Although it is a compulsory part of most undergraduate degrees, research is often considered by most students as the least glamorous aspect of their training. In my first year of university, I almost failed my research module, predominantly due to my lack of personal interest. Since then, I have spent the last 3 years in research posts in a cancer lab, a tropical disease scholarship in Tokyo, Japan and projects focused on Neuroprosthetics. I can safely say research has been the one most fruitful and enjoyable aspects of my medical school.
Why should I think about doing research as a medical student?
Conducting a research project develops many important skills that translate well into clinical and non-clinical work, such as lateral thinking, problem-solving and data analysis. It can also challenge you to learn extra skills that might not normally be in your line of work, but are nevertheless useful to understand, such as H&E staining and histological grading, growing cell cultures, circuit building and computer programming.
Medical research is focused on expanding and applying knowledge, and understanding the human body. By nature, you have to get to the edge of what is accepted knowledge and push it out. This means we have to rise above the baseline information and knowledge we are taught, to get to the ‘expert’ level of that particular area of research – which is hopefully something that you are interested in. As a result, you get exposure to what that field is like, as well as develop a network with professionals in that field, which bodes well for your future.
For the duration of your project, you will have to present your work. Sometimes it is to experts within your research area, but oftentimes you may present your work to people who know very little about your research area, maybe even from other professions. For the former, the aim is to know your research and surrounding literature well enough to be confident in your research. For the latter, the aim is to know your work well enough to explain it understandably and interestingly, which is equally as challenging, but develops excellent communication skills.
Outside of the usual audits and quality improvement projects, there are a myriad of opportunities for students to get involved in research projects. As medical students, we are even more privileged due to the reputation of our degree. I have found that when walking into research areas where you stand out as the only (future) clinician, people with ideas are keen to work with you because of the potential for getting ideas from the lab bench to the bedside, and the fact you have more free time than working doctors. This is not to say that every lab group will want to work with you because you are a medical student, but often we underestimate how valuable our breadth of medical knowledge and awareness of the healthcare system - even as a pre-clinical student - can be to groups of scientists and engineers who are not as familiar with these things.
When it comes to research programmes, the first place to start is your university. Most universities have funds specific to research and development which are allocated to scholarships, summer studentships, awards and bursaries. By doing a quick google, you will find that there are also many scientific, medical and surgical societies and groups in the UK and further afield also offering such schemes.
Three key qualities for doing well in research
Be enthusiastic – as, with most things in life, opportunities come to those who seek them. Speak to lecturers in an area of medicine you are interested in. Ask questions, discuss ideas, join societies, attend conferences and network with people who share your interest.
Be willing to learn things outside your curriculum – this is hard work and takes time, but as previously mentioned, to do research you have to go beyond what you are taught. Having a good understanding of, for example, sports performance or electrical engineering (depending on your research interest, of course) helps you think about problems in a different way. Adding a notch to your bow makes you even more useful to any research team.
Be persistent – all of the things mentioned above do not fall into place overnight. Sometimes projects get held up, or you are unsuccessful with an application. When these things happen, it is important to stay focused and keep on working at what you enjoy. Cast your net wide when it comes to applications for anything from awards to scholarships.
Other practical considerations
Papers do not get published overnight - don’t rush writing anything.
Make sure you find a supportive supervisor who also has your interests in mind.
Do not sacrifice your studies for the sake of your projects.
Committing to research in a particular area does not mean you have to become an academic in that area or go into a speciality that suits the research experience you had in medical school. Nevertheless, research experience can give you the skills and the foundation to go into any career you choose.
Finally, enjoy the process!
Article written by Elijah Chisala, 4th year medical student at Leeds Medical School