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What Do Research P.I.’s Want from Medical Students Working in Their Lab?

More than a century ago, Sigmund Freud famously (or infamously) wrote, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have as yet been unable to answer despite my 30 years of research, …is, ‘What does a woman want?'” In a similar vein, medical students engaged in research projects, both male and female, frequently ask, “What does my principal investigator (P.I.) want?” Unlike Freud’s question, this one can be easily answered.  The answer is, ‘commitment.’

The major frustration for the dedicated lab head working with medical students was presented to me, as a medical student, in a talk by the great renal physiologist Homer William Smith. Smith noted that many interested, willing, and highly competent young men and women had come and gone through his laboratory, spending 2 or 3 years involved in his research. But when they launched into their medical careers they were all too frequently absorbed by their clinical activities and no longer incorporated research into their professional lives. Smith knew that the greatest payback for a senior investigator who accepts a medical student on his or her research team and spends time teaching and mentoring that student is the future research contributions that student will make throughout his or her career.  And the preceptor knows that unless real commitment is in evidence when the student first arrives then the outlook for long-term dedication to research is bleak.

This does not preclude the important need to introduce medical students without previous research knowledge or experience to the laboratory, or to some realm of clinical research, as an interested observer or limited participant. Research faculty welcome such an opportunity and are pleased if the student progresses to a more significant role. But it is disheartening for scientists to take on students who express a desire to play a meaningful research role, and accept responsibility for a portion of a project, and then fail to fulfill those responsibilities.

How does a student beginning work on a research project manifest commitment? The research faculty in medical schools are well aware of the rigorous schedule medical students face and understand that only a limited amount of time can be devoted to research. Moreover, they are forgiving when genuine conflicts arise and the time scheduled for research is of necessity missed.

Rather, it is the student’s seriousness, level of interest, and intensity of effort that are of primary concern. Students who initiate and maintain a dialogue about the research, ask questions, and show evidence of related outside reading and independent thinking are highly regarded. In fact, committed students who are new to a research discipline are especially valuable because they ask basic questions and do not accept fixed ideas and dogma as sacred and beyond questioning.  In addition, because of their concurrent medical training, they are often in a good position to recognize previously unappreciated clinical implications and significance for the research they are undertaking. Original ideas and suggestions for advancing the research, a good learning curve for the technical aspects of the project, careful data keeping, courtesy and thoughtful behavior to all members on the team — including technicians and assistants — and participation in the group’s social activities are all important to the student’s success.

The short-term endpoint the preceptor wants is not merely a student co-authored publication, or presentation or for the student to receive a favorable evaluation or letter of recommendation; rather, it is for the student to be able to formulate a hypothesis and design a sound protocol to test it, and experience the challenge and rewards of gaining new knowledge that come with a hands-on research effort. Hopefully that initial effort and commitment will lead to research becoming an integral part of that student’s later professional life, whether it is at the bench, in translational research, or in clinical studies.