by Eric J. Keller, Northwestern University SOM Class of 2017

In the crazy journey of medical school, the summer between M1 and M2 stands out as an opportunity to explore your interests and bolster your CV. Many opt to pursue research projects, but finding the right project can be quite a daunting task. Below are some words of advice, which may help you along your journey.

First, it’s important to start thinking about how you would like to spend your summer sooner rather than later. Many grants and summer programs have deadlines in February, January, or earlier. Perhaps you want to volunteer, study abroad, or take some time off. There is no single best path through medical education; you are the best judge of what is right for you.

If you have decided to pursue research, your initial step should be attempting to understand your goals. Ambition without direction can waste time and energy. Attempt to answer and balance these questions: 1) What are you passionate about (e.g. basic medical science, clinical procedures, policies and guidelines)? 2) How much time and energy do you truly have to commit to a project? 3) What do you want out of your project?  A poster?  A publication?  A letter of recommendation? For example, you may consider the SIR Foundation’s Summer Medical Student Research Internship Program.

What if you’re interested in pursuing a project outside of radiology? You should not feel obligated to conduct research in interventional and/or diagnostic radiology to be a competitive residency candidate; however, some residency programs will mainly focus on your radiology research. Pursue your interests first and foremost but realize, like with any activity, some programs may not share your interests.  Thus, if possible, aim to have a diverse array of research projects both within and outside of radiology.

Once you have a reasonable goal in mind, it’s critical to find a good mentor. Take some time to look both within and outside your institution for mentors whose research aligns with your passions. Don’t attempt to predict what might appeal to residency directors during your search—they’re much more concerned with your dedication to a project. Try to meet with potential mentors to get a better feel for their interests, values, and other commitments. Consider whether he or she has a track record of publishing with medical students. Will the project be ready for publication relatively soon or is it part of a 3 year project for which you may not get much credit? For great advice on finding a mentor, check out this article by Kyle Wilson.

As you discuss a research project with your mentor, you may want to consider the pros and cons of basic science/transitional projects versus clinical projects. Basic science projects tend to take more time and expose you to a variety of expertise (PhDs, graduate students, residents, MDs, etc.). However these projects, when fully translated from bench to bedside, have a greater impact on the future practice of medicine. Clinical projects are often shorter and allow for more work with MDs, which may be great exposure for future letters of recommendation. For shorter summer research you may want to find a hypothesis-driven project (i.e. a project that answers a yes-or-no question, as opposed to an exploratory project, which generates a list).  You’ll also need a protocol that has already been optimized, lest you spend your summer tweaking the model, only to hand it off once you’re able to use it to answer your hypothesis.

Once it’s time to apply for funding, consider both radiology-specific and general sources. For example, both SIR and RSNA have medical student research grants and the AOA awards approximately fifty fellowships (non-MD/PhD students only) each year. Be sure to compose a strong application. This may sound obvious, but I think it’s easy to just ‘get it done’ when faced with the pressures of first year. Many institutions have seminars and staff members available to help their faculty and students write competitive proposals.  You may have to go through the graduate school to find their contact information, but their expertise is worth the effort.  A word of caution: many new medical students are used to being at the top of their classes and must adjust to an even more competitive group of colleagues.  Do not underestimate the time it will take to compose an application that stands out in this new pool. The NIH has some great advice about writing strong proposals, which can be found here.

Now that you have a great project and mentor (and aced your first year), make it worth everybody’s time. Maintain your enthusiasm.  During any down-time, you should use PubMed to do background research on your project.  This will illustrate that you are self-sufficient to your mentor, and allow you to ask provocative and productive questions. Remember that your mentor is investing his or her time and resources in you. Prove that this investment was a wise one.

Finally, be sure to share your great work and get credit for it – you deserve it. Although publication is nice, it is not absolutely necessary for bolstering your residency application. Many programs are more concerned with the diversity of research and level of your involvement. Consider writing up your project as an abstract and submitting it either to the SIR as an oral or poster presentation or to the SIR Medical Student Council’s student abstract contest as an oral presentation. Good luck and happy researching!