Why you should do a summer undergraduate research program
I’m currently preparing to present my PhD research at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) next week. I’m looking forward to seeing cool neuroscience from around the world, hanging out in San Diego with friends, and catching up with the students and alumni from my summer undergraduate research program.
The summer research program that I did at WashU St. Louis changed my life. I’m grateful to have maintained a relationship with the program’s network after 6 years since participating, and now I get to meet the next generation of underrepresented neuroscientists at the conference that gave me my start. I hope to inspire you in this post to seek out summer research programs and convince you that it’s one of the most high value options you can do if you’re considering MD/PhD.
If you’re an undergraduate student interested in research, now is the time to start searching for programs. Applications typically open in November and have a deadline in February. Therefore, I hope this post is both timely and timeless.
I want to tell you about my experience as a student in the BP-ENDURE Neuroscience Pipeline Program at WashU St. Louis as well as my experience as a mentor in the MSTP summer research program at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Seeing things from both sides has provided me with keen insight into the value of the process and common struggles of undergraduate students.
The Start of an Era
In December 2015, I was in my junior year starting to prepare for the MCAT. While procrastinating, I looked into summer research programs because I worried I wasn’t competitive enough for medical school (typical premed energy). My research experiences to this point had been fundamentally basic science, and I wanted to understand what it meant to do more translational research. While basic science taught me much about the art of scientific method, I was unclear how to translate lab findings into the clinic. I desired to attend an institution where the research campus was closely linked with the medical campus. I still wasn’t aware that MD/PhD was a career option, and it was while searching for programs that I saw a description: “for underrepresented students interested in a PhD or MD/PhD”. I became activated. MD-what?
Down the rabbit hole I went, trying to understand what this dual degree path was all about. I applied to 3 summer research programs: a local program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, a program at Yale University focused on kidney disease, and a couple programs at Washington University in St. Louis. At WashU, there was a box-checking option to select different programs: 1) Leadership Alliance, 2) Amgen Scholars, 3) BP-ENDURE Neuroscience. I checked the boxes for Amgen and BP-ENDURE, the latter of which was more competitive with only 10 spots. Amgen had more spots and thus a greater chance for me to be accepted. I put Amgen #1 and BP-ENDURE #2.
I worked hard on my application. It was the first time I had written a CV; I had no idea how it differed from a resume. Also…what’s a cover letter? I asked for letters of recommendation from research mentors for the first time, too. It was all new, and I was motivated to do a good job. I was accepted to all 3 programs, thrilled beyond belief.
A phone call came from the director of the Neuroscience program at WashU, which was unexpected. A kind voice called to say that in my application I had expressed great interest in neuroscience research, so they were surprised to see that I had put Amgen #1. I explained my strategy, a bit embarrassed. Then, they offered me a spot in the BP-ENDURE Neuroscience program, and a big smile was stuck on my face.
I emailed Yale University to decline my acceptance. I didn’t want to study kidneys, I just wanted the chance to go to Yale. I must admit that being in a position to tell Yale no was exhilarating. Everything was working out…how did I get so lucky?
You’ve got to believe in yourself and ask for help. Learning to manage the possibility of rejection is an essential part of the academic process. Aim high for what you want and put in the work to make it happen. My mom always told me, “shoot for the moon, and you’ll land among stars”. Don’t hold yourself back from the opportunities you desire. I asked other students for help who were more experienced in research to send me their CV and cover letter examples. Since they, too, had to go through this process in the beginning, they know what it feels like to get started. In addition, your research professors know that letters of recommendation are the currency of academia. A good PI will write you the letter you need, so long as you’re putting in consistent hard work in lab.
Importantly, the BP-ENDURE program offers 2 summers of NIH-funded research, an uncommon feature among the summer programs I found. Critically, it was a paid position. I was elated at the idea that I would earn $5000 for a summer of conducting research at a dream school. Further, the program provides additional funding for students to attend 2 scientific research conferences: Society for Neuroscience and one more of the student’s choice. I picked a meeting on Axon Guidance, Synapse Formation, and Regeneration at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Soon, I’ll make a post about the joy of attending research conferences; a hint is that the joy comes as much from what happens outside the conference center as within.
As you begin your search for summer programs that fit your interests, you’ll notice that a single university can have 5–10 different programs. It can be overwhelming and difficult to choose. How can you improve your selection process? Here’s a few valuable tips:
- Search for social media and websites of the programs to find students that participated in the program in years past. Reach out to them to talk about their experience.
- Look into the research professors affiliated with the program. You do not want to be accepted into a program only to find that you’re stuck doing a project on a topic outside your interests.
- Find out how the program is programmed. How many years of funding, do they offer shadowing opportunities for MD/PhD prospectives, are there resources for MCAT, application, and interview preparation, and is there a peer mentorship program?
- Do they provide funding for you to attend conferences or do you have to apply for external grants?
- How many students are in a cohort?
- Is the program focused on supporting underrepresented students?
- How much will you be paid? Is housing provided?
- Where is the program located and does it have an affiliated medical school nearby? Are they able to support you in MD/PhD preparation?
- How are professional development plans integrated into the program? For example, in my neuroscience program, we had small group lessons with the director on the fundamentals of neurophysiology. We also had workshops on grant writing and science communication.
What I’ve learned as a peer mentor for a summer research program
As a student in the UW-Madison MSTP, I was excited that my program started an MSTP summer research program in 2021. The first year was virtual, the second in-person. I’ve been involved since the program’s inception, and I’ve enjoyed my experience working with students who remind me of myself at that stage. I’ve taught lessons to students on dealing with imposter syndrome, personal statement writing, talking about your research, and principles of electrophysiology. The students often have a wide range of research experiences and interests, which make the cohort an excellent place to learn how to communicate about your science at different levels.
In my experience, learning how to communicate about science and personal narrative are the areas where students experience the greatest improvement. This was certainly true for me in the BP-ENDURE research program. From “tell me about yourself” in formal interview situations to casual kickbacks with peers from across the country with diverse life experiences. It takes many repetitions to get comfortable with this skill of self-expression, but developing it early will serve you well throughout your career.
One memory I will never forget from my summer program was with my friend, Josh. I was telling him about my struggle to simplify my research to communicate with people outside of my lab. He sat down with me and asked me to tell him about it. I started talking, and he started drawing. My man was artistic. I explained the genetic pathway and proteins involved in regulation of synaptic development in the neuromuscular junction of Drosophila: “…the protein Highwire is a negative regulator of Wallenda, which activates JNK, a MAP Kinase, thereby activating a phosphorylation cascade that, I hypothesize, drives assembly of cytoskeletal elements to develop the synaptic infrastructure during neuronal development”. I looked over at Josh’s paper, and he had drawn Highwire as a big and bad bouncer throwing Wallenda out the club. We broke out in laughter, which itself reduced the stress I was putting on myself to get this perfect. We talked through the pathway in simple terms using personified proteins to break it down to fundamentals and then we built it back up into a compelling story.
Storytelling is one of the greatest skills you can develop early in your academic career. I think this holds true in any career. To be clear, you still need to use strong evidence to support your narrative, but the way you tell it makes a big difference. I find that students in the summer research programs frequently struggle with this aspect of communicating about research. The “I don’t want to sound stupid” fear is real and one that most students have experienced. It quickly leads to feelings of imposter syndrome and inadequacy.
We must squash that from the start by normalizing these feelings and reframing the way in which our minds perceive them. As students aiming for MD, PhD, or MD/PhD, especially those who are first-generation, we put high pressure on ourselves to have it altogether from the start so that we can represent ourselves and our community with the respect deserved. It’s a journey that requires patience and persistence. You’re learning a new language in a foreign culture, fluency takes time and uncomfortable, repeated exposure. With practice and good coaching, you’ll find your way. I’m almost certain that if you’re reading this right now you already have the ambition and work ethic to achieve the goal you desire.
Five major reasons you should do a summer research program:
Shout out to the WashU St. Louis community from the summer 2016 research programs. I have no doubt this group is doing amazing work in science and medicine across the country. I’m grateful to have formed relationships with people from so many different backgrounds and life experiences, who taught me more about myself than they know. Being surrounded by students who can relate to and empathize with your experiences can have a transforming impact on your personal development. Things you might have taken for granted get brought to the forefront and push you to consider new perspectives. That’s what it’s all about, and it will make you a better scientist.
It’s a privilege to attend SfN this year for the first time as a BP-ENDURE alumnus and MD/PhD student, and I’m excited to meet the current “ENDUREables”. I love the idea of building a network of people through a program over time to bond over a common background and learn about all the interesting work people are doing. This network is powerful. If you need help or advice, you can find someone who’s an expert within a few contacts.
The BP-ENDURE program gave free MCAT prep resources, connected me with an advisor to give feedback on my MD/PhD application, and arranged mock interviews with faculty and MSTP administrators. One experience I want to share is that I flopped in my interview with the MSTP administrator. I was trying too hard. I had only just begun learning how to tell my story and explain my research, so I was rough around the edges. Instead of coming into the room relaxed and confident, I put pressure on myself and thought too much. I wanted to be accepted into the WashU MSTP so much that I lost the plot. Nevertheless, I received amazing feedback from the mock interviews that allowed me to reassess my approach and prepare with a new perspective. When it was time to interview for MD/PhD programs in the fall, I was far more skilled and prepared. This early experience with failure paved the way for this realization.
The opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art research lab with top-notch graduate students and faculty mentors was a transformative experience. I was given an interesting summer project and pushed to develop practical research skills as well as conceptual understanding. I remember my mentor asking me to write all the possible genetic outcomes from crossing different genetic lines on the glass wall to make sure that I understood the basis for RNAi knockdown screens. We worked together on the teaching microscope so I could improve the quality of my microdissections. We practiced my research presentation so that I could impress my PI, and I couldn’t have done it nearly as well without their guidance. I was intimidated by my PI, an MD/PhD with degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Stanford who seemed to always be the smartest person in the room. The letter of recommendation that I received undoubtedly opened doors for me.
You get out of the program as much as you put into it. You can work in lab for the minimum, or you can show up early well-prepared and curious. I wish I had been more open to failure at this point in my training. I had set such high expectations for myself. To use a softball analogy, when you are lobbed a fat pitch, you don’t have to swing all out to make the ball go far. Focus, take a breath, and swing with good form. Develop a short-term memory for the previous strikeouts. I’m not much of a softball player, but I swung too hard that summer, fearful that I’d miss my shot. The irony is that the hard swing was what limited me the most. Summer research programs pull you out of your natural element and put you into a new environment for personal and professional growth. With the right support, you can make tremendous progress as a person and scientist.
I’ll close this post with a plug for the two summer programs that I’m most familiar and affiliated with:
University of Wisconsin-Madison MSTP Summer Scholars Program: https://www.med.wisc.edu/education/md-phd/summer-scholars-program/
BP-ENDURE Neuroscience Pipeline Program at Washington University in St. Louis: https://endure.wustl.edu/apply/
Applications are open now. Reach out if you have any questions or want help with your application.