My Search for Research

“What are you doing this summer?” It’s a common question among students of all ages, but perhaps most important for first-year medical students enjoying their final sun-soaked break from the academic world. Most choose the obvious option for their final getaway — spending time with friends and family in a familiar hometown or exotic locale. Others put their year of medical knowledge to use and travel abroad to help those in need. A few jump on a bike and ride around all of Oregon promoting healthcare options for rural communities. Finally, there are those students who decide to spend most or all of their summer researching various medical topics, locked away in deep, dark laboratories and staring at computer screens instead of tropical sunsets.

I’ll admit that research is not the most appealing of the options given above, especially if I were to add that most of the medical student positions are unpaid or with little compensation. I decided to take the research path, but let’s step back to discover why I chose to walk a mile in a graduate student’s closed-toe shoes. (To be honest, I’m a little curious myself.)

It all started at the beginning of the school year when some of my more prepared classmates asked second-year students and faculty, “Should I do research this summer?” I had no idea that this should be on the forefront of the minds of medical students. This simple question came with conflicting and confusing advice that contained only a few common strategies, mostly regarding the illustrious Curriculum Vitae (CV) and residency applications. Apparently, research experience (or even better, a publication) looks great on anyone’s CV, but is only “necessary” for those planning to apply to competitive specialties. For example, if you are planning to apply to for an orthopedic surgery residency, those with research in the field seem to have the best chance of success. Want to be a general surgeon? Research just “looks like you are sucking up.” Most first-year medical students don’t have a definitive specialty in mind (like myself) and it’s easy to see how anxiety builds as the school year progresses.

After weighing all possible options, I decided to make sure that I enjoyed my summer — by researching a topic that was truly interesting to me: human anatomy. This epiphany came at the end of January, far behind most of my classmates who confirmed their plans before winter break. I approached Dr. Brion Benninger, clinical anatomist and faculty to both medical and dental schools, with hopes to remove stress and anxiety from my mind and postpone them to June, when classes ended. He had a project that was a perfect fit for me, but it came with a hefty burden. The research and abstract needed to be completed in just a few weeks to be submitted for the American Association of Clinical Anatomists (AACA) annual conference in July. I was already philtrum deep in biochemistry and cell biology, so adding this to my priority list seemed absurd. The opportunity was too great to pass up, so against all logic, I took a deep breath and plunged into the world of research.

I spent nights and weekends reading journal articles, searching through atlases and textbooks, and dissecting in the cadaver laboratory. It is difficult to keep the pace of Dr. Benninger, but I am not the only one who has the opportunity to work with him. The spring months quickly flew by. The abstract was accepted at the AACA conference. I presented a poster for the first time at OHSU’s Student Research Forum, gaining far more experience than prize money. It is already two weeks into our final summer vacation and we are putting the finishing touches on the 6′ X 3.5′ poster that I will defend in Columbus, OH in just a few days.

Looking back, adding research during the school year was a great choice for me. As my blogging classmates have described, basic science courses can be overwhelming at times.  This project provided me with a constructive distraction to the lecture hall and added some balance to my life. Now as an added perk, I am representing OHSU at an international conference that showcases the cutting edge of research in a field that I thoroughly enjoy. Although I am not surfing in California, swinging with monkeys in Costa Rica, or pursuing an answer for global health, I am very happy with the decision that I made for “My Last Summer.”

I will provide an update of my experience from the 28th Annual AACA Meeting (July 12 – 16) in Columbus, OH.


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