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Avoiding Research Project Perils


The New Physician April 2001
Most U.S. medical schools strongly encourage medical students to engage in research, and many of them require every student to complete a scholarly project as a condition for graduation. The degree of success and satisfaction you derive from the pursuit and completion of your research depends largely on two factors: the qualities of the mentor and the soundness of the research project. In most cases, your choice of a research mentor is carefully considered and one that ultimately turns out to be mutually satisfactory. Furthermore, for most medical students, the course of the collaborative study proceeds smoothly, culminating in a respectable final report or, with some luck, a publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case.

Each year at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine (UNM), for example, as many as one-fourth to one-third of its students run into problems with their research projects—difficulties so great as to compel a student to drop the project, find a different mentor, devise a fresh study and write a new proposal that must be approved by UNM’s medical student research committee. Not only is this disheartening, but it also leaves you with a deep and irrevocable distaste for research. How can you increase your chances for a successful project and reduce the risks of failure? Choose the right research mentor.


If your mentor is chosen wisely, a sound, significant, feasible and gratifying project will likely follow. And assuming you have an affinity for the research area in which she works, the most important factor for you to consider and assess is the productivity of the potential mentor.

This is a relatively easy task, and there are several routes to obtain such information. First, you can access faculty Web pages to quickly identify the potential mentor’s research focus and a listing of any published work. Second, thanks to the availability of such online search engines as Elsevier Science’s Scirus and the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed, you can obtain titles and abstracts of papers published by virtually every faculty member in a matter of minutes. Concrete information of this kind can inform you of a potential mentor’s scholarly interests, and it can serve as an objective means of assessing the mentor’s expertise and current level of productivity. The gap between a faculty member’s perceived and actual scholarly output can sometimes be considerable. If the faculty member being considered has not published a significant, full-length paper in the last three or four years, you should seriously consider looking elsewhere for a more suitable mentor.

You should also learn the number of medical students this potential mentor has supervised in the last few years. How many of them completed their project successfully and in a timely fashion? Have any failed to finish their project? If so, how many and why? The head of the medical student research committee should be able to provide you with this data. If a particular faculty member has never mentored a medical student in research or if one or more students failed to complete their projects under that faculty member’s direction in recent years, then you should weigh the risks associated with having that person be your mentor.

So what about a new faculty member who only recently joined the school, who is just beginning her career and hasn’t had the opportunity to mentor medical students or accrue a lengthy bibliography? While it is certainly unreasonable to expect a faculty member fresh out of training to have produced an extensive personal bibliography, there still ought to be some evidence of her involvement in and commitment to research during her graduate, residency or fellowship training. You should be able to assess her ability to complete a project and publish its findings. Again, do a little research. Don’t become the test case that determines whether or not a new faculty member is an appropriate research mentor.

And there’s a flip side to this: Be careful not to place undue emphasis on how highly esteemed that faculty member is as a researcher or how many National Institutes of Health grants she currently holds. In many instances, there is an inverse relationship between the dollar value of the grants a faculty member holds and the degree of access you will have with that individual. You’ll want your mentor to be available to you.

Consider the case of a department chairman who may have an extensive publication record but who is so preoccupied with administrative duties that he has little or no time to meet regularly and thoughtfully with you. In such a situation, the overextended mentor is likely to hand you over to a resident physician, postdoctoral fellow, graduate student or laboratory technician.

To prevent this from happening to you, ask other students who have worked on a research project with the mentor as to how often you would likely get frequent, periodic and quality “face time.”


Assessing the qualifications of a mentor is only half the task; the other critical factor in this equation is the nature of the project itself. In order to be successful with your research project, you’ll need to evaluate your interest in the topic as well as the study’s feasibility.

As a busy medical student, you have only so much time to devote to a project. Therefore, feasibility is extremely important. Before committing to a mentor or project, consider the availability of research subjects required for the study or, in the case of a more laboratory-based study, the probability that a sufficient number of specimens (e.g., serum, tissue) will be on hand to support the proposed project. For example, if a potential mentor outlines a project that will require blood samples from 100 individuals with sickle cell disease and there are only 13 such people scattered across the state, you should begin to question the wisdom of undertaking such a study.

Alternatively, a different faculty member may want you to work on a project that will require analysis of various enzyme markers of renal injury in the urine of uranium miners. A power analysis is performed, and it shows the study will require 600 human volunteers. When you inquire as to whether or not the urine samples have been collected and are stored in a freezer somewhere awaiting analysis, the prospective mentor says there’s no need to worry: “By the time you are ready to begin your analyses, we will have collected the 600 urine specimens.” Mentors often underestimate the problem of recruiting or securing, in a timely fashion, the number of subjects or specimens required for a project. You should be wary of signing onto a project for which there are serious questions and doubts about the availability of human subjects, biological specimens, or access to the necessary databases.

Assuming the study involves human subjects, another potential impediment is the task of getting the project approved by your school’s institutional review board (IRB) or human research review committee. This problem is compounded many-fold if the study population involves indigenous people (e.g., Apache, Inuit, Navajo) living on reservations. In the case of research involving Native Americans, the project cannot be initiated until it has been approved by both the university’s IRB and the corresponding human subjects review committee representing the interests of the Native American group; the latter process usually takes more than one year. If you’re anxious to get started on the project during your first year of medical school, you should think twice about committing to a study involving a Native American population that has yet to receive approval from the human subjects review board. Similar problems pertain to the study of public school children.

Another factor to consider is the availability of the analytical methods, reagents and equipment that will be needed to gather the quantitative information the project requires. You should determine before you begin a project whether the analytical methods and reagents are on hand to execute the study and, better yet, are currently being used in the mentor’s laboratory. It can be disheartening to collect blood serum or tissue and then discover that the analytical methods required to determine the content of some critical analyte in these specimens are not available in the mentor’s laboratory or elsewhere in the institution. Similar advice extends to the issue of questionnaires. If a research project is to be interview-based, you should check to see that a validated questionnaire is available. You need to ensure that the analytical capabilities and experience of the potential mentor meet the demands of the project.

Finally, once you have narrowed the list of potential mentors to those who meet the above criteria, the last question to be addressed is: Which project interests you the most? If you’re unsure, ask yourself: Which one seems more likely to yield a result that will be of significance to biomedical science in general or human beings in particular? Oftentimes, if you can find relevance in your project, your interest in the study will be enhanced. And what about a collaboration? Will any other students or peers be working on the same project? The opportunity for you to collaborate with a fellow student may provide you with the necessary support and drive to allow both of you to successfully complete the project.

When both mentor and project have been selected thoughtfully and deliberately, the likelihood is high that the research experience will be both enjoyable and rewarding. The opportunity to perform research can provide you with numerous learning possibilities. In addition to the expected accomplishments (learning how to propose a hypothesis, perform a literature search, collect and analyze data, write a proposal and final paper, as well as critically evaluate the research of others), you will also have the opportunity to develop a working relationship with a faculty member, to publish your work and to contribute to the ever-expanding corpus of biomedical knowledge. There is little that can compare with the satisfaction of seeing your name among the authors of a paper in a highly respected, peer-reviewed journal.

For any student interested in research, especially those without prior research experience, selecting a project and mentor can be confusing and overwhelming. As a student and a mentor ourselves, we understand that in any endeavor the first attempt is the most difficult. It is our hope that the strategies discussed here will help you navigate your research options. More importantly, we hope that—through self-determination and informed decision-making—you will create a research project that is enjoyable, successful and gratifying.
Robert H. Glew, Ph.D., is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine (UNM). Diane R. Fernandez is a third-year medical student at UNM. Both authors are members of UNM’s medical student research committee.