Unlock networks and opportunities through research

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Intercalating Student Doctor Aarifa Khanom

Getting involved in research as an undergraduate can feel challenging – perhaps a bit daunting and somehow out of reach. So why get involved this early in your medical career? And how to go about doing so?

Student Doctor Aarifa Khanom is completing an intercalated MRes in Clinical Sciences. Passionate about her own research, she is also interested in helping others to engage in their own.

Why get involved in medical research as an undergraduate?

Understand which aspects of Medicine interest you

Research is not just an opportunity to contribute to medicine, but to see what medicine can offer you. A common mistake is to think you must first choose a particular speciality, and then conduct research in that field. In reality, your prospects are much broader than this.

Regardless of the specialty your research is in, there are more traits to learn about yourself.

Do you like practical laboratory work, or would you prefer desk-based writing? Would you like to get involved in pre-clinical work that investigates the foundations of diseases and medicines (e.g. animal models), or would you prefer something that directly impacts practice at the bedside?

“For me research is a good thing because it helps build a portfolio surrounding what you’re interested in, and if you are unsure what interests you it’s a great way to gain a better understanding on the specialty which can help in making that decision.”Liverpool graduate, FY1 Doctor Patrick Birkenhead

Develop your skillset

Conducting a research project can be a long process – over time, you will accumulate a variety of transferable skills, sometimes without even realising it!

An important skill in the age of increasingly evidenced-based medicine is the ability to critically appraise the work of others. The skill to read someone else’s article and evaluate if it has been conducted with appropriate rigour to validate the findings, is essential. Another essential skill is scientific writing.

To explain yourself, succinctly and simply, without losing the complexity of the subject is critical for doctors – whether you’re verbally explaining a disease process to a patient, or writing up the results of your work on PubMed.

“The skill of critical appraisal is important in real life, especially in this era of misinformation and disinformation. The ability to break down information presented and look for supporting or contradicting evidence is vital to navigate through the data onslaught!” - Dr Ying Gue - RS3 Theme Lead

Build your Academic Portfolio

It goes without saying that research is an excellent way to build your portfolio, often offering you the opportunity to publish and present. This can provide insight into how medical academia works by exposing you to the world of medical journals and peer review.

You can develop your presentation skills – whether through delivering an oral presentation, to curating your own poster or visual abstract – in turn improving your public speaking and graphic design skills.

These publications and presentations and the transferable skills you are developing all contribute to your CVs which will help you through your Foundation programme, registrar applications and your own personal network.

Expand your network

A lot of my own research opportunities have arisen by being in the right place at the right time, so that I can introduce myself to the right people. So it’s important to get your foot in the door. Finding the right contacts can provide an access point to medical academia and expose you to many networking and research opportunities if you ask for them.

So how can I go about finding a supervisor?

Find a Project and/or Supervisor

The Research and Scholarship (RS) programme at the University of Liverpool is an excellent start – I was lucky enough to work with a great supervisor for my RS3 who works in the field I’m interested in. As a result, I have stayed on to study my Masters with her.

Work with an Individual Supervisor e.g. Clinical Academic Consultant, Consultant, Non-Clinical Researcher

This can present a great opportunity as you have the potential to be the first author (primary contributor) to the research. However, you will need to be highly proactive to seek out your own supervisor and speak to people who may be far senior than you.

It might be daunting initially, but the potential opportunities on the other side are worth it. Potential supervisors are usually delighted to hear from students interested in their field. In my opinion, you should absolutely exhaust all of the following options before moving onto research collaboratives.

  • Speak to your RS supervisor/PhD students working with them if they have any opportunities beyond RS;
  • Contact a System Block Lead if you are interested in a particular subject;
  • Contact Lecturers / Faculty Members e.g. your Year Lead to see if they can put you in contact with anyone;
  • Contact Liverpool medical societies – they may work closely with consultants or other staff for talks and conferences, who are looking for students interested in research;
  • Ask other student doctors who are involved in research, if they have contacts;
  • Speak to consultants/registrars on placement – this is a continual process, keep asking a variety of people at a variety of placements, even if you nothing turns up initially.

Work in a Research Collaborative or a pre-planned research project

Research collaboratives are where a group of clinical and non-clinical academics can get together and share the workload of research opportunities. These are great because they are plentiful and accessible – most do not mind if you have minimal experience as you will likely be contributing to singular tasks like data collection.

Unfortunately, this does also mean that you are unlikely to be the first author of the project. If you are putting in a considerable number of hours, ensure – before you start the project – that you are going to be in the first 3 authors listed on the published paper. Opportunities to get involved in research collaboratives include:

  • INSPIRE Liverpool (link) – INSPIRE is a national programme which promotes and supports undergraduate research. The INSPIRE Liverpool committee may be able to assist in finding projects in an area of interest;
  • University of Liverpool Surgical Research Society (link) – a student-led society that focuses on general surgical research and audits;
  • ACA Medics (link) – a research-collaborative that offers opportunities to undergraduates. Sign-up with your University email, and see what is available to University of Liverpool students;
  • National Student Association of Medical Research (NSAMR) (link) – an association of medical research societies from universities across the UK.

Take an intercalated degree

You do not need to intercalate in a research-specific programme to uncover research opportunities. However, it is important to understand that the entire purpose of a research intercalation is to introduce you to the ins-and-outs of medical academia with a single, hands-on supervisor, and a guaranteed paper at the end of the year, as these are usually requirements of the course.

I’ve got my research title and a supervisor/group – how do I write the actual paper?

A lot of these tips are things you should receive guidance on from your supervisor. You can always ask peers/contacts to help you, and YouTube is also a personal favourite!

Creating Your Study Design and Formulating a Hypothesis: Depending on the type of research study and its design, you may need to create a testable and specific hypothesis. However, as an undergraduate student on your first project, the study design, and potential hypothesis, will likely have been done for you by your supervisor. This makes it important to intimately familiarise yourself with the exact structure and aims of the project, if you did not create it yourself.

Administrative Work: Before you begin your project, it is essential to ensure that all the necessary paperwork related to project integrity has been completed.

You will likely need ethical approval – especially if you are accessing patient data, handling patient samples, working with animals or even asking questions to students or staff.

Prospective cohort studies should be registered through an IRAS account, in the same way any good systematic review will have its research protocols registered through PROSPERO. Always check with your supervisor if the necessary approvals have been sought before you begin your work.

All projects involving collecting data from School of Medicine Staff or Students need Gatekeeper approval from the School. Dr Viktoria Goddard (Viktoria.Goddard@liverpool.ac.uk) can advise you on this.

Preliminary Literature Review: This is likely where you will start if this is your first project. Before you can write your project, it’s essential you know the background of the subject. Conducting a literature search through large search engines such as PubMed can help you gain insight into past, current, and future directions of your topic area. Louise Minta (l.minta@liverpool.ac.uk) is the Liaison Librarian for the School of Medicine and can provide incredibly helpful advice on how to construct your search terms.

Gather your data: This is often the most arduous process of a research project. Whether you are running gel electrophoresis in the labs, curating search term syntax or labouring through paper patient notes, seek advice from your supervisor on exactly how to gather data and format it so that it is in the most convenient format when you come to data analysis.

Statistical Analysis: If you require statistical analysis of your data, you can download SPSS for free via the university website. This is one of many statistical software packages that enables analysis of your data. This is still a personal challenge for me, and as a result, I often ask my supervisor for advice on which statistical tests I should be carrying out. It gets easier over time, but for me, has evidenced the necessity of having an accessible supervisor. YouTube deserves another shoutout here, too.

Write the paper: A good research paper is defined by rigorous methods and transparent data analysis. When writing, firstly clearly explain exactly how you carried out your study in the methods section. Follow this with your results and if necessary, statistical analysis – this should simply state exactly what your results are; the explanations and hypothesising can come later. This is because the conclusions of your research should be founded upon whatever your data reveals.

Allow your results to guide the discussion section where you hypothesise the reasons behind these.

The introduction can be written before or after the discussion, which provides the background of your topic for the reader. You should write the concluding comments, and abstract – which is a summary of the entire paper – at the very end. The end structure of the paper will be (abstract), introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion.

Seek appropriate approval to publish and present: Before you look to publish or present your work, you must confirm that all authors, your supervisor and the Medical School are aware of your desire to publish the work. Refer to the MBChB Research Policy (link).

How can I maximise the potential of my completed project?

Publish your work

You have completed your project, congratulations! Now, let’s make sure people read it! Your supervisor can suggest an academic journal with a good reputation, that is likely to accept your work. A good example within the University of Liverpool is the Institute of Health and Life Sciences magazine and journal, Insider Imprint (link), for which the submission deadline of their 6th issue will be February-March 2023.

Present at a Conference

Whether it’s an oral presentation, poster or visual abstract, presenting at a conference is a great opportunity! Your work does not have to be published to present at student conferences, so even RS3’s can be submitted to conferences ran by societies at the University of Liverpool. For example, Liverpool Research Society (link) is holding their annual LivResCon on 11th February 2023. However, it’s a great idea to also look at national and international conferences ran by clinical academics – ask your supervisor or search around for annual conferences in your research field.

Seek Public Engagement Opportunities

It is important to disseminate your work not only amongst other academics, but to the general public. A lot of research is ultimately funded by the taxpayer, and it is important to give back. There are many outreach events you can host to publicise your work, for example, science workshops to school children or adults. The Institute of Health and Life Sciences public engagement team (HLSEngagement@liv.ac.uk) have many outreach opportunities to get involved in.

From personal experience, I have found that research opportunities are very easy to find once I started my first project beyond RS3. The biggest hurdle is usually finding your first project, but cultivating your own research career from there is typically easier. Hopefully this has been a practical guide to getting over that hurdle!

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