Why do pre-meds want to do research in my ecology lab? And should I let them?

When I got my (first) academic job and my lab opened for business, I got a surprise. I expected undergraduate students to ask me about doing research in my lab. After all, as an undergraduate myself I’d learned an enormous amount by doing research with mentors – some of whom I still talk science with today. I expected to have a lot of fun sharing my love of evolutionary-ecology research with students who were as excited about it as I was. But, as I said, I got a surprise.

It turns out that, over the years, many of the undergraduate students who’ve inquired about doing research with me aren’t actually as excited about evolutionary ecology as I am. That was the surprise: pre-meds wanting to do research in my ecology lab.*

Why would a pre-med student want to do research in my lab? Well, I was pretty sure it wasn’t my personal magnetism; and if I had delusions that my research was so exciting that even the most dedicated pre-med would be captivated, those delusions dissipated quickly. Turns out, mostly they didn’t actually want to do the research; instead, they wanted to have done the research. The difference in tense is important.

I know, you know this; everyone knows this. But it took me by surprise anyway: pre-med students wanted to do research in my lab because having done research would give them a leg up in med-school admissions. (Or, at least, they thought it would.)  They weren’t terribly worried what that research was about; or perhaps it’s more accurate to admit that they’d settle for an ecology lab if the cancer lab down the hall was full.

OK, but what should my response be?  After 25 years in the business, I still don’t know.

Sometimes, the pre-med in the lab is a drag: no real interest, doing the minimum for the checkmark, and the effort I put in seems to change nothing in their academic life. And that pre-med took a spot that could have gone to someone with genuine interest in the field – for whom an undergrad project could be a game-changer or an entry point to a whole career. Sometimes the pre-med in the lab is terrific: bright, fun, and interesting. But even then, the effort I put in seems to change nothing, and the student with genuine interest is still displaced.

Once upon a time, I reasoned that when we expose pre-meds to ecological research, we may change their minds about their career goals. After all, “pre-med” is sometimes a bit of a default career path: something the brightest students do out of high school simply because it’s well-known and seen as prestigious. Perhaps, I thought, I could convert some.  Well, you do hear of that happening, but in my experience you have to hear of it, because you aren’t likely to actually see it. For my own lab, I’m still waiting.

Here’s the best argument for investing effort offering research experiences to pre-meds: we need physicians who understand the process of research (regardless of field), and we need physicians who know some ecology and evolution. It’s an understanding of the research process that separates a physician who’s memorized diagnoses and treatments from one who can think carefully about evidence for novel treatments and emerging diseases. It’s knowledge of ecology and evolution that lets a physician understand critical issues like the evolution of antibiotic resistance or the mathematics of epidemiology and immunity.  If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that medicine doesn’t have tidy boxes around it that separate it from the rest of biological knowledge, or from the process of that knowledge’s production.

But I still struggle, because every pre-med in my lab means an ecologist misses an opportunity. And usually I write these posts because I have an opinion to share… but this time I really want yours. What should I be doing? What do you do?

© Stephen Heard  June 15, 2021

Image: MCAT preparation books © An Tran via flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


*^None of this is any swipe at pre-meds as students or at medicine as a career. We need physicians, surgeons, and so on. Biology departments train lots of pre-meds in part because biology is both a traditional path to medicine and an excellent one. And for every pre-med who fullfils the worst stereotypes, I can show you two who are simply lovely people.

 

20 thoughts on “Why do pre-meds want to do research in my ecology lab? And should I let them?

  1. Jamie

    Hi Stephen, What is the application process for your lab position? Perhaps the criteria you use to rank the applicants can heavily weight interest in the field as a possible career? Should none of the applicants have a demonstrated interest, you can worry less about a potential future ecologist missing out and celebrate the training of a physician and/or an educated and involved voter! Thank you for your time training undergraduates as well as your time teaching many people how to improve their writing.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good point – I didn’t mention this in the post, but I haven’t ever used a formal application process. Like most labs, I think. Students come and ask if there are open positions, but they do so at all different times of year, so it’s rarely a head-to-head “competition” for a spot. And pre-meds are nothing if now ferociously organized, so they tend to turn up early. I’d have to either (1) insist that everyone “apply” at the same time, or (2) turn down premeds to save spots for possible later ecologists. It’s certainly possible I should be doing (1) for a number of reasons…

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  2. sleather2012

    I have had two pre-vet (OK not pre-med, but similar) students working in my lab and I managed to convince both of them to become entomologists (they did the MSc after getting their BSc) 🙂 One went on to do an entomology PhD and is now a post-doc, the other works as a researcher in a biocontrol company 🙂

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  3. herbariociidir

    Hi Stephen,
    I believe that all people, professionals and not professionals, should have good knowledge of ecology and evolution. Besides helping physicians to understand the critical issues you mention, it would help them to develop more critical thought. So, my vote is YES.
    We teach in a Master’s degree in Environmental Management. My sister teaches ecology and I do natural resources (including an overview on human evolution). For a few years, it was difficult to deal with people coming from non-biological careers (we have had even lawyers in the program). Now we know that the new vision those students get has an important impact on the way they see and interact with the world. It is rewarding.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That matches my argument in favour. But, I don’t think your vote considers this: for every future physician I take in my lab, I am excluding a student who will follow another career path – notably, a path into ecology. Does your vote change? Or do you consider ecology training for future physicians to be a higher priority than ecology training for future ecologists? (That’s a real question, I know it sounds a little snippy, but it isn’t meant to!)

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      1. herbariociidir

        Oops! Before answering, I would ask you how strong is your impact on the future physicians. This is a tricky question too, since it depends on many factors and each case is different. Would that pre-med would learn something that perhaps will increase the life quality of his/hers patients? Then, my answer would be yes.
        … But, how to know that a priori? That is the question.

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  4. SB

    I really enjoy having undergrads hang out in my lab. Some are bright and motivated, others are not. Either way, there’s little link to their career goals and paths. But, I have been wary of ‘converting’ an undergrad to ecol/evol. The thing that weighs heavily on my mind is their future career prospects. There’s much more scope in bio-tech or bio-med than in ecology. Even an ordinary bio-tech/bio-med has a good career prospect and will be gainfully employed somewhere. Can’t say the same for an ordinary ecologist. I am worried if I convert someone and they do not go on to have a fulfilling career — that’ll be on me, right?

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    1. herbariociidir

      You, like me, feel too much pressure about the future of the students. We have some influence, of course. But most depends on them.

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  5. Terry McGlynn

    I have really mixed feelings on this, and I think “I don’t know” and “It depends” are all good answers here.

    When it comes to external funded research opportunities that are targeting the development of STEM professionals (which is usually how NSF funding is usually structured, either explicitly or implicitly), then giving research opportunities to people who are committed to health science careers is going against the funding mandate. So if I have competitive applicants for a position that is funded by NSF, especially when the grant said the students would be getting preparation for a research career, then I don’t think I can earnestly direct these funds to committed premeds.

    But then again, there aren’t as many committed premeds as folks tend to believe. A lot of people who say that they are premed have chosen that route because they don’t know about other feasible professional destinations. I was once a premed, and didn’t decide against this until I was already interviewing for med school. When I decided to do insect ecology and evolution. So if we have a blanket policy against premeds, then this would essentially filter out a lot of first-gen folks who don’t perceive graduate school as something that is even possible.

    Also, giving future doctors research experiences is itself a good. This is a valuable part of their professional training and it’s nothing they’ll be getting in med school. So it will help create more curious and effective doctors. There’s nothing inherently wrong with working with premeds.

    The issue that a lot of people have is simply that some premeds are obviously getting research experience purely for the letter of recommendation and to be able to say that they had research experience because it makes their med school application more competitive. This, in my view, is obviously an extremely poor motivation and there’s a high probability that these students won’t work out in the lab because if they lack intellectual curiousity about the thing they’re working on, it’s really hard to make genuine progress. Also, the investment into training them might not repay itself in terms of training other students and the volume or quality of the research product. I don’t want my research lab to be used as a springboard to med school, when it could be used as a springboard to grad school. There’s a lot more support for premeds out there. So this puts us in the odd position of trying to divinate whether a premed is fixated on becoming a doctor or whether we might ‘convert’ them. I don’t think we should attempt to convert anybody, of course, being.a doctor is just fine. But I think students who genuinely enjoy science and discovery should have the opportunity to discover if this is a thing that they want to do in grad school. So I’ll work with a premed if I or trusted recommenders know them well enough to reassure me that they’ll be inquisitive in the lab and motivated to do the research. But I don’t want to be in the position of somehow choosing who is better at pretending to be more genuine than others. So this is very difficult. I think ultimately we can just have a transparent application process and select students based on criteria that meet the goals of our funding agencies as well as supporting professional development and the ability to do the job. And if premeds are in the bunch, then that’s fine.

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  6. John

    This is a tough one. I’m not an ecologist, but pre-med students are a tricky question everywhere. As you say, they are often there to ‘have done’ research, not ‘to do’ research. They often don’t care. Sometimes they care but they’re so busy piling things on to their CV to get into med school that they can’t really apply themselves. So looking for people who are interested and can actually commit to the lab may discourage some people who are less of a good fit.

    But, I think we’re educators and to deliberately avoid all pre-med students would mean not really filling our roles. There are great pre-med undergrad researchers and terrible future-scientist undergrad researchers. It can be hard to tell the difference.

    We don’t discriminate against who can enrol in a class based on future career aspirations. An aspiring meterologist can study philosophy for a semester. A future accountant can take a class in organic chemistry. Why not have a future doctor join an ecology lab for a few months?

    So in the end I think that you should aim for a mix of people. Some of those will be pre-med. Some will be future ecologists. Who knows what the others will do?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I would completely agree with this, except that your “enrol in a class” comparison doesn’t work. Seats in my classes are not limited; but when they are, I do indeed “discriminate” against some students based on their major, etc. (I think all of us do that; in fact, I know we all do.) Places in my lab are very much limited. So while I totally agree that any pre-med having an experience in my lab should be a valuable piece of their education, there may be others for whom it is MORE valuable. That’s the problem!

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  7. Brandon

    Great post Steve. I’ve had all these thoughts and feelings about the process. I definitely land where you land, that if I can help future doctors be more scientifically literate, we all benefit. It’s definitely hit and miss, but I haven’t found that it’s any more hit and miss than with non-pre-med students. More than anything, I’m still trying to figure out how to predict, across all applicants to the lab, which will turn out to be good lab members.

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  8. EMMA DESPLAND

    I try to assess applicants on their merits relative to the position in question (is it labwork? fieldwork? does it require good quantitative or other skills?) rather than their stated career goals and interests. Many students don’t really know where they are headed next, they often change course and that’s OK.. I do however, try to be clear about expectations, especially for volunteers for whom it can be particularly vague. I agree that scientific literacy in general and an appreciation for ecology in particular are things all citizens should have. However, I seldom have too many applicants or have to turn down students!
    If it’s a paid position with several applicants, I try to follow my EDI training and have a standard interview process that uses the same a priori defined set of questions to ask of all applicants. I don’t include long-term career goals in that list of question.

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  9. Manu Saunders

    Agree with other commenters, I think it would depend on the project, student and how many students are applying to be in your lab at the time. Not sure if it’s a different system to here in Aus, but I tend to accept any undergrad who is interested if I have the capacity, knowing that 99% of them aren’t specifically interested in pursuing a research career, they just need to fulfil course requirements. For me, their future plans aren’t that important (so many people don’t really know what they want to do at that stage anyway), the purpose of the project is to learn the basics of scientific research and hopefully get a bit excited about ecology in the process! If they love it so much, they decide to go on to Honours etc, great! (And if you can convince the pre-meds to get interested in medical entomology or One Health, even better) 🙂

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  11. Jeremy Fox

    Purely anecdotal, sample size of N=1 experience: the only undergrad summer assistant I’ve ever had to fire was the only premed I ever took on. The student had excellent grades, and talked a good game about having broad interests, etc. Was a much stronger applicant for the position than any other applicant than I had, so I was happy to say yes. And then the student kept skipping work or leaving early, with flimsy excuses, and eventually, no excuses. Clearly just wanted to be able to put “summer research assistant” on a cv. Weirdly (or maybe not so weirdly), the student was surprised to be fired. Also weirdly, the student later put me down as a reference for a position in a biomedical lab (it was a very negative reference…)

    Anyway: once bitten, twice shy. I’m now very reluctant to take on premed students in my lab. I’ve decided that taking EEB courses (or EEB-adjacent courses like organismal biology) is the only honest signal of your interest in EEB. So if you haven’t taken those courses, there’s nothing you can say or do to convince me that you sincerely want to spend the summer working in my lab.

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  12. Jeff Houlahan

    For me the trade-off is between academic ability and interest – most of these pre-med students tend to be A or A+ students (for whatever that’s worth – and I believe it’s worth something…just not sure how much) and lots of my EEB applicants can be in the B or C range. For me a B+ EEB student will beat an A+ pre-med every time. But an A+ pre=med would probably beat out a C+ pre-med. I only have a couple of examples of pre-meds who did Honours and/or M. Sc.’s with me and they both turned out very well.

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  13. jlundholm1970s

    My wife was originally “pre-med” in her undergrad. (a “Life Sciences” program). She had no outdoor experience but got a position in an ecology lab after her first year and it changed her life for the better. She ended up spending all the rest of her undergraduate summers working as a summer student in ecology/evolution labs, got the chance to work at the snow goose camp at La Perouse Bay etc. She switched her major to Biology, but eventually became a doctor. Her fieldwork and outdoor experiences changed her life for the better. She became an environmentalist, and places outdoor activities at a high priority. This “outdoors” connection even informs her interactions with patients. Leaving aside the personal historical contingency (we would never have met if she had stayed in Life Science), I would recommend taking on such students if they meet your screening criteria. I’ve just graduated an honours student in this situation (was planning to go the meds route) and he’s now heading for an MSc in ecology…

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