A How-to guide for Research: Advice from Female Physicians

I’ve shared before that I was intimidated by research for years. I thought you needed to be brilliant or at least have some clue of what you wanted to do with your career before getting anywhere with research. In almost a year of having this blog, I have learned that I’m not alone in thinking this. 

Research is intimidating. Guaranteed no one knows where to start. How to get it? When is the right time? What kind of project? What if I don’t know anything about the process? That is just the beginning my friends. 

I’m proud of the growth I have had since last March beginning my research project. I’ve learned skills that will be a part of my career path for my future and feel like my research has taught me so much in such little time. However, I’m still learning this path to research. So, I decided to bring in two powerhouse female experts to help me break these stigmas and get more people involved in research from an earlier age.

At minimum, my goal with this article is to break down the barriers that “you have to have a certain GPA to do research or a certain set of skills.” So let’s get started!

  1. Your Title

Dr. Tooley: Andrea Tooley, MD- Oculoplastic and Reconstructive Surgery fellow at Columbia University and Manhattan Ear Eye and Throat Hospital 

Dr. Vater: Laura Vater, MD, MPH- Internal Medicine Resident Physician at Indiana University School of Medicine 

  1. When did you first started research and how did you feel about it before your started/during?

Dr. Tooley: First research ever was in undergrad. I had no idea what to expect! 

In her Youtube video, “ How I Did Research In College, Med-School, and Residency” Dr. Tooley talks more about her first research project. It was a bench research project in the Department of Biology at her undergrad looking at genetic studies of frogs while she was a double major in Chemistry and English Literature. This project recommendation came from her mentor in the department who recommended she gain research experience. She learned how to navigate a lab, follow instructions and lab techniques that helped her develop a great foundation. 

Her project went unpublished and the reason I bring this up is because a lot of Pre-Med students have felt it necessary to have a publication to gain an acceptance to medical school and this clearly is not a necessity! A great research experience can teach you skills and gain you mentorship and still be a vital part of your application!

Dr. Vater: I first became involved in research as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. It was during my graduate program in public health that I became more well-versed, first as a research assistant, then coordinator, then principal investigator. I have been working with my mentor for eight years now and have been involved in approximately 12 projects over that time. During my undergraduate and early graduate years, I felt very incompetent. I didn’t have many tangible skills, and felt uncertain discussing methodology or analysis during research meetings. Over time, I have built a repertoire of skills and now create and lead my own studies. Interestingly, a few months ago, an attending asked if I would like to join a project. He then asked about my research background. After I told him, he said, “Holy crap, I should be working for you. 

  1. What is your favorite project you have worked on? What kind of research was it?

Dr. Tooley: My favorite project is from med school- this one:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4440496/  It was my first time working in a lab in med school and I felt like I really contributed to the project. My favorite project from residency was either this one: (my first publication in our main journal Ophthalmology) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27986382  Or this one: (a topic that I really love) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30124607 

Dr. Vater: Hard question, there have been many. I tend to best enjoy projects when there is ample research team interaction, especially on projects I feel are higher impact for certain populations. These have included the development of a health curriculum in collaboration with Haitian students, a prevention program for older adults, and most recently projects to understand cancer-related advertising and communication. 

  1. Do you recommend during research during medical school and if so, when? 

Dr. Tooley: YES!  I think the best time to start is the summer between first and second year. 

In her Youtube video, “ How I Did Research In College, Med-School, and Residency” Dr. Tooley talks more about some advice she got in medical school. Her advisor gave her some guidance when she expressed that she wanted research experience in Ophthalmology. She said that it didn’t matter what she wanted to do right now so putting pressure on yourself to gain research experience in that chosen specialty was only stressing her out more. The main goal was to get involved in any research project as a first semester medical student. 

Dr. Vater: Yes, absolutely. The experience has helped me connect with mentors outside my traditional clinical roles and help me gain new skills. It also has made me more competitive for residency and fellowship positions. I recommend having a project during the summer after your first year, as well as during the years after Step 1 (third and fourth years). Fourth year of medical school is a particularly good time to take a project from start to finish. 

  1. What is your advice to students about: obtaining research, gaining confidence in research or any other things you would like to share?

Dr. Tooley: Say yes to opportunities that come your way- you never know where they will lead you!

Dr. Vater: Remember that research competence is really all about skill building. If you increase your competence, you will inevitably increase your confidence. 
Traditional research skills include: performing literature searches, developing methodology, writing an IRB protocol, collecting data, creating databases/understanding different software tools (such as REDCap), managing data, analyzing data, creating tables, writing and editing a manuscript, choosing a journal, writing a cover letter, submitting a manuscript, addressing reviewer comments, being interviewed by the media, and generating new ideas about future opportunities.
None of us have these skills when we start. I sure didn’t. I had (and still have) an excellent mentor, who helped me gain each of these skills over the last eight years. A good mentor is a person who gives you opportunities to build these skills. If you find a good mentor, invest in that relationship, express your gratitude, and be willing to work hard. And remember you are capable of building these skills. If it feels hard at first, remember that all new skills feel hard at first. It gets easier with time, and it actually becomes fun because you get to see your ideas manifest. Good luck to you! 

And remember you are capable of building these skills. If it feels hard at first, remember that all new skills feel hard at first. – Dr. Laura Vater, MD, MPH

I had such a lovely time interviewing these ladies! When I first started my research project my PI gave me two books and I am sharing the links down below for anyone who wants a little extra guidance or doesn’t know where to start! Also, Dr. Tooley has an amazing youtube video on research throughout medical school and residency that I linked below as well.

A special thanks to these two amazing physicians who took time out of their busy schedules to participate in this article, help educate about research and volunteered their experience to help future students!

Introduction to Research and Medical Literature for Health Professionals. (2013). United States: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Jacobsen, K. H. (2016). Introduction to Health Research Methods. United States: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

https://youtu.be/rOZZfNudbCM  “ How I Did Research In College, Med-School, and Residency

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