Embarking on a Research Year

Rebecca Lapides is a third-year medical student at the University of Vermont, Larner College of Medicine.

In the following blog post, Lapides writes about research year experience at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Rebecca Lapides

“The idea of immersing myself into the realm of research full time seemed both thrilling and intimidating.”

During my third year of medical school, people started to ask me which field of medicine I was most interested in pursuing. When I responded dermatology, I always got a reaction—I usually heard “Wow, that’s competitive! Where are you doing your research year?” People asked me this as if not doing a research year was not an option.  

As time progressed, I became more and more concerned. The idea of a research year was still quite foreign to me, as I had not even considered embarking on one, much less planning for one. However, I quickly realized I should at least learn more about it to decide if it might be the right option for me. I began asking other medical students, residents, and attendings what their opinions were. They told me a research year would enable me to dedicate myself to full-time, focused bench or clinical research, which not only often results in impressive publications to include on a resume, but opens valuable connections with research mentors. Students can also attend and present their projects at research conferences throughout the year, which facilitates their learning and expertise in their field of interest, along with increasing shadowing and away rotation opportunities. However, a research year meant delaying my graduation and not graduating with my cohort, the class I had become so close with. I thought long and hard about taking a research year and discussed the idea with family members, friends, and mentors. Ultimately, even though I was seemingly late to the game, I felt compelled to explore what research year opportunities might be available to me.  

Fortunately, I brought up my interest in taking a research year to a research mentor I was working with at the time. She quickly connected me with her friend and colleague, a principal investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in the Cutaneous Biology Research Center, and thus, my research year at MGH was born. 

My First Day, Leaping into the Unknown

As I began my research year, it felt like I was leaping into the unknown. The idea of immersing myself into the realm of research full time seemed both thrilling and intimidating. I had often helped write case reports and review papers, but I had almost no experience with true bench lab research. Truthfully, taking a project from an idea to completion was very daunting to me. 

On my first day, the learning curve was steep, and I felt completely overwhelmed. The lab environment was a world away from the clinical setting I was accustomed to. I found myself surrounded by complex equipment and unfamiliar technology. What is cellular transfection? How am I going to figure out how to do it? Where do I even get the skin I need to do experiments on? Everyone else in the lab seemed so comfortable and sure of themselves and what they were doing to make progress on their projects, but I did not even know where to begin. Doubts loomed in my mind, and I questioned whether I was cut out for this path and could keep up with the required pace. 

Gaining Confidence and Embracing New Challenges

But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, my fears subsided as I began to embrace the challenges that research offered. With my new-found determination and the support of my mentors I grew more confident in navigating the intricacies of the lab. Every setback became an opportunity for growth, and every obstacle a steppingstone toward success.  

Gradually, I found myself fully taking the reins of my own projects, and it was an exhilarating experience to see my ideas take shape and yield promising results. The journey–from feeling overwhelmed and discouraged to leading my projects–was a testament to the resilience and adaptability that medicine has instilled in me. 

Value Beyond the Bench

However, the true magic of my research year at MGH transcended the lab, as I’ve continued to develop invaluable relationships with scientists and physicians from diverse backgrounds. Collaborating with these brilliant minds on exciting projects is a privilege that I cherish every day.  

Working side by side with researchers has taught me the art of interdisciplinary collaboration. It never ceases to amaze me how different perspectives can merge to generate ideas for innovative approaches that aim to solve complex medical challenges. During these collaborations, I developed a new appreciation for the way that research unlocks new techniques and approaches that make lasting impacts on patient care. In clinical settings, I learned to apply such techniques and treatments to care for patients. Now that I’m in a research setting, I truly understand the immense amount of time, dedication, perseverance, and collaboration it takes to make progress in medical innovation. The potential to positively influence patient care and outcomes in this new way filled me with a sense of purpose like never before.  

Taking a research year also proved to be a pivotal moment in my journey toward a competitive specialty. Residency applications can be daunting; however, I hope that my experience at MGH, and the relationships I have developed here, will be a tremendous asset to my application. Through this research year, I have grown as a medical student, a researcher, an individual, and a future physician. It has been a chapter of my life that I will always value for the lessons learned, the lives touched, and the profound sense of fulfillment it brought. 

Go For It!

To all fellow medical students considering a research year – embrace the challenges, relish the journey, and seize the opportunities. This transformative experience may just be the key to unlocking your full potential and making a lasting impact on patient care as you forge your path in medicine. 

In the spirit of innovation and collaboration, whatever our unique paths entail going forward, let’s never forget our purpose and duty to pave the way toward a brighter and healthier future for all.