or something small. He agreed and I worked my way up to helping out more and more. It just takes a small step to get your foot in the door."
Andru W.
Pre-Med
"I started by making phone calls to doctors offices in my area. It was very hard to get in touch with actual doctors, but eventually I got a cover letter expressing my interest in research to one doctor’s secretary. After seeing the letter, the doctor emailed me. We ended up working together for a year. You have to put yourself out there and tell people what you want to do."
Lendon H.
Pre-Med

Find a research investigator.

After ensuring a realistic schedule, seek a research investigator in your interests. Do not be afraid to find investigators outside of your major or minor! Though an engineering major, I enjoyed learning of the ongoing projects at my Psychology or Kinesiology departments.

  • Search your university research institutions. If you are a future, budding pathologist, the forensic chemistry research institute could be a cool option! If you are a future family medicine physician, check out what research institutes involve public health policy.
  • Review the research institute’s website.
    • What current students are involved? Are they undergraduate, graduate, or post-doc?
    • What funding is available?
    • Are they seeking paid or volunteer positions?
    • What faculty are a part of the institute?
    • What faculty are in charge of what specific projects?
    • What recent publications catch your eye?

Assess your goals to create a realistic time frame. Do not forget to include personal life things! As stated in the last blog, happiness leads to productivity. Do not sacrifice one important part of your life to be the ultimate (but unhappy) pre-med. If research is the key to a part of your happiness and you can realistically make time for it without harming other important facets of your life, let’s find an investigator!Once a faculty has caught your attention, email them. Here is a sample email below:

Sample email to a professor using Gmail. It may be best to use your university email, so that the professor can ensure you are a current student.

To create an effective email, follow these tips.

  • Use a professional personal email or your university email.
  • Include a subject line with direct purpose to your message.
  • Always address people by their title (Dr./Ms./Mr.) If unknown, always say Dr. It is better for them to correct you for holding their training too highly rather than too lowly
  • Ensure no spelling or grammar mistakes. (Sophmore should be sophomore!)
  • Quickly introduce yourself and where you saw their work.
  • Succinctly explain why their work is of importance to you.
  • If applicable, address what qualifications you can bring to the table.
  • Don’t be afraid to flat out ask to participate! Ask to shadow or be given a tour of their laboratory.
  • Conclude by again asking to meet with them. Provide a clear message of your availability.
  • Create a professional signature. I included my major, year of graduation, and any leadership positions in my signatures.

Follow up with the professor if they do not get back to you within the week. If you cannot get a hold of them, try a graduate student or move on to another faculty of interest.


Get A Project

Upon meeting the professor, communicate your interests. Keep them consistent with your introductory email. Address how they relate to their work. By this time, you have a clear understanding of what you can bring to their laboratory and what you are able to commit time-wise. The most important lesson in this section will be listening.

Kind reminder, this investigator is an expert in their field. You have much to learn from this individual! In my experience, websites are often more behind than what is on-going in their laboratory. Ask what current projects they have and if you can meet the students working on them. Be open to learning new techniques. Be cautious to not come off as superior. Allow this to be a growing opportunity!

If you have no experience,

Be confident in your ability to say “I don’t know.” People will likely respect your honesty. If you state interest in a laboratory but have no idea where to start, your investigator will put you where you are most needed. You will be paired with a more experienced student who can show you the ropes. Don’t forget to take this opportunity to explore relevant research literature!

My favorite research experience came from my time as a sophomore who had no idea what they were doing. I was in charge of cleaning glassware and preparing electrodes, but I learned a great deal about electrodeposition of thin films and how to ensure precise measurements. My time in grunt work set the foundation for my scientific skills now!

If you have experience,

Claim your achievements, but do not tout them. If you are in a new laboratory, recognize that it may be necessary to earn your groupmates’ trust before running a major project. Learn what current projects everyone is working on and the techniques used to collect data. Again, make this a learning opportunity!

If you are established in a laboratory and want to take on the next challenge (maybe finally submit that manuscript or submit an abstract!), communicate this to your faculty and assigned graduate student. If possible logistically, I have no doubts your investigator will want to hold you back. Sharing the group’s good work at multiple conferences helps the group’s reputation and potential for funding! Communicate your desires and strive for success!

“I was interested in the molecular mechanisms of stress-induced responses and how they can be modulated using genetic or environmental factors. My project involved identifying genes that significantly elevated the survival rate of C. elegans after 48 hours of anoxia. I found a few genes that upon anoxia, they had elevated survival rates. A graduate student that mentored me every step of the way found the differences to be statistically significant. Those two words are music to any scientist’s ears, so I was ecstatic that I contributed to this field of study!”
Kevin R.
Pre-Med

I hope this is a helpful starter guide to all the future scientists and physicians out there! I’ll say it again and again, anyone can be a researcher if they have the passion and grit to follow through. As someone who highly values data and evidence-based medicine, any contribution to discovering this world is a great contribution!


Go out and make a difference.

 

-Redhead

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