I'm going to tell you something pretty embarrassing. Let us start from the beginning first though.
I've been premed since I was in elementary school. I always knew I would need to do "research" but I didn't know what that meant. As a freshman in college I decided it was time to jump on this research wagon and figure it out. I searched "cancer research labs" on my university Life Sciences website. The first one that popped up: Cancer Immunology with Dr. O. I read a little bit about the lab and was intrigued. I sent an email to Dr. O with a copy of my resume and a little bit about myself. Dr. O sent me an email back in about 10 minutes which said -- sorry our lab isn't looking for research assistants. Bummer. This isn't the embarrassing part though. The next day I went to class and during class I got a phone call from an unknown number. I usually don't answer these calls but I decided to. A PhD from Dr. O's lab was on the other end and said "Hi Abi, my name is Ed and I am wondering if you can come over to the lab and draw some blood for us." A funny request for a lab that just rejected me, but they had obviously read on my resume that I was a phlebotomist. It turns out their usual phlebotomist was out of town but they needed to run this experiment quickly. After I drew blood I sheepishly asked, "So does this mean I can join your lab now?" Dr. O laughed and said okay sure you win.
The PhD student told me to bring a paper about something I was interested in related to cancer research to the next lab meeting. Now, this is the embarrassing part. I was 18 years old and had no idea what type of "paper" he meant. So I showed up to the next lab meeting with a paper that I WROTE about stuff I was interested in related to cancer research. *face palm* They meant a research manuscript that had been published. Luckily, another new student presented before me so I just lied and said I had forgotten a paper.
Long story short, I began working in the lab. For the first 2-3 months I had zero idea what I was doing and I worked for a PhD student who didn't explain the steps to our research very well. I felt stuck. Another student gave me great advice: "Just learn the basic techniques and get really good at them. The Masters and PhD students will notice and if you stick around they will let you help them." As an undergrad, know your place. You don't know anything yet and that is OKAY! Don't feel anxious that you aren't writing papers the first month you're in a lab. Take it slow, make friends with the other students in the lab, and do your best. The key thing is to not quit. Keep consistently showing up.
Around month three I felt ready to start understanding what I was doing. I noticed a different PhD student in the lab, Micha, who didn't have any undergrads working for her. She seemed a lot like me. So, I approached her and told her that I learned how to do a lot of lab techniques and I would like to help her if possible. This was the best choice I ever made during my undergraduate career. Finding a good mentor is KEY to succeeding in research. She thoroughly explained her projects to me and then said "I also don't have someone to do our immunohistochemistry." I quickly agreed because it is important to be good at something other's aren't -- then you are useful!
The first semester I worked for Micha was also a super intense academic semester. With 17 credit hours, the best time for me to work was in the AM. I would go to the research lab and do the primary antibody staining from 4-8 AM. During the incubations, I slept on the couch. I came back during lunch time from 12-2 PM to do the secondary. Then I spent the night imaging the slides. Fortunately, I was able to get a lot of homework done during the incubations. I spent about a year doing this -- of course I did other techniques such as Western Blotting, and PCR's, but my main job was still do to immunohistochemistry. The first paper I was put on, was not the brain child of me at all. I was very fortunate to have a mentor that recognized my hard work and was willing to put me as a co-author. She wrote the paper, I did most of the wet lab work, and our PI was the final author. This is an uncommon situation, but if you find the right mentor it can happen!
I then started working with her and actually hypothesizing the science behind our projects. This is how most people are co-authored on papers. We were working with biomarker discovery and we would examine various known cancer pathways, and published research in order to determine if we could find useful markers. By helping to create the science behind the paper, then doing wet-lab work, and helping to write the manuscript, I was able to co-authored 4 more papers. Without a doubt, my mentor Micha and my PI Dr. O, are the reason I was able to get research experience and publish papers. I worked VERY hard to be worthy of it. But a lot of getting published, is finding someone who is willing to help you.
1. The first step to finding a research lab is, well, doing some research. Go online and find a lab that you are interested in working in. If you are a university student, you should be able to easily find labs on campus that are conducting all types of research. Do not feel that because you are premed you need to do biology research. You can find opportunities to do research in psychology, genetics, plant science, humanities, music, or anthropology. Pick something you like.
2. After you've found a lab. Don't give up on it. Show up as often as you can and put in the effort to learn all that you can. Shadow the other students, make friends, read papers. Google Scholar should be your best friend.
3. Once you're comfortable with some of the techniques/jargon of the lab, find a way to be the brain child of a project. Help a PhD or Masters student, talk to the other undergrads, or ask your PI. Come up with something using your knowledge!
4. Start studying other people's research. You can do this on Google Scholar, PubMed, and most universities allow access to their students to private journals. The more you learn about your subject, the more you will be able to intellectually contribute to a project (which helps you get published).
5. ASK. Be willing to put yourself out there, and ask your PI (the primary investigator is who runs the lab) if there are projects that you could start helping on in order to eventually contribute to a manuscript. I would be cautious of sounding like you just want to get published and peace out. Become integrated into your lab and prove your worth before you do this.
6. Start thinking of ideas that you could research and publish. Present them to your PI or other mentors. You may get shot down, but it will show that you are trying!
7. Work with other people (ESPECIALLY the PhD students and Masters students.) They NEED to publish in order to stay in the program and they want someone else to do the grunt work oftentimes. If you help them, they'll help you.
8. Presenting posters at a conference/ publishing an abstract are also great ways to show medical school that you worked hard in your research endeavors. Ask your mentors about attending a conference. It is also a great place to network!
9. Be genuine. Read Read Read papers. If you want to learn how to write a paper, you'll need to read a lot of them.
10. You do not need to be published to get into medical school. However, it does help a freaking ton.
If you want to read the research that I was involved in, you can browse my google scholar link here:
Reach out to me with any questions you have! Research, like anything else, is not a quick thing to check off your list. It requires significant time and dedication to see results!