Publishing Research

4 tips for medical students to get their start as researchers

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

Research can be a career long pursuit for physicians. A physician researcher’s journey often begins in medical school.

Few are more in tune with the research process than Luke Finck, EdD, the associate director of the office of medical student research at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Finck offered these tips for medical students trying to get their scholarly pursuits off the ground.

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In his role, Finck oversees Vanderbilt’s four-year research curriculum. When medical students begin their work in Vanderbilt’s research track, many, but not all, have some research experience. Finck highlighted that experience is not necessary, however.

“When students come to medical school, they want to work with patients,” Finck said. “Previous work that they did in the lab does help them understand the translational aspects of research, but may not be the type of research they want to engage in. So, students who don't have any experience aren't necessarily at a disadvantage to those who have it, because the type of research they're likely going to do in our program may not be the same research that they did before they came to medical school.”

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More traditional research can take place in a laboratory, but the field of medical research is evolving. Following your passions can help you identify the right area of research and the most fruitful form it can take. Finck saw what outside-the-box research looks like from a medical student he worked with who had an engineering background.

“I've got this crazy idea,” the medical student told Finck. “I want to figure out how we can use 3D modeling and 3D printing to help with surgery.”

As the medical student further formulated his idea, “it meant that he had to partner with folks from our engineering department and others who have expertise in that surgery subspecialty to figure out how we can use 3D printing to help them,” Finck noted.

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Finck cited the 3D model as an example of how passion drives research. So, if you have an idea that inspires you, don’t consider the potential reasons not to pursue it.

“The ideas that I get excited about are the ones that a student brings up, and I have to take a step back and say, ‘Let's figure that out together,’” he said. “It's really saying: What are your passions? What are you interested in? Let's find some experts to surround how we can approach that.”

Medical students often have the desire and tenacity, but they don’t always have the know-how early on their research work. That is where mentorship can be valuable, and the process of finding the right mentor is an important one for doing research as a medical student.

“We challenge students to think about the type of person, not just that you want to emulate, but that can help you build the skills to get to be that amazing clinician researcher that you aspire to be,” Finck said. “So, it’s important to be asking questions about their past relationships with mentees, talking to their colleagues about their mentoring experience with different faculty and what skills they gained. Time is also an important commodity. And I know we have wonderful opportunities through Zoom, but I think there's a quality of relationship that can be built in person, face to face, and we really encourage our mentors to provide that time for our students.”