The PremedHQ Guide


How to Excel in Lab: Four Strategies to Research Success

 

Have you been accepted to a biomedical research program or successfully arranged for a lab experience? Congrats! Now it’s time to make the most of this golden opportunity and impress your lab colleagues with your skills. Lab work is an excellent way to develop academic knowledge and key career skills. There are four key strategies to ensuring you have a successful research experience as a premedical student.

 

Students in high school and college often bolster their educational experience by participating in a biomedical research lab. Research labs help premedical students apply and reinforce the knowledge they obtain in the classroom, exercise the critical thinking “muscles” that doctors utilize on a daily basis, and experience the invigorating challenge of tackling unsolved challenges that can improve the lives of patients on a large scale. Taking research work from the bench to the bedside is truly exciting!

 

By participating in research during your premedical years, you demonstrate to medical school admissions committees that you are committed to improving the lives of patients, and that you possess a penchant for scholarly pursuits. Additionally, this is an opportunity for you to obtain strong letters of recommendation and peer-reviewed research publications that will greatly benefit your medical school application.

 

If you plan to become involved in research at anytime in your journey to medical school, follow these four key strategies to get the most from your research experience and come out of it with a glowing letter of recommendation.

 

 

1. Read the lab’s previous published articles

 

The first few weeks of working in a lab can be hectic. There will be training to complete and new systems to become familiar with. There is often a plethora of terminologies and methodologies that you need to learn, and your principal investigator (PI) will expect you to have mastered them by yesterday. Aim to master these new procedures and protocols by understanding their conceptual backgrounds. Prior to starting your first day at the lab, find the lab’s old articles in online databases such as PubMed or Scopus, and skim over the abstract, methodology, and discussion sections. You should definitely ask your lab’s PI or supervisor for papers that the lab has previously published or protocols related to your project. Focus on commonly used laboratory techniques, called assays, and seek to understand the science behind these techniques. Keep in mind, however, your lab’s protocol may be slightly different from the “stock” protocols that you find online, so be ready to adapt!

 

Understanding the theory behind protocols will allow you to troubleshoot if your experiment goes awry and will also allow you to hold deeper discussions with your lab’s PI. These are excellent abilities that your PI can convey in your letter of recommendation for medical school. 

 

For each of the lab’s previous papers’ discussion sections, figure out the “takeaway” – what was the paper trying to prove and what was the evidence to support that assertion? Now you will have a better idea of the lab’s focus and you can make a smoother transition into the bustling lab environment.

 

 

2. Keep a thorough lab notebook

Learning how to keep a thorough record of what you do in the lab is an essential skill. Your lab notes should be detailed enough that another lab colleague can look at your records in five years and know exactly what you did. Your future self will also be thankful if you take thorough notes on procedures that you have learned, so you are not constantly asking your lab manager where buffers are located or how to use the spectrophotometer. Effective recordkeeping is key to success!

 

A good lab notebook should be organized logically, easily navigable, and legible. Each lab has a different way of keeping records, so find out your lab’s preferences by flipping through old lab notebooks or sharing your proposed lab notebook layout with your PI.

 

Will this give your PI a reason highlight your organizational skills and attention to detail in your letter of recommendation for medical school? You bet.

 

 

3. Be prepared for lab meetings- and participate!

Lab meetings are a great way to understand what other members of your lab have been working on and gives you an opportunity to learn how to communicate your research. Typically, your colleagues will present their work and discuss their progress and recommendations for each other. Use this forum to learn more while contributing ideas to your colleagues’ projects.

 

Sometimes, your PI and fellow lab members may present research papers that are relevant to your lab, in a meeting typically called Journal Club. If a lab member plans to present any papers during your lab meeting, you must do your homework beforehand: read the research paper(s) the night before. Start with the abstract, then read the figures, methodology, and discussion sections. Come prepared with two or three questions that dig deeper into the concepts, instead of asking simple questions such as the definitions of certain terms. Question the paper’s underlying assumptions and ask your discussion group if the result would change significantly if the test subjects differed in age, gender, health condition, etc. Lab meetings often seem like a passive activity for high school and undergraduate student researchers, but you can help yourself get the most out of these meetings if you arrive with at least a surface-level understanding of the topics and the willingness to be an active participant.

 

Being an active participant and contributor in your research lab is often the factor that determines your place in the lab’s research publication: it can move you from the paper’s acknowledgements section to the published authors section.

 

 

4. Ask smart questions

While there is no such thing as a “dumb” question in the lab, some questions are smarter than others. Avoid asking your supervisor or PI questions that you could easily answer with a little bit of investigating. Not only will you annoy your supervisor, but you will also demonstrate that you are underprepared and unwilling to take the initiative to learn on your own. Instead, note down questions you have throughout the day and then look them up at your earliest convenience. If you still cannot answer your question, then ask your PI. Good questions to ask are those that are specific to the experiments you are running, rather than general science questions.

 

Intellectual curiosity is a key quality that medical school admissions committees look for. Give your PI all the reason to gush about your intellectual curiosity in your medical school recommendation letter.

 

Additional tips for being an excellent research lab member

  • Always be on time for your lab shifts and meetings.

  • If your lab uses a shared database on the cloud, exercise caution to ensure you do not accidentally edit, delete, or overwrite data. 

  • Maintain a clean and organized workspace, and follow all safety protocols.

  • Refill and restock the lab materials that you have utilized.

  • Inform your PI well in advance of testing days or vacations that may cause you to miss your regularly scheduled lab days and meetings.

  • Always strive for a positive attitude — especially when experiments don’t go as well as expected! Failure is the best way to learn.