Jonathan Carnino, MS1

Age: 24
Hometown: Foxboro, MA
Undergrad: Boston University, Human Physiology

During your undergraduate studies, did you focus at all on involving yourself in research? If so, can you describe how you found out about the research opportunity, what getting the research position required, and what your responsibilities were for your research position?

I started research my summer entering junior year of college. Boston University (BU) has a website for PI’s to post opportunities on and I basically just emailed 5-10 of them all at once. I ended up only hearing back from 1 or 2 of them, and started working in a basic science lab that summer. I was fortunate to get funding from BU to support me through the summer. Then when that program ended, by PI ended up hiring me and paying me to stay. I ended up working their part-time junior year, full-time during the summer going into senior year, and again part-time senior year. Having longitudinal research was really critical to becoming efficient and being able to take on many responsibilities in the lab. After being trained on various basic lab techniques my first summer (RT-PCR, animal handling, Western Blot, cell culture, etc.), I was able to take on my own projects and eventually publish those results.

Looking back on your research experience during your undergraduate studies,  what do you think makes for a great research mentor or PI?

A great PI is one who is willing to give a student responsibility and who publishes very often. When seeking out PI’s, it’s always good to 1) check their yearly publication count, 2) see how often undergrads/med students are put on their papers, 3) see if they have NIH funding. If you find a PI with all 3, they’re likely a great person to get in touch with. Some PI’s also tend to give undergrad students just one experimental technique to do for other’s projects. For example you could get trained in PCR and just do PCR experiments every week for other researchers in your group. It will be difficult to run your own project, become skilled in other techniques, and gain independence if this is the case.

In a research position, what do you think is important for someone to do to help build a strong rapport with your PI/research mentor?

Never say no. Always take on any work your PI offers you. Even if you don’t necessarily know how to do what they’re asking, it can never hurt to say something along the lines of, “I don’t have any experience in this, but I’m willing to learn and take this on if you’d like”. If you repeatedly do this you’ll end up being the go-to person for your PI and learn a lot in the process. Don’t be afraid to fail or mess up either, it’s just part of the process.

How much do you think your research experience played a role into getting into medical school? Would you recommend all pre-medical students try and get involved with research?

Research was definitely a strong component of my application but surprisingly it didn’t come up too often in my medical school interviews. Most questions were focused on my clinical experience and/or impact I made on the community during school. I guess I’ll never know exactly how big of an impact it made. Regardless though, research is important during medical school especially if you are pursuing a competitive specialty. If you enter medical school with strong experience, it will be a lot easier to jump right into a project once you start school. Most students will need some time to adjust and figure out how research works, while you are able to hit the ground running. Therefore I’d definitely recommend students get involved in some capacity during undergrad or their gap year(s).

In medical school, when did you decide to involve yourself in research and what led you to make this decision? Looking back, would you have gotten involved in research at a different time? Earlier? Later?

I got involved in research about half-way through undergrad. In retrospect, I think this was a good time or I could have even got started a little later. It takes some time to get comfortable in undergrad and be able to add more to your plate. Overall, your grades matter more than having research experience at this stage. If you’re doing well in classes and find you have added free time, definitely get started in research or other application-building activities as soon as possible. But don’t be afraid to hold off on starting research later if you’re still focusing on acing your classes!

What types of research projects do you think are most suitable for medical students to complete on a realistic timeframe? Alternatively, can you describe one or some of the major research project that you are involved in and what your role is?

As a medical student, I think clinical research is the best area to get involved in. It’s much less time consuming and the pace is a lot more flexible. Basic research requires weekly commitment for months and even years to get results that are worth publishing. As a med student, it’s very difficult to find that amount of time to commit consistently. I find I can be very flexible working on my clinical research projects. For example, it’s no problem at all if I take an entire week off of doing anything research-related while preparing for exams, then cram extra work in on my project the weekend after an exam.

 If you are unsure about what specialty you are going to apply to, how would you approach getting involved in research?

I would just pursue research in anything that sounds exciting to you. When people ask you about your research, they’re more interested in seeing if you have a passion for pursuing it, no matter what area it’s in. Research-oriented medical students will become efficient and motivated researchers in residency too, that’s the trend they are looking for. I’d also look for a PI who will let you run your own project, being a first-author and the main person taking a project from start to finish holds a lot more weight than just helping out on smaller tasks.

If someone is unable to get a publication out of a research project, how else can you derive value from a research experience?

Very few people are able to publish their first research project. Your first project may be a real learning experience for you and you’ll likely make a few mistakes along the way. Over time, you’ll apply these lessons and become more efficient on the next projects you take on.

Do you have advice for medical students about how to balance class-related responsibilities (preparing for tests, etc.) and research?

I live off my google calendar. At the start of the week schedule in everything you need to get done, including classes, studying, research, and exercise. If you have it all planned out and follow your calendar, you’ll find it’s not too difficult to balance it all. Becoming a planner definitely will help you out in balancing all of these commitments.

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