Ode to Freshmen: Get Ready to Run Gels and Count Cells!  

by Niaz Khan

If you are reading this article, you might be one of the many who are interested in pursuing a lifelong career in medicine. But what exactly do you need to do in order to prepare yourself for medical school?

Looking back at some of our previous issues, we have tackled the importance of areas such as academics and volunteering. Let us now shed some light on yet another crucial aspect of the pre-medicine curriculum: research.

While conducting scientific research during one’s undergraduate years is not a requirement set in stone by medical schools, it is highly recommended and commonplace, becoming an almost de facto expectation. For students determined to pursue a combined MD/PhD program, undergraduate research is undoubtedly a must.

Fortunately, the University of Pittsburgh is a hotbed for breakthrough research, consistently ranking among the top 10 universities in grants from the National Institutes of Health – a testament to our outstanding faculty and their phenomenal work. Furthermore, we are lucky enough to house many faculty researchers that allow undergraduates to join their labs and gain invaluable experience.

So why research? Those who enter scientific fields have an overwhelming urge to understand why the natural world works the way it does. You know those textbooks students read in their natural science courses? All of that neatly organized information ultimately derives from decades of dedicated research. Taking part in scientific investigation allows one to appreciate the efforts required in gathering useful information, and gives one perspective on where we have come in our journey for knowledge.

Ultimately, as pre-health students, we are interested in learning more about how the body functions, why it dysfunctions, and how to treat these anomalies – questions that are answered primarily through research. Even in our professional careers, we are expected to be knowledgeable about the latest developments in clinical research in order to provide patients with the most efficacious treatment options. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that getting a taste of research early in one’s academic career is becoming more prevalent today.

For any student that joins a lab, extending one’s research all the way to an undergraduate thesis is a high honor as well as an opportunity to distinguish oneself from a pool of great candidates for medical school admission. However, getting to this point is not without hard, and often tedious, work. At the start, a student might likely be assigned to help with someone else’s project, specializing in an area such as immunohistochemistry or gel electrophoresis. Remember, an undergraduate student is one individual among a large group of experienced technicians, graduate students, and postdoctoral graduates. But you have to start from somewhere!

Only after having proven your mettle through commitment and thoroughness, you can approach your principal investigator about starting an independent project. In order to reach this point, it is a good idea to start early in your efforts. Ask your mentor for some reading material that will acquaint you with the relevant research. Remember, reading never stops in research. Even a scan of the references sections of the papers you receive under a PubMed search can lead you on a path of unlimited potential.

One of the most direct ways to get involved in research is provided by the Office of Experiential Learning through the “First Experiences in Research” program. Designed for second term freshmen, this program allows students to work closely with a faculty mentor on a specific research project. Participants receive academic credit for their work and present their research at a poster session in late April of every year.

Another way to get involved is to go online to the administrative department’s website. There should be a link containing a list of all faculty members with their research interests along with select publications. After finding a professor that matches your research goals, read a few of their papers to get a feel for the kind of research they conduct. A single field can house scientists pursuing a wide range of research goals and questions. You just have to find the right one for you.

Once you have decided on a few investigators, get in touch with them about any openings in their labs. Their e-mails are provided for a reason! Be sure to describe why you are interested in their research and what you specifically have to offer. Keep it short and sweet, and add your resume to boost their interest.

The UROP website at www.pitt.edu/~urop is yet another great resource that connects undergraduates with various research opportunities. Also, don’t hesitate to ask some of your academic professors, especially if you have developed a good rapport with them. More likely than not, they might know someone involved in research in your area of interest and can attest to your ability on your behalf. With the right motivation and proven academic success, determined students can find a lab they can call home.

Keep your eyes open as there are many research experiences available at the University of Pittsburgh. Who knows, those bulletin boards you walk by in the skywalk over Forbes Avenue may have the opportunity you’ve been waiting for!