How Should I Pursue Research Opportunities?

I just started my junior year of college and have met many new students that express interest in pursuing a career in medicine. It is so exciting to see new first and second year students ambitiously seeking out new opportunities to explore. I feel like I have learned quite a lot over the past two years in college, especially from those older than me. The mentorship I received from junior and senior students when I was a freshman guided me strongly along the path towards medicine. Likewise, I hope to be that person for other students because mentorship and sharing advice and opportunities is a vibrant and important aspect of medical (and pre-medical) training. One thing I, specifically, love to talk to new students about is research opportunities and how/if they should seek them out.

My freshman year, I walked into our university pre-medical advisor’s office and told him I’d really like to become involved in biomedical research, even if that meant that I had to sweep the floors or wash beakers. He thankfully told me I wouldn’t have to do any of that but could join his team. This opportunity was one of the best decisions I made as an undergraduate because it allowed me to see if research was something I was interested in. I eventually used this experience as robust aspect of my resume when applying for internships at larger institutions. I think doing research is important as an undergraduate and pre-medical student. This isn’t to say that everyone will love it or even like it at all, but at least it will show you an appreciation for the work that goes into advancing medical care and biomedical science. Additionally, you have the flexibility to work in areas that interest you scientifically and gain connections for your future. How do you know if you should do research at all, though? These are some of the considerations that I think a pre-medical or medical student should think through when deciding whether to pursue research experiences.

I’ve never had the experience; how will I know if I enjoy it?

I came to college from a very small school in rural Tennessee and did not have extensive or meaningful research experiences while there. I knew that I really liked science, though, and aspired to see if a research career was for me. I came into college very open-minded about what experiences I would engage in. If you haven’t had a research experience (basic science or clinical), I would suggest trying it out. You will never know if you enjoy something if you don’t try it, even temporarily. However, if you have had some type of research experience and found that it wasn’t for you, then look for other opportunities that may fit your interests more closely. Additionally, there are different types of research to explore and engage in so don’t feel like just because one area doesn’t work for you (like computational biology) that other areas won’t (such as clinical cardiology). In short, I say try it and see if you like it, and if not then you haven’t lost anything and have an experience that can be a talking point in a resume or interview.

How do I get research opportunities?

There are many avenues that will get you to the same place when it comes to research. My freshman year, I simply asked an advisor. My sophomore year, I applied for an internship. My junior year, I’m working with a doctor that I’ve shadowed in the past. Depending on where you attend university, there may or may not be an abundance of opportunities (there aren’t at my school). However, don’t hesitate to look beyond your immediate surroundings. I chose to start looking for opportunities at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which is a mile away from my school and full of research labs. Another avenue for finding research is through formal internships and fellowships. A quick Google search (“biomedical internships for undergraduates”, “cellular and molecular biology fellowships for undergraduate students”, etc.) will give you plenty of options for finding an internship that fits your interests. Internships are a GREAT thing. They usually pay a generous stipend, provide housing and sometimes travel, and are an amazing way to visit a new city or school. You will have to spend some time going through internship links and seeing which ones are best for you. Some require a certain level of education, previous research experience, or certain classes like biochemistry or molecular biology. Others prefer students who are freshmen or sophomores without any experience. Look for ones in cities and schools that you would like to visit. I recommend applying for internships that you’re confident you can get and some that would be a “reach” for you. That way, you can have options! Lastly, if you don’t get an internship, don’t feel defeated. These are usually very competitive to get into. You are your best advocate, and it is perfectly fine to respectfully and confidently ask for a position in a lab you’re interested in elsewhere (not through a formal internship). There are many ways to gain that experience, just don’t give up and you will succeed.

How will research help me?

I could dedicate an entire post to the skills and lessons I’ve learned through research. In short, it will teach you how to problem solve, troubleshoot issues, work well with others, write scientifically and clearly, manage time, and deal with set-backs. Personally, research experiences will connect you with people that can dramatically influence your future. Whether it be doctors and scientists or other students, the people I’ve met through research have really impacted my life personally and professionally. Finally, research is typically looked favorably upon. I think this is because it can be hard sometimes and requires a level of dedication and sacrifice. Conducting research has undoubtedly been the highlight of my undergraduate experience. That is why I love talking to new students about how to gain biomedical research experiences.

Hopefully all of this will encourage you to consider a research experience. It is fun, intellectually interesting, and a great way to network, learn, and grow as a student and future doctor. There are so many ways to get these meaningful opportunities, and I am always willing to further discuss the ways I have with anyone who is interested. Passing along advice, encouragement, and opportunities is one of the most important things I think we can do to promote collaboration as pre-medical and medical students.

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Mary Barber

Mary Barber studies Chemistry and English Literature at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. An average day for her includes running from microbiology lecture to having discussions on the writings of Nabokov to designing experiments in the lab – she says it’s a little crazy but always fun. Her passions (currently) include studying cardiovascular disease caused by cancer therapies, writing, and monthly dates baking cupcakes with cancer patients. One day when she grow up Mary hopes to be a physician researcher, treat patients with heart problems, write books, and do yoga every day.