Community-based research, bench work, or health services research: Where do I look for research opportunities?
I am frequently asked – “How did you decide the type of research to become involved with? Where did you find research opportunities?”
Early on I developed a strong interest in HIV-research. This was triggered by losing a family member to AIDS and viewing news announcements of the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in the Latino communities of New York City, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For me, I not only wanted to provide medical care to those afflicted with HIV/AIDS but also investigate the factors contributing to the disease disproportionately affecting the Latino community and gay men. When I saw Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Outbreak” I realized that by being a CDC medical epidemiologist, and attaining a MD-MPH, I could serve individuals and communities.
During college I was pre-med and excited to explore medical epidemiology. I remember meeting with my college pre-med advisor and being told “Medical epidemiology. Are you serious about medical school? Maybe you should consider a Master degree or PhD in public health.” He went on to say that he wasn’t sure how to guide me in my pursuit of medical epidemiology. I was devastated – in part because I thought maybe I misunderstood the degrees needed to be a medical epidemiologist but also because I was paying close to $50,000/year for tuition and was receiving poor career counseling. So, street smarts and common sense kicked in. I got on the Internet, searched the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (www.cdc.gov), and came across the Public Health Summer Fellowship Program. Through the program I met Dr. Kenneth Dominguez, the first medical epidemiologist and one of the first Latino physicians I ever met. For the past 17 years, he has been a core advisor, mentor, and champion for my professional development.
So, here are some basic tips in identifying a research opportunity:
- Start searching for programs as early as November. Many programs have application deadlines between January – March for the summer. This will provide sufficient time to complete applications, seek out recommenders, and have your application reviewed by multiple individuals.
- Most health-related organizations – hospitals, medical schools, federal agencies, state and city health departments, etc. – have health-related internship programs. Check out their website, call volunteer departments, or even visit the institution and inquire about opportunities.
- If you are passionate about a specific topic – i.e. syphilis transmission among Black and Latino men – search research databases (www.pubmed.com) or organizational websites to determine who is involved in such research. Then contact that person and ask if you can meet or speak by phone to discuss their journey, research opportunities in their department or another program.
- Be critical of the research program. Unfortunately, there are some programs where students spend the bulk of the time patting pillows and placing sheets on beds. Ask questions – Does the program have an advising or mentorship component? Does it provide a stipend? Does it offer the possibility serving as a co-author on an abstract or paper?
- Use every summer to gain a different research experience. Beyond my work at the CDC, during college, I also worked at the Bronx Zoo gaining veterinary experience and at the New York City Department of Health gaining experience in LGBT health and HIV/AIDS.
In searching for research opportunities be pro-active and choose programs that enrich your personal and professional development. The individuals you meet during these programs can potentially become life-long partners in your career development. Thank you Dr. Dominguez!
by: JP Sanchez, MD, MPH