A: It depends.
This entry isn’t going to be lengthy because the issue of research as an undergrad is easily dealt with. Basically, unless you are passionate about research or plan on theMD/PhD program or want to attend a heavy research institution (like Harvard orStanford) you really don’t need to do any private research in order to get into medical school.
The issue of course, is that having a bit of a research background can be helpful. Mostly for two reasons.
1) Doing research helps give you a competitive edge. Adcoms (admissions committees) like to see students that are actually interested in science. Participating on a research team shows them that you are committed to the intellectual challenges of medicine. Nowadays most successful applicants will have at least one summer or semester of research experience.
2) It’s a great option to learn about current science! Maybe you are totally not interested in working in a lab, but have never done it before. How will you truly know that it’s not for you? Working on a part of a team and course lab work are completely different, so don’t judge one based on the other. Getting some experience in this area can show you that you were right in not desiring that path. You won’t know unless you try!
So what constitutes research and how does one get involved?
Well, that is pretty variable. You could contact professors and ask to be part of their team (do some reading about their topic of interest of course!). This is the best way to get a more laid back position. If you are more of a gunner about wanting to be competitive, you might want to apply for more prestigious programs, like the Baylor summer program in Houston. Either way, each research experience is different. You might have a lot of autonomy and be put in charge of a small project where you can write up your own proposals and explore your own interests, you might be an assistant to graduate students doing pipetting or other repetitive tasks for them, or you may end up just washing glassware. Most probably, you will be doing a combination of all three, gaining increased independence as your time with the team lengthens.
My own research was in two separate labs. One was a developmental genetics lab that worked with flour beetles. I was a lab assistant and made my own hours extracting beetle DNA and then running PCRs and gel electrophoreses to analyze various mutations with GFP. I didn’t really get to invent any projects, but I was only with the team for a semester and if I had stayed to work in the lab I probably would have gotten to explore my own mutations. The other lab I worked in was a lipidomics research center and at first I only washed glassware and did some basic pippetting for the graduate students. Eventually though, I ran several GC/MS runs and had to crush various plants for lipid analysis. By the end I had come up with my own research project and measured the lipids present in the exoskeleton and internal structure of the same beetles from my first lab. I enjoyed working in both labs and especially liked bringing the two together for my final project.
Getting a publication is NOT necessary, but again, if interested in a research institution or the MSTP program, you should strive for one. Even then, it’s not mandatory and just helps your application get better! I for instance, do not have any publications as undergraduate research or bench research does not really interest me on a high level. Now, CLINICAL research I am definitely interested in and will be pursing in medical school.
So good luck! I was really dreading research, but it ended up being really fun and I realized that while it is not something I would want to do forever, I learned a lot about how the lab operates and when I returned to difficult lab courses in school, I had developed a level of confidence that I didn’t have before and I was much more successful as a student and thus applicant.