There is an increasing demand for surgical programs to train more surgeon-scientists. A huge draw for surgeon-scientist is that they are the epitome of seeing clinical problems and questions, then bringing the translational solutions “from bench to bedside.” As such, the dedicated research time is an exciting time for most surgical residents. It is a time for residents to reflect on their previous clinical years as well as time to solve their research question(s). Most academic surgery programs have this professional development time built into the residency training, and it usually starts after post-graduate year (PGY) 2 or 3. The allotted amount of time ranges from 1 to 3 years and is dependent on the career aspirations of each trainee. To ensure a fruitful and meaningful research experience, research training and planning should begin during the first year of residency, and carefully tailored to each trainee’s interests. During the first year, the resident should familiarize themselves with the various types of research (health services, basic, translational, quality improvement, etc.) and decide which route they are interested in. In writing this blog, we hope to address key points that general surgery residents should consider before joining a basic/translational research (BTR) lab.
So, you have decided that you want to join a basic/translational research lab. There are several points to consider in finding “the right lab for you.”
- Principal Investigator (PI)/Mentor: The PI is critical in determining whether your research time will be productive and successful. Mentorship comes in many forms and looks different for each trainee. You should consider if the PI will have enough time to commit to helping you develop your research questions and ideas. If not the PI, there should be someone else in the lab (lab technician, postdoc, PhD etc) that can act as a sounding board. If you’ve have had previous experience in a BTR lab, and you are more self-sufficient in project and experiment design, you may still thrive in a lab where the PI may not have as much individualized time with you. Otherwise, it’s important to have an environment where you’re not constantly “googling” every protocol or creating your own rather than directing your efforts towards generating publishable work. You should aim to check in with your mentor regularly so that you are on the same page as your PI in regards to your expectations and role in the lab. The bottom line is that your mentor should be truly committed to your professional development and looking out to making sure you succeed.
- Lab techniques/productivity: Next you want to examine how you would fit into the current lab dynamic. How productive are other members of the lab and what are the skillsets of members of the lab? How compatible is your current skill set to what is required in the lab you want to join? To hit the ground running, try to do as much background reading on lab publications, finish required training modules, and gain access to essential core services before you officially start so you can hit the ground running. The resident should also be clear about what they hope to accomplish during their time in the lab. Other members of the lab may have the luxury of time as they may have full-time commitment to research whereas the resident has a limited time to complete their project.
- Projects: Most people who choose to perform BTR are drawn to it because it requires careful planning to design and execute a series of experiments to answer a significant, pressing question. This comes at a cost that BTR manuscripts take a long time to publish because of the nature of the research. Realistically, if you are planning to join a BTR lab, you should plan on spending at least two years in the lab. One way to maximize productivity in a limited amount of time is to involve yourself in a series of different projects with different finishing timelines so you always have something to work on, and generate publications along the way. The caveat to this is to understand your bandwidth to take on as many side projects while still making progress on your main project.
- Other tips for success: BTR is very different from the clinical practice of surgery. BTR research is inherently difficult, laden with many pitfalls and experimental failures. Know that this comes with the territory and to not be discouraged along the way. Top-down mentorship is important. In addition to learning from your PI, you will also learn from your fellow graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab, as well as learning from mentoring an undergraduate research volunteer. As is the case with surgery, BTR is a team sport. Along the same vein, it is important to stay humble, collaborate with everyone in the lab, and be clear and fair about authorship.
BTR is challenging but a very rewarding field of research. We hope that our reflections will better equip you to be successful during your research years. We would like to thank our general surgery co-residents who have also contributed to this post: Kejal Shah, Dathe Benissan-Messan, and Jing Han.