By Jiayi Hu, HBSc, MD

Jiayi completed numerous research projects at various academic institutions (University of Toronto, McGill University, University of Cambridge, and McMaster University) during medical school and residency. He enjoys both the basic and clinical science research. Here he shares a few thoughts on getting involved in research as an undergraduate student.

  1. Start early. Nowadays, it is extremely rare to come across a medical school application without any research experience. This has almost become an unwritten requirement. During your undergraduate studies, there is limited time to conduct quality projects that yield meaningful results, especially considering the time required to overcome an initial learning curve. Therefore, it is important to take on research opportunities early. In addition, research plays a significant role during medical school and beyond.
  2. Apply broadly. It is always difficult when applying for your first research position. The more positions you apply for, the higher the chances are of you securing at least one of them. Make sure you read through a professor’s research interests and recent publications to demonstrate your interest in the field and to have the adequate background knowledge to discuss potential projects. In addition to a typical introductory email or phone call, you can also approach professors in person, for example, at networking events or attend professors’ office hours, and discuss your research interests.
  3. There are various opportunities to do research.Students typically get involved with projects during their summers. Remember that you may also be allowed to conduct a thesis project as an undergraduate course as explained in the “Completing an undergraduate thesis project) (Section 3.3) (typically done in your senior years). Also, you may become involved in survey-based research among your classmates that may not restrict you to a specific allotted time, such that you can maintain a flexible schedule. In addition, you can participate in studies in an administrative role, such as a research coordinator.
  4. Be efficient. For basic science research, pick research projects/labs that have a quicker turnaround time for experiments given the research model or system at hand. For example, this may include microbiology studies (bacteria, yeast), DNA sequencing studies, and leukemia cell investigations among other models. This will allow you to generate more data in the limited time that you have for research.
  5. Network locally and globally. In addition to building friendships with members of your lab or department, traveling is also a lot of fun in the summer! Simply apply for research positions at a location away from your home institution, as seen in the next section. The US, UK, and Germany usually have many summer research opportunities. One caveat is that it may be difficult to continue the project and carry it to completion after school starts again in the fall.
  6. Pick the ideal lab. An ideal lab, in my opinion, should:i. Place personal safety as top priority. This is very similar to the “non-maleficence” principle in medical ethics , which means, “do no harm” to achieve a possible beneficial outcome.

    ii. Have a supportive and driven supervisor who is punctual and communicates with you on a regular basis.

    iii. Have a cohesive and collaborative research team (including collaboration with other labs).

    iv. Have a good publication record, which indicates that your research project will have a higher likelihood to be published.

    v. Have an excellent team of technicians available to assist researchers.

    vi. Have easy access to a biostatistician when necessary. Students often struggle to perform statistical analysis on their own and often resort to the expertise of biostatisticians.

    vii. Allow for flexibility with research timelines, such that one can incorporate other academic or extracurricular activities into the schedule.

    viii. Support for attending conferences and other networking opportunities, as students usually are not able to finance these opportunities on their own.

  7. Strive for continuous improvement. Learn non-academic skills (leadership, communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, etc.) from your supervisor and other lab members. Research is not just about the project and the results, it is also about the interpersonal skills you gain from the interactions.
  8. Be realistic and set realistic expectations, but work at your highest capacity.i. Is it easy to publish a study? No, most projects will go unpublished during their expected or desired timeline. Some projects may never be published. However, there are many opportunities for you to display your research, such as conferences, student research days, and various online platforms.

    ii. Is your research going to change the world? Perhaps. However, the impact you make on your field of study will likely not be direct or immediate. Unfortunately, there is a substantial amount of research that is rarely read by the research community.

    iii. Is it going to help with your medical school application? In most cases, yes. The admissions committee will see your dedication and hard work in carrying out a research project. They will be curious to see if the scholarly and personal skills you have acquired can be brought forward as a future physician. Therefore, you must be able to effectively describe your research and the skills learned on both your application and during your interview.

  9. Be reflective. Always evaluate your progress and make adjustments as necessary. Research findings can be unpredictable. Therefore, you should take a reflective approach throughout the research process and be flexible with your plans. Be open to feedback from others to help you improve your progress.

3 Gillon R., Medical ethics: four principles and plus attention to scope. British Medical Journal. 1994. 309: 184.

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