Research anyone?

Please explain the different routes to starting research. I see how important it is to the ADCOMS but have no idea how to get started with this. Thanks

This is an important question. I’m going to answer it at some length, in a couple of different parts:

  1. Why it’s important

  2. Why it’s not always essential (and when it is)

  3. How to figure out whether you want to do it

  4. How to find a research opportunity.

    But first, let’s clarify something basic: what is “research”? Sometimes people think that research means sitting in a lab. It can. But actually it can mean anything where there is a hypothesis being tested for the purpose of later disseminating the results. Over the years I’ve participated in many kinds of research, including:

    –Being in a lab and doing experiments

    –Interviewing patients about the ways that they used medical services

    –Studying the history of medicine

    –Working for a group that conducted clinical trials

    –Evaluating the success (or lack thereof) of public health programs

    –Interviewing people about their lives

    All of this and more is research.


    There’s been some conversation in other threads about the requirements for admission and how cynically to view them. Certainly lots of pre-meds do research for more or less cynical reasons, and based on their example it can sometimes be hard to understand why you should do it.

    Fortunately, research does have its own value. For future doctors it is important for several reasons. The first is that to understand science, you need to actually do science–this is why even undergrad introductory courses have you do simple experiments, keep lab notebooks, etc. But doing science in a more advanced way–as with research that is not just for a class–allows you to understand more about how we decide what is more true, what kind of evidence is more persuasive and so on. This goes to a central part of the doctor’s role, which is, being able to critically evaluate the research literature in order to make clinical choices.

    Finally, it’s also important intellectually to have the experience of becoming expert at something–which, if you get very engaged in research, you will become. That is, after working in a T-cell lab for a year, I knew more about T-cells than most of my fellow students–and more than most of my teachers, because unlike them I’d been going to journal clubs, reading the literature, learning from my mentors, talking theory with the post-docs, and so on. I’ve now forgotten all of that–but I know how I became that kind of expert, and I know how I would do it again. What research teaches you is that expertise is not some mysterious quality of brilliant people–it is something that you acquire by reading, working and talking. You can acquire expertise whenever you want to.


    It is certainly possible to go to medical school without any research experience, especially if you’re not mainly interested in places that train people for academic medicine (i.e., most of the places in the first couple of dozen spots in the US News and World Report list, who got there in part because of their large share of NIH money). What’s most important to admissions committees is that you’ve had the experience of doing something passionately and expertly, and if this is doing healthcare for the homeless or volunteering for a hospice, that is OK too. The main thing to remember: if you’re not going to do research you should think about how else you can demonstrate your passion and expertise.


    I’d ask these questions of yourself:

    a. Is it important to me to go to a higher-ranked school?

    b. Am I interested in teaching in a medical school in the future, or in going to a medical school which produces many med school professors?

    c. Are there fields that I’m especially interested in? Is there research taking place in those fields? (Keeping in mind that if your answer is yes to the first part, there is probably a way to answer yes to the second.)

    d. Is the place where I live somewhere where good researchers can be found?

    If your answer is yes to 2 or more of those questions, you should definitely consider doing research. The biggest challenge for OPMs is sometimes “d” if you live somewhere away from big academic centers. If you live in Boston or San Francisco or New York or a university town like Madison or Ann Arbor, then you obviously have “d!” with an exclamation mark; if you live in a small town far from a big university, it may be more difficult to get involved in research locally. Even so, there is often research nearby. For example, a rural area may not be a great place to find an immunology lab–but there may be a demonstration project to try to figure out how to better deliver health services to rural areas, or public health researchers looking at health among farmworkers, or toxicologists studying the health effects of pesticides. (And so on.) If you’re taking science classes at a university–even a community college–you are probably near enough to an academic institution to find some kind of research going on.


    In general, my advice about this, especially if you live somewhere near reasonably-sized universities, is to figure out what most interests you and then try to find out who is doing research in that area. For instance, I knew I was interested in immunology, so I sought out researchers who were doing work in immunology. Sometimes if you’re really engaged in some kind of health-related work, research opportunities may actually fall in your lap–e.g., as you volunteer in your emergency department you find out that someone is doing research about using a new approach to diagnose pulmonary embolism, and that this person is looking for research assistants. Hopefully you’ve been volunteering at the ED because you think the ED is a really interesting place–which means that you’re more likely to think the research that takes place there is interesting too.

    If you have an idea of why you want to go to medical school this also may help direct you. For instance, if you know you want to do ob/gyn, you should find researchers who are interested in ob/gyn-related questions.

    How do you find these researchers? One way is to ask your teachers–some of whom may be doing research themselves. They should know who’s who around town or know who will. The book What Color Is Your Parachute? is available at most local libraries; its description of how to do informational interviews might also be a helpful approach. Go around asking researchers about their work and what they think is interesting about it until you find someone who is interesting to you.

    Another great way to find people is to read research articles and see who you think is doing interesting work. (This is one reason that taking seminars in fields you’re interested in can be very helpful-otherwise knowing how to find interesting academic articles can be tough.) I found the immunology lab where I went to work by reading the principal investigator’s work and thinking it was really interesting and exciting. I then wrote to her and asked if I could work for her–doing anything, including not having a desk and not getting to work on any experiments but just going and getting things from the library for her group.

    The last way to do this, especially if you’re not sure what you’re interested in, is to find out what researchers are good teachers and mentors, and then try to go work for them regardless of what they’re working on. This can also be figured out by asking around–talking to your pre-med advisors, students who are doing research, and so on.

    Good luck!


Thank you for this… great food for thought for those of us trying to decide whether (and how) to fit research experiences into our already-packed schedules.

Thanks, Joe

Sorry for the delay in response here . You gave an excellent answer, thank you so much. Yes I am interested in research just for the sake of natural curiosity, just need to know how to go about it. You explained it well. I’m currently following through on my AAS in nursing to fall back on if I don’t get in, as I’m a single mom with children, a house payment, car etc. However, I’m sure once I start pre-med this fall it will be easier to transition into a research opportunity.

My next question…how to “label” what interests me. Basically anything that causes me to ask why.

At this point I’m curious about centrioles, centromeres (are they a specialized magnet?), spindle formation, the spindles themselves. I had General Bio, Inorganic Chem, Micro 10-20 years ago.

When I tune a guitar, and the strings are just about in tune, I hear wavering (turbulence?). I then wonder, does each spindle have a unique frequency and if so do electromagnetic fields (power lines) in the atmosphere exert a turbulent effect on any given spindle with close enough but not the exact frequency…causing chromosomal damage during mitosis (leukemia)?

I recently went to an MD and started taking homeopathic medicine. Fascinating…I understand it to be an algorithmic pharmacological approach to either mineral/plant/ or “animal” derivative.

This led me to wonder further about leukemia with regards to Ecology, Geology, Astrology…and their applications to medicine, in relation to mitosis above.

Is this Ecology? (the animal/plant matter decomposing in one area where power lines are present as opposed to another where children are not developing leukemia)

Is this Geology? (resultant elements in an area where power lines are present and their ability to absorb the electromagnetic field anion/cation or repell it allowing a more favorable environment (competition?) to exert effect on a child’s dividing cells),

Is this Astrology? (the relationship of the earth’s position in it’s solar orbit and magnetic attraction/resistance of elements into the atmosphere from the earth’s crust to the impact of competition mentioned above)

I comb my daughter’s wet hair and while removing tangles without breaking I wonder if chromosomes are separated by a “tossling” as opposed to a consistant oppositional pull.

When putting the laundry in the washing machine I wonder if this “tossling” is achieved by a centrosome moving like the aggitator in the washing machine causing a gentle back and forth pulling, yet while simultaneously turning clockwise, causing a gradual increaseing in magenetic pull bring chromosomes to opposite poles?

Where to go with this? Even research assistance working at the copier is fine with me if I get to read it all. Any suggestions? Is this Biochem, Biophysics?

I’m also interested in surgery (instrumentation/design, procedure/technique). I’m inventive by nature and am always trying to invent better ways of doing things around the house. But mind you…this stay at home mom is going crazy and if I invent one more cookie recipe I swear I’ll go nuts!!!

I’m feeling like I’m stretching my neck out here even typing these thoughts because I don’t even know if I’m wording everything correctly, or sound nuts. I have yet to take physics and organic chem so my knowledge base is sorely limited. Math is a weak point for me but I intend to prepare for physics before I even take it.

In light of all this, I just don’t know which discipline I would naturally gravitate towards in research. I find “answers” to the unknown readily disenchanting. I love the question more so, the challenge, and medicine is always throwing in variables (the individual response etc.).

This is a wonderful site, a breath of fresh air for me (and my cookie recipes )

I would appreciate any input.

Thanks to all,


Excellent questions, Inertia :). I think that type of inquisitiveness one of the drives of a great physician - or researcher, or … well, anyone thinking, really.

I’m feeling like I’m stretching my neck out here even typing these thoughts because I don’t even know if I’m wording everything correctly, or sound nuts.

I can certainly appreciate this concern, and interestingly, I think it was research that forced it out of me. As you state, it’s the questions themselves that are interesting, it’s the thought process that’s elucidating; sometimes, the results themselves are almost secondary.

The specific questions that you ask sound similar to research I’m doing now, which involves biochemical applications of genetics. I really ended up here just by taking classes that interested me and asking questions that came to mind - I suspect my Genetics prof just got tired of seeing me in his office hours, so he offered me something else to do . It looks like your overarching interest points towards oncology and pathologies; the level of abstraction you work at, and the analogies that you see, point towards genetics.

I’d say go play with it all, and see what comes out for you :). Have you looked around much on google scholar, pubmed, other NIH sites, etc?

More importantly… do you have any good cookie recipes?

Thanks pi,

The concept of “go play with it all, and see what comes out for you” …I will attempt this feat as best I can, keep the “convergent beast of thought” (for the acquisition of coveted GPA/MCAT/USMLE scores) at bay as long as possible. I can see how research would psychologically give balance to the overwhelming amount of raw data learned in med school; a place to “play with data” as it were, until you begin the “divergent art” of medical diagnosis.

I’ve been searching for articles lately, and have in the past as well. Usually it’s a front for procrastination; I need to focus on the pre-med courses. I do occasionally find abstracts; though most full texts require paid membership. Even so, an article/study I find, reminds me of my need to learn the basics first (Chem, Physics, Molecular Bio). For example, Biological effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic energy: A ……


I did find the fact that fluctuating fields brought an increase in cancer, which makes me wonder further about each spindle having a unique or fluctuating frequency. Some day…

I appreciate your responses nonetheless; it was informative, specific and insightful. That goes for Joe too. This is a great site, thanks guys…now back to the books.