Find a Research Mentor

Performing a research project offers many advantages for a medical student including the chance to interact one on one with faculty, learn the current state of the art in biomedical research, develop skills in writing grants and reading the scientific literature, and develop presentation skills. The quality of this experience is directly related to the quality of the relationship with the student’s mentor and members of the laboratory.

Medical student research may be carried out with faculty members at UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, other institutions like Rutgers University or other NJ research institutions, and in other states or even countries. The research can span a summer, typically between the 1st and 2nd years, or continue through the entire 4 years of medical school. Students can also take a year or two off or apply to the MD PhD program (before matriculation or after).

Although there are many faculty at RWJMS, most of these professors can, at most, take only one or two students for research projects. Some faculty may lack the time, resources or space to sponsor students. In addition, faculty are asked to sponsor summer students in many undergraduate programs or sponsor students from Rutgers University. It is therefore advisable that you do not wait until the last minute to start your search for a research mentor. We also suggest that you talk to several professors so that you can get a feel for the different environments and styles of research.

Places to Find Mentors

One key to knowing if someone will consider sponsoring a student is that they have sponsored a student in the past, spoken in Students Interested in Research (SIR, MDC0934), or have volunteered. Research descriptions for many faculty are available on their department or graduate program web pages.

Click Here for lists of mentors in the Foundation/RWJMS Summer Fellowship program and SIR speakers.

Contacting a Mentor

Once you find some names, you need to contact the mentor. Prepare for this by:

If possible read up a bit on their work.

Read one of their recent research papers. This will not only provide you with detailed information on what the lab is doing, but it will also provide background for discussions with the professor. This will also demonstrate to the professor that you are interested in his/her research and motivated.

Set up an appointment with a professor. Keep in mind the following points:

  • Email (or call) to set up an appointment and indicate why you are specifically interested in their lab.
  • Expect to have to wait a week or more, especially for a chair, director etc., so don’t wait.
  • Listen to the cues you get. If they never get back to you or seem disinterested, this is not a good indication they will be a good mentor. If they ask you to meet with a senior member of their team, this is not necessarily bad, you will get to work in the lab and likely get more attention.
  • Be on time, prepared and if you change your mind call/e-mail and cancel the meeting.


Meeting with a Mentor

Once you have an appointment be ready to ask questions:

Ideas

The professor will discuss the research that is going on in their laboratory and may provide a few suggestions as to projects that would be feasible for a new researcher and that would benefit both the student and the lab.

Supervision

Find out who will be directly training and supervising you. Is it the professor, a faculty member in the lab, graduate student, post-doc, or fellow or will you left on your own?

It should be noted that most professors are usually very busy teaching, giving seminars, writing grants and papers, in the clinic as well as serving on committees, etc. Therefore, some no longer do lab work. Working with a graduate student or post-doc may provide significantly more time for interaction or guidance than with a professor.

Environment

If possible talk with members of the lab. What are they doing? How do they like working there? You can also talk to students who have previously worked in that lab.

Appropriateness

Is the project feasible in the time allowed? Will it qualify for the funding you wish to apply for? Be realistic in terms of the project and the accomplishments – If an experiment is extremely important for a grant, a paper, tenure etc. then it is likely that a full time, experienced person in the lab will be carrying it out.

Funding

It may not be an easy question, but will they sponsor you for our internal, or perhaps even external funding programs? If you do not get the grant are they willing to hire you and pay you? Many labs have funds available from their grants or department to provide a stipend or support your use of work study funds.

Once You Are in the Lab Remember

Time

Initially, you will require a lot of supervision to learn the system and master the techniques. Often things may not work right away, and therefore time must be spent by the professor, post-doc, graduate student or technician in training you and troubleshooting the experiments. Although this effort by other members of the lab is helpful training for you, it is also taking away time from their own experiments.

Space

Space is often at a premium in many labs. In some big labs, people only have a few feet of bench space or work in shifts.

Money

In an average lab, each researcher (graduate student, post-doc, or technician) will use over $5,000 a year in supplies and reagents. In labs that use expensive reagents such as cell culture media or large quantities of enzymes, this number could easily be over $10,000 a year. Therefore, even working part time in the lab on your research project will easily cost the lab over $2,000 in reagents and supplies during the year.

References

A letter from this professor will therefore carry significantly more weight than references from professors in whose class you were only one of hundreds. Your research advisor will be able to strongly address your intelligence, motivation, efficiency, personality, etc. in their letters. When you are completing your time in the lab, you can ask if your mentor is willing to write you a letter. The letter can be submitted to the Student Affairs office for your file and future use in your Dean’s letter. If you are only working the summer after your first year, it is better to get the letter while the PI still sees you around, asking for a letter 2 or 3 years later will be harder for the mentor and likely of lower quality. If you will stay longer, the letter can be requested when you are leaving. You can expect the longer you are in the lab the more complete and specific the letter will be.

In taking a student into their lab, the professor is making a large commitment of resources to provide the necessary ideas, time, space, and reagents to carry out your research. The professor is therefore expecting a serious commitment from you. However, the payoff for both you and the lab can be tremendous.

*Modified with permission from Dr. Andrew Vershon, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Rutgers University.

© 2016