From Med School to Research

I find that it is not uncommon for a first-year Pre-Biology student to say they want to go to med school. It’s the majority. I wondered what other people’s reason for wanting to go to med school was. I didn’t have a concrete reason. I want to help people and truthfully, I thought it was the “correct” path as a biology major.

I didn’t want to close myself off to any other options, but a lot of the decisions I made as a first-year was so I can study medicine. Everyone told me it was “impossible” to get into medical school. I repeated to myself, “keep your hopes up, grades higher.”

I had a rough first year. I devoted my time to my studies and getting good grades without doing much else. However, by my second year, I began doing other extracurriculars, one of which was joining a research lab. I was intrigued by the idea of research, and I ended up enjoying it. I worked in a marine biology and ecology laboratory. Even though I liked the work we were doing, I did not see myself having a career in that field in the future. So I went back to focusing on medicine.

Then I got an email.

Still keeping my options open, the email stated I would be a good candidate for a biomedical research scholarship. This caught my attention. A combination of medicine and research seemed like the right fit for me. After talking to people, considering what I like most and what would be best for me, I decided to apply.

And I got it. Now, I am a proud MARC Scholar.

With the scholarship, I was able to have an intensive summer research experience in a virology and host interaction laboratory. I enjoyed every minute, from the late nights in the lab to interpreting the results of a western blot to getting lunch with some lab members. I fell in love with the work we are doing and with the people. I have finally found something I am truly passionate about.

I now have a better idea of what I want to do in the future, and research will definitely be a part of that. Even though I am happy I was able to come to this decision, it has been a tough couple of years. It took a lot of ups and downs, questioning and debating, and trying things out.

The overall point is this: it’s okay not to know. About anything. It’s okay to explore different things. It’s okay to move around, drop some things, focus on some others. And most importantly, if you don’t know, keep your options open.

When it comes to research, there are so many fields you could go into, some I hadn’t even heard about before. One very important thing: don’t get discouraged if one doesn’t excite you. It might not be the one for you. Try another one, who knows what will happen?

What I have learned as well is that if research is something you are interested in, definitely try to get some experience, whenever you can! There’s one thing liking the research and another thing physically doing the research, being in a lab for hours, and devoting a lot of your time to it.

The truth is also this: research is not easy. Most of the time, it’s failures. But, at the end of the day, it is so rewarding when something does work. Or when you see results that have never been seen before! It is truly fascinating.

If you are saying you want to go to med school as you walk through the doors of your first chemistry course, and you don’t know why but it just seems like the right thing to do, think about all the other careers you could go into. Think about all the options you have. Maybe I’m a little biased, but research is a very good one.

Explore your options, whether that be different careers or within research, you never know where you will end up. Keep your hopes high, options higher.

When your research results glow

E. coli glowing: Agar plate of E. coli, some with the red fluorescent protein gene

Staring at our plate, my lab partner and I couldn’t help but smile, tears and sweat dripping down our faces.

We had actually done it.

Our teacher had told us this would be a long, hard journey, and that some of us would not be successful. After this week-long quest, we obtained the red fluorescent treasure at the end. We were successful.

Everyone surrounded our plate and us, staring at it in awe as well.

My lab partner looked at me and said, “Our E. coli are literally glowing red! We did it!”

I first realized my passion for microbiology and research when performing a week-long experiment in my A.P. Biology course as a junior in high school. We conducted a bacterial transformation using recombinant DNA technology to insert our gene of interest– a red fluorescent protein gene– in a bacterium, Escherichia coli. As seen in the picture above, this gene allowed the bacteria to, well, glow red! It was a long process that, if not you did not follow the procedure exactly as stated and if you were not paying attention to detail, you would not get the end result.

This short but sweet experiment is a small scale example of what research is like. The process to get to an end result might be long and daunting, but once you get the result, it is like eating that cake after a week of being on a “diet.” I am painting the process as being unenjoyable, but on the contrary, it is full of exciting moments as well and each step encourages you to keep going. Even on setbacks, you learn from them and find new ways to tackle what you were working on.

As I mentioned earlier, my passion for research really started when doing this experiment. I had done other experiments, such as what factors affect the rate of photosynthesis in leaves and understanding the physiology of roly-poly bugs, but none really caught my attention as the bacterial transformation experiment. There are many branches of research that people can go into. You can be in a lab with a microscope, 60 feet underwater in the middle of the Pacific, or in the valley with hiking boots and a large bottle of water. I prefer to be with a microscope and pipette, looking at organisms that are much smaller than I am and understanding their importance and complexity.

Phytoplankton: Different species of phytoplankton collected at the Sea Center

Since there is such a diverse range of research topics, you may not know what you want to go into or what you enjoy most. It is important to try different research areas first. I knew I enjoyed microbiology, but that is still a broad category. I first combined my interest in the ocean with the smallest creatures that live in it: phytoplankton. I was in a laboratory that researched how climate-induced changes affect the physiological and community composition of phytoplankton.

Even though I enjoyed studying phytoplankton, I was drawn more towards the biomedical side of research. I downsized in the organisms I was studying to viruses, which are even smaller and less complex than phytoplankton but have huge impacts on individual people and communities at large.

In general, research allows you to explore your interests while also teaching you patience, new skills, and how to follow a procedure, because trust me, you’ll need to pay attention to all the details in order for your end result to glow as our E. coli did.