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Making the Transition From Medical School to the Laboratory

Mark Jeong, MD
2001-02 Sarnoff Fellow

I decided to take the year after my third year of clinical rotations to find out what research medicine was about. It was an illuminating experience on many levels. The ostensibly unclinical basic science syllabus of first year resurfaced and was finally relevant. I enjoyed learning the connections between problems of clinical medicine and the application of basic science to answer them. Seeing this connection also made my last three years of medical education more cohesive. But most importantly, I came away with two simple realizations that will have a lasting impact on my medical future. First, research medicine is a proactive process of learning by asking questions not yet answered. And I plan to be involved in this learning enterprise. Second, research medicine is available and accessible to many of us who are invested enough to try it. This isn't to say that everyday in the lab was an enlightening day. Few days were memorably forgettable. But at the brink of madness and frustration, experiments worked. And one successful experiment was enough to keep me struggling forward for more. Of course, hard work and long hours were necessary. I also got help along the way. And I am grateful for some well-timed good luck. Perhaps the beauty of research medicine is the combination of all these things; the opportunity for proactive independent study, a chance to share with people what you've learned, a team working towards a common goal, and the satisfaction of seeing a project come together. I hope each future fellow benefits from his or her year of research as I have. In this short article, I hope to provide some insights I gained from my year of research.

Finding a lab

I had three absolute criteria. First was location. I wanted to be in a part of the country where I hadn't spent much time. I also looked for a location where I had some friends. Since this was a year away from the busy wards and clinics, I wanted options for fun on my free time. Next was the project. I had a broad interest in heart failure research, but beyond that I was open. I hoped my project would have a clinical foundation, and the questions would interest me. I also looked for a project where I would be exposed to concepts and techniques that I could build on. And lastly, I relied on my gut reaction to the lab and the people in it. A supportive and instructive PI is important, but keep in mind that you'll spend the majority of your time with the people working in the lab, especially the post-doc.

Before heading to the lab

I did my sub-internship before I started my Sarnoff year but arguments can be made for both sides. I know a few who even took the step 2 of the USMLE. I didn't and I regret that. Because in a span of a year, you can forget a lot of stuff. Many schools offer both a fellowship year and a leave of absence. At my school a fellowship year gave me privileges such as maintaining health insurance, keeping email active, and access to library services. A leave of absence did not entitle me to these benefits. Logically, I stored most of my stuff and only traveled with the bare essentials. Triple A is a must if you drive.

Difficult lab personalities

A fish parasitologist friend, when asked about how to deal with difficult personalities in a lab, wrote back "science is easy, people are hard." This is an issue we've all faced in our medical school. At best it's rare, but conflicts between two people do happen. And sometimes it can be ugly. But differences can be worked out, and even positive and productive relationships can develop from it. The trick is recognizing when others need to be involved. An honest discussion with those involved may be all that is needed, but when necessary there is never any harm in requesting input and asking questions from other fellows, your Sarnoff advisor or the PI. It's also important to be cognizant of ourselves in the lab. As a visiting member to the lab, respect and courtesy for those who work in the lab and the systems that work for them go a long way. When to ask for help.

My motive operandi is this — ask questions. And occasionally, to my post-doc's chagrin, I asked questions frequently and repeatedly. Part of the learning process in the lab should be about exchanging ideas. It's a great opportunity to be able to talk science with someone who is very good at it. Because there will certainly come a time when you just have to do, like my first RNA hybridization. It's a two-day procedure with some difficult steps, and one step requires extracting a protein pellet that is nearly invisible. When I was stalling with more questions, my post-doc said, "have faith, just go do it." It didn't work, but it worked eventually with more practice. It's like the wards. The first few weeks as a new third year clerk is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. But by the end of the clerkship, we could do and talk with some grace. The same applies to the lab. It's a wonderful educational opportunity, and you should take advantage of it. And involving those in the lab by engaging them in questions and dialogue is a great way to learn.

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