Med: Summer Research Part 1: Background

April 19, 2008

Anyone that I talk to on a regular basis knows that I have been having a really difficult time trying to find a research position for the summer. Well, that search is FINALLY over–I have a PI, a lab, a project idea…and a research proposal that I need to have written up by May 1st while also balancing FINALS.  🙂   Good times.

With this first post, I’m going to talk about the search and give a little background on my thoughts. In a subsequent post, I’ll describe what it is that I’ll be doing.

When I began the search, I focused my efforts primarily on the Children’s Memorial Research Center in Lincoln Park. I definitely want to go into pediatrics, so it seemed like a great place to try to get into. After “cold-emailing” a few researchers expressing interest and attaching a CV, I interviewed with a lab performing work on cystic fibrosis. And as some of you know, this interview went QUITE well: I got along well with everyone, I fully understood their research, and we even know some of the same people down at Duke. In other words, I thought it was a slam-dunk. Needless to say, I received the email equivalent of a thin-envelope that weekend. The main reason, as she explained to me, was something I’ve been fighting against for the past few years now:
“Well, the problem is that you didn’t do any research as an undergraduate.”

Time and time again, I have interviewers that bring up this point. And technically, they are right: I did not conduct any formal research projects on my own. It all goes back to a decision I made during the middle of college: Research or Work? At the time, my dad had lost his job, and I made what I believed to be the responsible decision to WORK rather than pursue research. What’s more, I found a job working in a microarray facility (Translation for Non-Nerds: A lab that provides data to researchers about their experiments) which allowed me to gain a lot of insight into research–I thought it’d be a happy medium. I even got to do some side-projects for my boss because of the flexibility of the position. And I was being paid. I thought I was golden.

Fast forward to my medical school interview at Boston University. It was my first interview, I was nervous, and the interviewer was being a bit of an asshole. He directly critcized me for not pursuing research–especially since I was at such a research-oriented school (Duke). When I tried to explain how I actually had very similar experiences to other students doing projects on their own, he instantly shot back, “That isn’t research; you shouldn’t try to equate the two. You didn’t form ideas on your own, and didn’t design projects to test your ideas.” His statement wasn’t completely true–especially the latter parts of it–but at that point I didn’t really care all that much. He had jaded my opinion of BU so much that I just didn’t give a damn.

When I told my boss–whom, by the way, earned her Ph.D. in Genetics–she was furious. Having done plenty of her own research before becoming the director of the facility, she surely knew that what I did was pretty similar to other students’ research projects. Just a few months later, a coworker of mine had a very similar experience while trying to get into a Ph.D. program at Duke; he was told that his work at the facility and research should not be considered related. This made our boss even MORE angry because she had worked with that particular researcher, and claimed that he had no idea what any of his data meant: He just shipped her the samples, and our lab did the experiments and she analyzed the results. So while he got to say he postulated X and the results were Y, it was our work that actually got his name on that paper. Oh, the irony.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. Getting into research can be a bit of a catch-22: you need research experience to be able to get a research position. Now, I fully realize I could have made more of an effort while at Duke; however, as I mentioned, I made the choice that I had to make at that time.

And the Children’s Memorial thing just irked me, especially because otherwise the interview went perfectly. I fully understood what was going on, and the project that the PI suggested seemed a DIRECT followup of work I had done at the microarray facility at Duke. She even made a point to say that I was probably the only person that she’d be able to find that fully understood that particular project. But the lack of experience derailed that whole thing.

At the height of my annoyance, I remarked to my friend, “And please…researchers are just med school rejects. If they can handle the techniques, I’m sure I can do it too.” Now, I realize that the first part of that statement is rather rude, and frankly I don’t actually believe that–I was just angry at the time. But the second part still hold true in my mind: I’m more than capable of learning the necessary tissue culture techniques–I don’t exactly consider myself an idiot.


Now as it turns out, that rejection may have been for the best. A month later, it was announced that the Children’s Memorial Research Center had suspended its formal summer research program for students, so there would be no official route through which I could find a stipend. I probably could have found more ways–and the PI could have just agreed to put me on the payroll–but it still would have made things more difficult.

Plus, I absolutely LOVE the position that I am now taking for the summer. Cystic Fibrosis research would have been quite interesting, but it’s not exactly something I was dying to do. My project, on the other hand, involves research into cancerous processes. I recently came to the [re]realization that I would like to get involved in oncology, so this should work out well (The oncology thing will be the subject of another post–it involves some pretty intense emotions that I had been repressing for a while, but that have recently resurfaced. Pediatric oncology is WHY I went to medical school, and it’s once again at the forefront of what I want to do with my career).

Well, that does it for now. Next time I will be discussing my future project a bit…rather than just ranting about my troubles finding a spot. But I can now rest easier about my summer–I’ve finally got something to do. The fact that it’s worthwhile, interesting, and related to my future is, of course, a major plus.  🙂


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