Undergraduate Research: How and Why You Should Get Involved
If you have not explored or pursued undergraduate research, doing so may seem daunting. However, research experience is one of many components that medical schools use to evaluate an applicant’s readiness and qualification. Whether it’s academic or laboratory-centered research, it’s important that you display some interest and involvement in the evolution and creation of medicine or policy.
You have probably heard the saying that doctors are ‘lifelong learners,’ and, well, that starts now. The mark that you will leave on medicine can begin long before you officially receive the title MD, and that should be more exciting than it is daunting.
As always, it is important to think critically about the reasons for medical school requirements and recommendations. Yes, it is important for your resume, but should also be something that interests you personally and can be tied back into your larger personal narrative or personal statement.
Rather than simply checking a box, I encourage you to consider some of the intellectual and personal benefits of getting involved with research prior to medical school. In the following article, we will answer your questions about undergraduate research, including:
Why is undergraduate research valuable?
What types of research are available to me as a pre-med?
How do I get started?
The Value of Conducting Research as a Pre-Med
Why is undergraduate research considered so valuable for a medical school applicant?
The most obvious answer is that research is the primary method for the advancement of biomedical knowledge; thus, early exposure to scientific inquiry can help accustom students to this mode of learning and spark curiosity for specific subjects. Research experience does much more than augment a medical school application; it can bolster confidence in the midst of academic community, improve critical thinking, and assist with writing and communication skills, to name just a few possible payoffs.
“While many of the technical skills I have gained apply mostly to biological science research, the larger themes of scientific inquiry and curiosity are extremely valuable in a medical career.”
Before becoming involved in research as a sophomore in college, I had no idea how I could narrow my interests to choose and pursue a particular scientific project. I also was most familiar with biological science, or “wet lab” laboratory experiences, so I gravitated toward this type of research first.
Looking back, I could have spent more time pursuing social science or global health research. In fact, doing so would have better aligned with my current academic interests. However, my experience in a biological sciences lab affiliated with my undergraduate institution’s medical school was vital. I see now that it enabled me to understand upper-level science concepts and become part of an academic community.
That being said, do your research and follow your interests. If you already know what direction you want to take your studies, then great. There will likely be many options for you to choose from, even from within just one field. However, if you are not sure what kind of research you would like to do, but maybe have your sights set on a particular medical school, it might be in your best interest to look into what kind of research they value at that medical school, and test that out. If you find out you don’t enjoy that style of research, well then maybe you have also discovered that you are not a good fit for that school. The sooner you start getting practical exposure to research, the easier your medical school discernment process will be.
In my own life, working closely with my principal investigator (PI) and mentor for two years has immensely bolstered my confidence in the laboratory and with scientific writing. These experiences have given me confidence to pursue research in other fields in the future, including in medical school. Jumping into research in HIV vaccinology pushed me to take initiative and teach myself through scientific papers and a lot of Googling, rather than more traditional forms of learning like lectures and textbooks. I also learned to articulate my objectives and results concisely in lab meetings, which is useful in any professional environment. While many of the technical skills I have gained apply mostly to biological science research, the larger themes of scientific inquiry and curiosity will be valuable to a medical career in which the advancement of knowledge is conducted through many fields of natural and social science research.
Possible Fields of Research
Pre-med students commonly believe the myth that medical schools primarily look for “wet lab” (life sciences) laboratory research. Although gaining these technical skills could be useful in medical school or even in upper-level undergraduate lab courses, it is valuable and recommended to pursue research in academic interest areas rather than resorting to biological research simply because it is a common track. Inquiry in any field can provide valuable experience with asking questions, making hypotheses, and following through with a project that contributes to a body of knowledge. Thus, while this list is not exhaustive, consider some of these broad fields of research available to undergraduates:
Natural sciences typically encompass biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and medical-related fields such as immunology, cancer biology, molecular genetics, and more. Research in these areas often includes “wet lab” or “bench work.” Think of lab coats and goggles, pipettes, DNA sequencing, cell culture, and other lab bench-based practices. Additionally, computer modeling and other technology-based practices are increasingly integral parts of answering these types of questions.
You could also engage with natural science research without ever working at the bench, but rather with designing models, using biostatistical methods, or working with science-related databases to form hypotheses and produce results.
Physical Sciences and Engineering
Physical science research can encompass physics, biophysics, and engineering. This field of exploration may be fitting if you are interested in mathematics-based research that can answer questions about the physical world. Engineering research can provide experience in design and direct implementation of problem-solving solutions, from mechanical engineering to chemical or biomedical engineering.
Again, research in this field engages directly with scientific ways of knowing, and could even help to answer health-related questions via mathematics and design-driven solutions. If you’re a numbers person, this may be the right field of research for you.
Social Science and Humanities
Social sciences, such as psychology, sociology and economics, work to understand human social conditions. Research in these fields most often applies to human behavior and social practices, which are essential to understanding in the medical profession. These fields also offer the unique opportunity to work with human subjects. This is certainly valuable for a pre-med student, but it also comes with the tandem challenge of ethics and institutional review boards.
The humanities and arts, such as English, communication, history, language studies, visual arts, dance, and music, provide classical or creative approaches to answering questions. Conducting research in these fields is certainly different than working at a laboratory bench, but is still useful to understanding how to form and test hypotheses in order to contribute to a field of knowledge.
To any communications majors reading this, the field of ethnography would provide unique opportunities to conduct an in-depth study into cultural phenomenon in medicine, for example.
Public or Global Health Research
The fields of public and global health offer the opportunity to combine multiple fields of research, such as social science, natural sciences and health-related engineering to directly investigate human health. As an undergraduate, this field offers a potential way to get directly involved with interventions in human health while gaining clinical experience. If you find that several of your interests could be addressed by examining health systems, practices, or policies, the broader fields of public and/or global health provide ways of answering these types of questions.
Public health research could also be beneficial to you if you ultimately decide that medical school is not the right choice for you. A career in public health policy could be born out of research in this field (also saving you time and money spent applying to medical school!)
How to Get Involved with Research
“Reflect on which types of learning and research spark your curiosity the most, and pursue opportunities in these areas.”
Finding an opportunity for initial exposure to research may be the most daunting part of the process. First, it is essential to narrow down your interests, even to one specific field of inquiry or topic.
Again, while natural science research might be the most commonly-sought experience for pre-medical students, reflect on which types of learning and information spark your curiosity the most. What kinds of news articles about new knowledge interest you the most? Do you have previous experience or the desire to learn certain research techniques involving laboratory skills, computer software, social science studies, or historical analysis? In what setting do you see yourself asking interesting questions and designing ways to answer them?
You do not need to have a specific project or even topic in mind before you begin to seek out research opportunities; rather, a principal investigator (PI) or mentor could help identify narrower areas of focus as you begin to work with them. Once you have an area of research in mind, begin to look for PIs at your institution or in your area who conduct research in this field. Reading their papers may indicate their openness to accepting students if several papers feature undergraduate authors, and will also give you a better idea of what exactly they investigate. The next step is to reach out.
Reaching Out to Principal Investigators
In my own experience, using formal emails to inquire about research opportunities has been successful. PIs are notoriously busy, and many communicate primarily via email. Thus, it is productive to identify a few PIs whose work intrigues you. Send them an email explaining why you are interested in working with them and attach a CV with your relevant research experience, or at least those experiences that highlight your qualifications.
Here are some general tips for drafting this type of email:
1) Use professional language and send the message from a professional email address.
Silly or too-personal email addresses do not bode well in the professional arena; use your school email or create a personal address that includes your first and last name (and not much else). Include formal greetings such as “Dear (title and last name)” and “Best” or “Sincerely” as a sign-off. Spend the first sentence briefly introducing yourself with your name, year in school, and major or academic interest/professional aspirations. Make sure to maintain a formal, yet sincere tone throughout the email and avoid any emojis or slang.
2) Attach a research-relevant CV.
Tailor your CV so that it includes your basic contact information, GPA, intended degree and major, and then delineate any previous research experience. If you do not have any, include coursework relevant to the field of research that you are intending to pursue, and then delve into prior leadership or volunteer experiences. Do not despair if your CV seems brief; focus on the experiences you have had that highlight your commitment and intellectual pursuits. If this is your first foray into research, PIs will understand your limited background. Avoid including activities from high school unless you are in your first semester of college; your college activities are more relevant to college-level work.
3) Include specific references to PIs’ past/current research projects and briefly explain why you are interested in these projects.
Much like any application, showing that you are genuinely interested in the opportunity can help you stand out and prove your commitment to the research project. While you should not write paragraphs about their work and why it interests you, a few sentences that refer directly to their projects and why you are curious about them will go a long way. Make sure that the email does not seem like a generalized template that could be sent to any laboratory. This is essential to communicating not only interest in joining a laboratory, but your desire to learn more about a topic on your own time, which is often necessary to successfully complete your own project.
4) Be open and honest about your expectations for your experience.
Acknowledge that the opportunity you desire would be your first research experience. If it’s not your first research experience, then mention why this opportunity complements the research you have done in the past. Also, note that you would eventually like to be considered to conduct an independent project. Many entry-level opportunities can be more of assistant-type positions, so it is important to be clear yet respectful if you expect to eventually lead an independent project. If your institution offers pay through work-study funds, include this information in the email as it may be relevant to the lab’s hiring practices.
5) Be patient.
PIs are busy. Do not be discouraged if several PIs do not get back to you within a few days, as it may be the norm to not send a response if they are not currently accepting undergraduates in their laboratory. PIs who commit to training students will likely answer with enthusiasm, so even if there are other laboratories that also mesh with your interests, it is worthwhile to wait for responses from a welcoming PI. If reaching out to PIs does not receive a response, also consider asking professors if they have projects to which you could contribute, or if they could refer you to student-friendly colleagues.
Other Tips and Considerations
Think of research as any way of asking a question and seeking to answer it. You already conduct informal research when you Google an answer, write a paper, or think through an issue on your own. Formalized research is simply a methodology for investigating an endless number of topics, using many different types of tools and modes of thinking. Engaging in research early in your college career will allow you to gain useful skills related to learning that medical school admissions committee will recognize. For many pre-meds, research jobs can provide exposure to professional academic spheres similar to medical school academic communities while fostering confidence in writing and communicating results. While research is often touted as an “unofficial requirement” of the medical application, consider the many reasons why these types of experiences can prove useful in a medical career and beyond.
A native of Indianapolis, Stephanie Asdell is currently pursuing her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, with minors in Biology and Global Health, from Duke University. She plans to attend medical school in fall 2018 and later pursue a Masters in Public Health to further her interests in community and women's health. In her free time, she enjoys being a foodie, dancing, and working on fashion photo shoots for a campus publication.