What Premed Students Should Know About Emerging Fields of Medical Research

Premedical students aspiring to become physician-scientists will be tasked with navigating emerging fields in research and translating exciting discoveries into the clinical realm. Understanding the latest trends and breakthroughs in biomedical science is paramount for those hoping to bridge the gap between such cutting-edge research and clinical practice — a career goal for many aspiring physician-scientists.

What are these emerging fields, what should aspiring physician-scientists — including those applying to combined M.D.-Ph.D. programs — know about getting involved in these fields, and are there any pitfalls?

This is an extraordinarily exciting time in scientific research, with recent breakthroughs in diverse fields such as gene editing, immunotherapies, nanotechnology, precision medicine, machine learning and regenerative medicine. Highlights run the gamut of the biomedical spectrum, including evolutionary genomics, novel neurotechnology, advances in cardiovascular imaging, cell-based therapies and therapeutic manipulation of the microbiome, to name a few.

Aspiring physician-scientists will undoubtedly be tempted to ride this wave of exciting discoveries and join laboratories moving the needle in these fields, many of which are still in their infancy.

Premed students should be aware of these emerging fields, as these advances are expected to contribute increasingly to health care throughout the coming decades and will undoubtedly remain important for the duration of a lengthy career in medicine.

[Related:Premed Research That Impresses Medical Schools]

These fields are likely to hold long-term career opportunities for students interested in biomedical research. They also represent opportunities to contribute to innovation, be involved in groundbreaking discoveries and help shape the future of science and medicine.

Many emerging fields are exciting in part due to new or newly appreciated applications to clinical practice, with direct implications for patient care. By understanding these emerging fields, premed students will remain informed and up to date regarding novel treatment paradigms, new diagnostic tools and different preventive strategies that could benefit their future patients.

Students’ research interests often evolve during undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate education. Many fascinating fields of biomedical science are neither new nor well known, and they deserve serious consideration. You will have multiple opportunities to change fields should your interests diverge at any point, so you should not feel locked in to the discipline of your first research experience.

However, if you do have a genuine intellectual interest in a popular scientific field at an early phase of training, don’t hesitate to join such a like-minded laboratory.

Finding a Laboratory in Emerging Research Fields

If you are a premed student interested in an exciting field like cancer immunotherapy, genomics, AI-enabled precision medicine, etc., you may struggle to understand which laboratories would be appropriate and rewarding to join and a good fit for your career goals.

To start, assess the research landscape at your home institution through departmental web pages and note which faculty in your field of interest are involved in active research projects. Get in touch with a few faculty members and discuss the possibility of joining their laboratory.

[Read: Primary Care vs. Research: Which Med School Is Right for You?]

As you learn about their research projects, you can also ask if they know of other labs in the same field that may also be of interest. Often, research faculty themselves are the best resource for understanding the current research landscape of the university, as departmental web pages and related resources can be out of date.

Departmental administrators or undergraduate research coordinators may also be quite helpful in finding a lab in a specific area that would be a good fit for an undergraduate student. If you read a lay press article — especially from a local publication — about an area of exciting, “hot” science, pay attention to which studies and researchers they reference or quote. These investigators are often leading voices in the field.

Use PubMed to find the latest work in a field or by a specific investigator. Explore the “trending articles” section to see which articles have had recent activity — a sign of a field gaining broad interest. If you find investigators doing work that is particularly interesting to you, use the “saved searches” function to get updates about their work directly in your email inbox.

Appreciate that emerging fields are often a result of novel collaboration across disparate disciplines such as distinct subfields in biology and medicine, biomedical engineering or computer science.

Application of a known technology to a new field can also yield exciting advancements. A recent example is cryo-EM-mediated determination of complex structures, such as ligand-bound receptors, which could not previously be accurately determined.

Look for labs that are working in an interdisciplinary manner to tackle an important question in medicine or biology, and you are likely to find stimulating research in an important emerging field.

[Relateed:How to Explain Research Experience When Applying to Medical School]

Pitfalls to Avoid

Avoid presuming that only well-known fields with significant popularity and press attention are the only interesting domains of scientific research. The biggest discoveries often come from unpredictable places, and their genesis can be traced to less well-known fields.

Recent high-profile examples include prokaryotic genomics that spawned CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing, and nucleoside modifications that advanced mRNA vaccines. This is characteristic of biomedical research and should lead you to explore various fields and meet with a variety of investigators to find the field, research and lab that most interest you.

A few exceedingly popular fields — such as microbiome research, cancer immunotherapy, etc. — run the risk of becoming oversaturated, with many excellent investigators trying to solve similar problems. These fields can thus become quite competitive, with several associated challenges.

If you do join a competitive field, look for opportunities to do novel work that can separate your project from the rest of the crowd. A good strategy when selecting a laboratory is to assess which researchers are pushing the boundaries in these fields and are looking to incorporate interdisciplinary approaches, as they are more likely to be working in their own lane, away from other investigators. Use the same approach when selecting a project within your lab.

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What Premed Students Should Know About Emerging Fields of Medical Research originally appeared on usnews.com

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