Hello and welcome! This is Part 2 of my “Navigating Pre-med” series that I will be publishing on my blog.
If you are new here, be sure to check out Part 0: My Background to learn more about my motivations for publishing this series, and information that would give a LOT more context to the information that I will be discussing!
Previous Part: Coursework
I would say that beyond coursework, the activities that I have done during the semester that was related to pre-med falls into three main categories: research, teaching, and volunteering. In this part I will be discussing my experiences, how I came to get these opportunities, my general thoughts on them, and finally, more information/resources on things you can do as a Cornell student that falls into these categories.
In freshman year spring, I was introduced by my peer adviser to a professor in the Cornell SC Johnson School of Business. Though I only had one semester of Biological Statistics under my belt, and I explained to the professor I was considering pre-med (as you might be able to imagine, his research had very little to do with medicine–also side note, it’s might be a hit-or-miss to mention pre-med to a research professor; you don’t want to seem like you’re only doing research for pre-med), he took a chance with me and allowed me to be a part of his lab.
I’ve been doing research with the same professor for six semesters now, investigating various business topics with data science. Through this research experience I was able to concretely apply my interest for statistics, and my professor was able to introduce me to someone who does do medical research. This resulted in my first published paper where I was responsible for the statistics, and of course more connections!
Thoughts and Advice
In general, it really doesn’t matter what field you do your research in. I will admit it still makes me wonder if adcoms will really take me seriously since the majority of my research was done in the business field, but as I had thought initially, the concepts I learned through my experience could easily be applied to the medical field since data is universal.
There are plenty of my friends who do wet-lab biomedical research, but there are also plenty that work in psych and nutritional sciences. Here is a few piece of general advice when going into research during your undergrad:
- Make sure it’s something you’re interested in: or at least, something that you enjoy doing. Though the context of business is still a little bit foreign to me, and I wouldn’t say that looking at different business phenomenons and concepts is my calling, I do enjoy the critical thinking aspect of each of my projects as well as the technical (coding) portions of it. This all contributed to me really building a relationship with my professor and fellow lab mates, and of course is the reason why I remained so long in this lab.
- When approaching professors… don’t straight up offer them your resume. Usually it helps to look over their publications, and then send them an email asking if you could talk to them about their work. Also, if you take a professor’s class and really enjoyed the content, see if they have any research positions available! Alternatively, see if someone can introduce you to a professor you’re interested in working in.
- The Cornell Student Employment portal usually will list some professors who are looking for paid research help. These can range from cleaning glassware to an actual research assistant. If picking up a job that focuses on lab maintenance, see if you can ask if you can “get promoted” to a research assistant and do research with the professor after a certain amount of time working with them.
- Finally, stay consistent and persistent! You may not get the first research assistant position you apply for, and you may not LIKE the first professor or position you work as. However, if you can, settle down fairly early (perhaps sophomore year) so you can work on building not just skills but connections throughout the rest of your time in undergrad!
I started as a teaching assistant for ILRST/STSCI 2100: Introductory Statistics in my sophomore spring semester (so going into my senior spring, I would be a fifth semester TA). I worked with the same professor for the last four semesters, taught the same class, and really, really enjoyed it.
My responsibilities include leading a weekly discussion, replying to piazza posts, grading (homeworks and exams) and holding office hours. It was definitely very, very intimidating at first since I was responsible for creating lesson plans for my students and teaching them without the professor or graduate student, but after four semesters, I would say that I’m definitely getting the hang of it. It helped me build a lot of confidence as well as solidify my understanding of the fundamentals of statistics.
Thoughts and Advice
I highly recommend some sort of experience teaching or tutoring in undergrad. It holds you accountable for your knowledge in the subject, and then you get extremely familiar with it after several semesters. From what I know, here are some classes at Cornell that look for undergraduate TA’s:
- The Learning Strategies Center — they look for statistics tutors, chemistry (general and organic chemistry), and bio tutors.
- BIOG 1500 (Investigative Lab) — Look for undergraduate TAs to assist graduate TAs during labs
- CHEM 1070/1080 — They’re officially called “course assistants”, and they TA the workshops for CHEM 1070/1080, generally “float” around the room to help students with chemistry as they write it out on the boards. They seem really tight-knit (together and with the professor!) though the time commitment also seems to be pretty great.
- Undergrad physics TAs — they assist grad TAs in running discussions (and I think office hours?)
- BIOMG 3300 TAs — This is an autotutorial biochemistry course, so they need a LOT of undergraduate staff to run the study center. You will need to take the class before you apply as a TA, and it looks like the time commitment is somewhere a little more than 3 hours a week.
- Introductory Statistics — besides what I TA’d (ILRST 2100), another intro biostats course also looks for undergrad TAs (STSCI 2150).
- Computer Science courses — They’re separated up into “consultants” and “TA’s”–it seems pretty competitive especially for non-CS majors, as I was rejected for both positions after getting an A in the course I was applying for. (I’m not completely sure what the criteria was but there didn’t seem to be a major criteria when the professor talked about it in class)
Finally, some courses (I know in particular, the stats department does it) look for graders, so it may be a way to get some experience and cash at the same time too.
I did pre-med related volunteering in high school (hospital, hippotherapy) though I got into this fairly late in undergrad. I did miscellaneous volunteering for three of my years in undergrad (mainly involving the Asian American community/some political activism) but unfortunately did not really love/get into it enough.
I started volunteering with a hospice agency the summer before my senior year, and that was a game-changer–I realized I loved working with the older population, and joined a few service oriented clubs once I got back to campus (yup, it’s never too late…!) in order to continue volunteering with organizations that serve older individuals (hospice/retirement homes etc!). This is something that became really near and dear to my heart in a short period of time and something I intend on doing throughout my gap year(s). I wish I realized this a lot sooner, but I still feel like it’s better late than never.
I also volunteer with Crisis Text Line, which is fulfilling and fairly easy to get trained/qualified though not a part of Cornell. It’s also really easy to jump on and volunteer whenever you want as long as you have a stable internet connection and some privacy (like your dormroom/bedroom).
Thoughts and Advice
Try a bunch of things Freshmen year–go to Club Fest, try out some (or a lot of) service clubs, and pick one or two to stick with for the entire undergrad (especially important if you’re planning on going straight into med school). You’re probably going to need both clinical and non-clinical volunteering, (Clinical = some face-to-face patient interactions) and amass a not-insignificant number of hours and stay committed to it for a few years.
There are certainly a lot of really creative volunteering opportunities at Cornell: there are music groups that visit senior homes, groups that translate for patients, groups that work with kids with special needs, so on and so forth. I definitely wish I got out there and tried some of these out earlier in the game!
My advice though, is still that you should like what you’re doing, if not really love/connect with it. I really enjoy volunteering both with CTL and visiting residents at the retirement home/hospice–and in fact, the latter was the reason I wake up in the mornings on the weekends the summer before my senior year. It’s not that loving what you’re doing is a requirement, but it’s certainly a lot less painless (yes I still have off-days! I don’t love it all the time, and yes sometimes I would rather be lazy too!) since you do have to commit to it.
I spent a lot of time in my undergrad doing research and TAing, and less time on volunteering, though I’m slowly starting to catch up. I think the most important takeaway with this installment is just that you should always, always enjoy what you’re doing in terms of those three things, because otherwise it would seriously be painful because you would have to devote so much time to it. But, if done well it can definitely be fulfilling and an incredibly positive experience, not just as a “pre-med” but for life as well.
I’ll be back soon to discuss