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.