The first semester of my freshman year, a girl on my floor walked into our common room and started talking about this new research position that she was recently offered. All of us congratulated her and “ooo’d and ahh’d” over her shiny new lab keys and listened to her talk about her project. Afterward, I left thinking, “Well crap. Maybe I should start looking for a research position too.”
Looking back on that now, I question the thought processes that led me to that conclusion. In my mind, research seemed to be a prerequisite for medical school, a sojourn outside of classes that you took in the hopes of discovering your passion for a particular field. I didn’t really know what topic I was interested in—how could I? Armed with only the meager introductory classes that I took in high school, I was suddenly expected to try to understand complex ideas in specialties that I’d never heard of—and from the midst of all the different opportunities, choose one that would lead me to this magical “passion.”
Three years later, I can firmly say that I did eventually find my passion—but it certainly wasn’t where I thought it would be. In fact, I would say I took a few wrong turns and then stumbled across it accidentally. For three semesters now, I’ve had the most wonderful opportunity of working in Dr. Steve Nowicki’s lab, researching the evolutionary and behavioral implications of complex bird song, in addition to the neurobiology of song learning and production. I hadn’t originally thought that this would be my interest. However, after repeatedly watching birds flip over little caps to find the hole with food in it, I found myself fascinated by the ability of an animal to learn and adapt in changed conditions, to think creatively and solve problems, and to communicate their knowledge to others in an understandable way. After months of cleaning bird trays and conducting behavioral tests, I had the opportunity to create my own independent project. Through this process, I realized that I didn’t just find my passion—I formed it out of hard work and a little curiosity.
I decided to share my story with you because I feel that the concept of “being wrong” isn’t talked about much at Duke. Personally, I got lucky and became interested in the first lab that I contacted, but I know many of my peers have switched labs two or three times. Sometimes you don’t find what interests you right away—and sometimes you get particularly unlucky and find something you can’t stand. In either case, what matters is that you keep trying.
However, one caveat that pre-medical students should be wary of is to not participate in activities “just for med school.” The lack of sincere interest from some of my peers when participating in activities such as volunteering and research is one aspect of being pre-med that has bothered me for some time. The unfortunate reality seems to be that more and more students are approaching their applications to medical school as a check list. Did I volunteer? Check. Did I have a research experience? Check. Did I shadow at some point? Check. Medical schools aren’t looking for a shopping list of activities—they’re looking to see what you learned from those experiences and how that learning has contributed to the betterment of your person in a meaningful way.
Now you might ask, “Why do medical schools care if students volunteer? If we did research?” The vast majority of undergraduate research doesn’t produce life-changing results, so why do medical schools look for these experiences at all? It’s because they want to see how we learn to adapt to situations that aren’t always easy, that don’t always go the way we expect. For example, as much as I like my research, I will get as frustrated as anybody when the section of brain that I’m cutting decides to furl up and fall off the sectioning platform. Repeated instances of this could mean two extra hours of work in addition to the original three hours required. Conducting an experiment and getting good results isn’t easy and will often requires a painfully diligent person who has the patience to work on the nicks and knots until they find the right answer.
Research experiences, if done right, can be some of the most intellectually and socially fulfilling experiences of your undergraduate career. Building meaningful relationships with your mentors can help you expand the depth of your thinking, and may even be handy for future job recommendations. Spending long hours in the lab working through each step of your experiment teaches you to be patient and meticulous about your work, to systematically analyze possible reasons for why things go wrong and to identify solutions to unexpected snags. But doing research for the sake of having research is not what you should be aiming for, and it won’t be an accomplishment you will enjoy looking back on from your college years. So if you do it, do it for the right reasons.
Georgia McLendon, Trinity ’14, is a Duke pre-med. This column is the fifth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the pre-med experience at Duke, as well as the diverse ways students can pursue and engage with the field of medicine.