Since most of the experience I had with research was literature-based e.g. writing a literature review, my first true research project came during the summer before third year. The project was about the management of patients with node-positive bladder cancer, a subset of bladder cancer where patients are usually treated as metastatic. I spent four weeks at the local cancer centre collecting data from electronic patient records and carrying out descriptive analysis on the data.
I got to write up an abstract of the work and submit it for presentation at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Festival - I’m very proud to say that it’s been accepted for a poster presentation! Keep an eye out for my poster if you’re attending, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback :)
My overall experience being part of this project has been very insightful. I’ve learned a lot about Oncology as a specialty and am certain that I would like to continue doing research throughout my career. I’m eternally grateful to the professor I approached for deciding to take a chance on a second-year medical student, and to all the supervisors I have met along the way. Without their faith in me, none of this would be possible.
I hope that one day someone about to embark on their first-ever project will come across this and learn from my experience. My journey wasn’t easy, I was going far beyond what was expected at my current stage of training and had to do a lot of work to get there.
My Key Takeaways:
1. The only way to truly learn about research is to get involved with projects. (project-based learning for the win!)
I’ve read a lot of articles and attended lots of talks about conducting research, but nothing could compare to actually doing research myself.
2. Have a clear list of to-dos.
Since I only had four weeks to complete data collection, I had to make sure that I was making measurable progress every week. At the start of each week, I would come up with a clear goal regarding data collection and discuss this with the supervisor in charge of my day-to-day supervision. Each day I would work towards this goal and if I finished ahead of time, great! I had some spare time to relax/do other things.
3. At least learn to use Excel. Like, please.
I’m not talking about the basic things such as inputting data but the Excel functions for data cleaning and analysis. For example, being able to find missing cells and use pivot tables has saved me so much time. I learned to do this along the way, but knowing how to do this in the first place would’ve been very helpful. Needless to say, I will be reading Excel for Dummies to brush up on my Excel skills! In the future, I will also be learning to use R (a programming language) for statistical analysis.
4. Collaboration really is key, and social media is a great way to find collaborators.
Through Twitter, individuals based at other centres became interested in the project, turning it into an international collaboration. The international dataset will be now used to write up a publication in the coming months and I can’t wait for that!
5. Having good supervisors goes a long way.
Too many times have I heard horror stories about medical students putting in unpaid work for research projects and not ending up with anything and thankfully I approached the right person. Finding a good supervisor is really important and I will be writing a post about that in the future.
6. Your hard work will pay off.
I must have impressed my supervisors with my work because one of them approached me for another project which we have written up for submission to a conference! I’ve received some amazing feedback from said supervisor stating that they are very happy with my work and will be looking to get me involved in their future projects.
And there you have it! My thoughts on my first research project and what I have learned from it. May this be one of many projects to come and for those of you who will be working on their first project, best of luck!