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Research in Medicine 101

“So you want to go to medical school, huh? Well you better do some research because it will look good on your resume.” I remember these words being spoken by one of my pre-medical advisors and feeling very overwhelmed. How do you even do research? What is a good idea? How do I get started? Do I need a mentor? Can I get funding? What is a hypothesis? These were all questions swirling around my head as a freshman in college. I had no idea how to do research and little did I know then that it would soon become a big part of my life.

Now, while my premed advisor was right to some degree - research does look good on a resume - it is not necessary to get into medical school. It does, however, help introduce you to the idea of research and you may start to pick up on the steps involved.

I did do a semester of research in a biochemistry lab as an undergraduate student and presented a poster at the end, but honestly I still had no clue what I was talking about. I was assigned to a project already underway with a graduate student who did most of the work because she did not want me messing up HER project. Understandable as the world of pipetting and mass spectrometry was like another language to me. BUT, I did learn how to pipette and run samples in that spectrometry unit and that would be helpful later on.

In medical school, I also got involved in research. One of the things I developed a passion for global health and I had the opportunity to go to Nicaragua several times in medical school. I helped to develop a survey to measure the quality of life of the people we were taking care of. We wanted to know if our partnership with this community was making a difference. This was much different than my days in the lab. I had to use a validated survey, learn about public health, and run statistics.

I was then introduced to the world of Quality Improvement (QI) during my pediatric residency which was a requirement in order to graduate. This is a whole other side of research which I will address in a future post, do not worry! Finally, I got to my fellowship where two out of the three years would be dedicated to research with the goal of publishing at least one manuscript before graduating.

So why tell you all this information? To show you that the field of research if HUGE! In the span of my training I have done at least five different types of research projects, all of which are acceptable forms of conducting research.

You can do basic science research which is sometimes referred to as bench work. This is where you work in a laboratory running experiments and looking at things more on the molecular level. You can do clinical research which usually involves human subjects and is conducted in an office or other facility. Your study could be retrospective, which means you go back and look at data that has already been collected. Or you can do a prospective study where you gather new information moving forward.

So how do you come up with a good research project? SPOILER ALERT: You probably won't change the world on your first go around - and that is okay! It is more important to learn how to create a good project at the beginning. So here is an acronym that you should remember to get you started: FINER!

Feasible: Is the project feasible? Can it actually be done with the resources you have? Will you be able to complete it in the time you have? Remember you may only have a semester or maybe a few years to work with. In my fellowship, we have two years to get a manuscript published so keeping that time frame in mind is very important. Don’t try to overreach or else you are less likely to succeed.

Interesting: Is it something you are interested in? You want to have a passion for the project because you will be spending a lot of time working on it. Will others find it interesting? It needs to be something others will want to know about as this will help your research get accepted at conferences or published in journals.

Novel: Is this going to be something new that will add to the knowledge we have. You don't want to repeat an old project or do something that is not going to add something new to your field.

Ethical: Is the project ethical? You cannot withhold treatment or do something without the consent of the subjects. There is an International Board of Review (IRB) that is at every institution that has to approve research projects before they start. They have to meet certain ethical standards that are universal across all institutions.

Relevant: Is the project relevant? Is it something that we could use today or in the near future? You don't want to test something that is not applicable to medicine or your field. These are the things you need to think about when creating your own project. If your idea meets all these criteria then you can move on to the next step – creating your hypothesis!

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