Life After McGill: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on a Medical Student

Lisa Zhang, former MSURJ Managing Editor, was an Interdepartmental Honours in Immunology student who graduated from McGill in 2011. She is currently a second year medical student at the University of Toronto.

Do you think early exposure to hands-on research during undergrad is important if you are thinking about a career in research?

I think getting hands-on research is an important part of a long process. Figuring out an adult career is hard for plenty of people. High school kids probably have a rough idea of what they like: explosions, Charmander, creating things, taking stuff apart. I think research is one of the best experiences one could have as an undergrad; it really highlights your weaknesses, which is never pleasant but always necessary. Students have so many false ideas about research, which could really lead one down the wrong career path if not dispelled early on. Conversely, there are probably some people who would make wonderful and thoughtful researchers if they ever tried it; getting an A in biochemistry does not equal research genius, that’s for sure.

 What types of undergraduate research did you experience at McGill?

My first project was in biotechnology, specifically in rational drug design using comparative protein modelling. To put it simply, we used the knowledge we have about protein structures to design a small molecule that could treat disease. When I started the project, I had just completed my first year and was essentially clueless about all things research related. My first supervisor told me: “You’re not going to split cells, run a bunch of gels, or perform any PCRs in my lab. That crap is easy to pick up. Thinking is hard. Getting lazy and belligerent people to collaborate with you is hard. Playing politics with a useless department head is damn hard.” Research ended up being about extensive literature searches, many trials and errors, and way too many moments of I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-doing. But it was also about those few times where – Eureka, the pieces fall together and – guess what, I feel smart today!

My honours project and my research during medical school taught me the skills to be an effective molecular biology researcher. However, it was my first research project that taught me how to be inspired by questions and processes that seem all too unclear and meaningless. A protein sequence is just a bunch of letters—but those letters form shapes, and those shapes follow physical and chemical rules, and exploiting those rules can move scientific knowledge a miniscule step forward. True researchers are rebels at heart.

 If you didn’t have these research opportunities early on, would you be where you are right now?

Research taught me how to apply things I learned theoretically to a defined purpose. More important than the results attained, research taught me how to endure the process of acquiring background information, putting a plan forward, modifying that plan, not crying during a funk, and finding creative solutions. I also discovered what I wanted out of a career: interactions with people, problem solving, discovering new things, and reducing misery in the world (every person must have at least one delusion of grandeur). I chose medicine in the end because it fostered my interests and it didn’t make me choose between them: medicine encompasses research, didactic learning, generalizing, specializing, teamwork, and communication.

You were in the IHI program at McGill; would you recommend doing honours projects?

The IHI program is perfect for indecisive people who abhor major life decisions and think research is kind of cool. My rationale was that I found viruses, chemical pathways, and the human body kind of fascinating. There was nothing that I felt especially passionate about, nor was there anything I particularly despised about immunology, biochemistry, or physiology – so I did all of it. It also gave me a very flexible final year, where the course load was light to accommodate as much (or as little) research as I desired to do. I wanted a holistic approach to learning the biological sciences, so the IHI program was perfect for that. However, those who are more focused should major in their specific area of interest; hating two-thirds of your undergraduate degree is not a pathway to happiness, nor is balancing a course schedule with three separate departments.

Have you done research after McGill, and do you think you will continue doing research during/after your medical degree?

I did research in diabetes and breast cancer this past summer at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. It was a great opportunity to work in a laboratory while learning about global health and foreign cultures. Curiosity is an irrevocable part of me, so I think research will be as well.

What have you gained from working in research labs? And have these skills been helpful for you as a medical student?

The technical skills I learned have been applied over and over again; I gained a lot of knowledge about scientific writing and molecular research techniques. I learned to work with different types of people: perfectionists, laidback hippies, intolerable dolts, and supportive mentors. Medical school is about making sense of information and making sense of people; working in research labs has taught me quite a bit about both.

Many U3 B.Sc students are currently deciding between applying for grad school or for professional school (or both). Do you have any advice for them?

I had a fairly practical approach to career decisions: do what I like, do what I’m good at, don’t be broke, and make a positive difference before I kick the bucket. In third year, I considered three options seriously: medical school, law school, or grad school. I received advice from a lot of people – a lot of them suggesting “do what you like” and “life isn’t linear” and “you can change your mind later.” I just asked myself: What am I doing in five years? Ten years? Who am I with? Where am I geographically? What’s my income? What’s my lifestyle?

Dreams are important, but I prefer mine to be grounded in reality. Wanting to save the world is awesome, but there is nothing wrong with thinking about money, relationships, or living the good life. There is time for change, time for a thousand decisions and revisions, but I wanted to be happy the first time around.

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