Friday, June 26, 2009

How To Gain Research Experience?

How does one obtain good research credentials? I have been given a somewhat unique opportunity by my undergraduate institution. Instead of graduating early I had a chance to complete a Master’s degree in biochemistry. Therefore I graduated with both BS and MS. I gained a lot of basic research experience by working in the lab on evenings, weekends and summers.

My Master’s degree allowed me to get a good job at a major pharmaceutical company. By the time I applied to medical schools I had a year of industrial experience behind my belt. It was enormously helpful for my interviews.

My school was unique in that it did not charge me extra for my Master’s degree. I finished it in four years along with my Bachelor’s. Considering that MS costs about $40,000/yr and takes 1-2 years to complete, it was a terrific deal. I would not be willing to pay this money to get research exposure. Neither should anyone in my opinion. Use “free” sources like get a job in the industry. It is an invaluable source of experience because unlike academia, research in the industry FLIES FAST! If you are still in college then volunteer in a research lab. Perhaps they will even pay you some money, but do not expect much unless you bring in some grants or stipends yourself.

Below are some great programs that pay stipends and give you terrific exposure to science and research:

REU: Research Experience for Undergraduates
This program is funded by the National Science Foundation. It operates on university campuses in the summer. REU recruits students from all over America. The program pays $4000 stipend plus provides room and board. It’s a 10-week intense research experience. You decide on an independent research project to complete during this time. You are supervised by a research advisor, and two REU advisors. You will learn how to make research presentations. You will also become familiar with science opportunities beyond the lab: in politics, business, and teaching. It’s a fantastic resource and looks great on your resume. I enjoyed it tremendously. My REU project evolved into my Master’s thesis.

NIH Summer Internship in Biomedical Research
This is another fantastic summer research opportunity for college students as well as medical students new to research. NIH is located in Bethesda, MD. Its research campuses surround two major hospitals. This provides participants with unique biomedical research opportunities. For example, if you are interested in retroviruses as vehicles for gene therapy, you have a unique opportunity to work with a clinical team who can test it in patients. Of course, MD degree is required to do ANY work with human subjects. Your opportunities would be somewhat limited without MD. This was one of the reasons I did basic research instead.

Your undergraduate institution probably offers small research awards to support your laboratory endeavors. Don't be shy and apply for as many as you can. Writing grant proposals is a wonderful way to learn science related to your research project. For example, my research project focused on solving an X-ray structure of a bacterial protein. To write a grant proposal I had to learn as much as I could about the latest antibiotics. This knowledge in tern came in handy at interviews. Reading broadly in science helps you build depth of professional knowledge and competence.

What direction should you pursue in your research? A lot of exciting developments happened in molecular biology in recent years. Epigenetics and embryogenesis are fascinating fields with high degree of relevance to medicine. I did research in protein structure and function. It offers a great diversity of experience. In the past six years I worked in metabolic diseases, inflammatory diseases, neural degeneration, infectious diseases and cancer. I don’t know as much about any one area as a more focused expert would, but I understand how proteins work – very useful in modern medicine!

At Harvard I will be pursuing the latest in neural prosthesis technology. MGH is home to one of only two laboratories in the world that are developing practical neural enhancement devices for patients with paralysis, speech and hearing impediments. My husband does related kind of brain research called brain modeling at Boston University:
I found that my background in protein engineering is very helpful to help me navigate in this research area. The broad diversity of therapeutic areas I exposed to is invaluable in getting ahead of the learning curve in a new field.

Ultimately let your interest guide you in exploring research opportunities. It is very important to stick with whatever you choose to pursue. It is entirely possible that you will spend years in the laboratory with no publications. Do not despair, and do not leave the lab. Consistent exposure to the field earns you expertise, which you cannot obtain in any other way. Schools like Harvard are looking for students with an ability to become experts. They respect in-depth knowledge of any science field.

DESCRIBING YOUR RESEARCH effectively and intelligently is very important during the interviews. It is your moment to show you know what you’re talking about. You need to have three prompts ready before you begin interviewing:

1. Your one-sentence talk
2. Your 2-minute talk
3. A page long bullet point list of interesting things about your research project


  1. Your blog is more than helpful--I'll def. be asking you for advice when I start applying because Harvard is one of my top choices!

  2. At any rate, I liked some of the NIH cartoons on VADLO search engine!

  3. I just discovered your blog and I love it. Where did you go for undergraduate?

  4. I graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering (4.0/4.0) last May and am working at a pharmaceutical company and am now interested in pursuing med school. I believe I took all the required classes in undergrad but don't know how to get the requisite volunteer/shadow experience and am scared of the new MCAT. Thoughts?

  5. Thankfully. I wonder how to prepare a page long bullet point list of interesting things about my research project? Any ideas or suggestions? We'll be looking forward to hearing from you soon!


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