Learning in the lab

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Learning in the lab

Medical school applicants face big challenges.

With nationally competitive testing and detailed applications once you get past the initial interview, it's a grueling process.

But an increasing number of applicants are doing something new to enhance their admission chances.

"Participation in undergraduate research is now a big part of preparing for medical school," said Amber Nielsen, a New England, N.D., native who just completed her undergraduate Honors degree at the University of North Dakota and now is in her first year at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).

Working alongside a young mentor — UND SMHS Ph.D. student Katie Collette — Nielsen spent several years in the lab of biomedical scientist and faculty member Van Doze. He annually starts several dozen undergrads off in research programs at SMHS.

"It's really exciting for me as a lab director that we have young people like Amber who spend part of their undergraduate education doing research," said Van Doze, a neuroscientist.

For Nielsen, Doze's research lab provided her with a key opportunity to do hands-on research that proved vital to her admission to medical school. She started at SMHS this summer, right after finishing her second undergraduate year of summer lab work and her Honors degree. She worked in collaboration with Collette this past summer.

"I thought neuroscience would be interesting because my grandma has had Parkinson's for 25 years, and she's now in a nursing home with advanced dementia," Nielsen said.

Medical schools such as UND's encourage people to get lab and research experience before applying, said Nielsen, who valued her research time not just for the science but for the connections she made there. Nielsen said she also appreciated the opportunity to mentor younger undergraduates just starting their research experiences.

Several programs fund these undergraduate research experiences at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

"There are a variety of funding sources, but they all have a common theme," Doze said. "The focus is on undergraduates who are keenly interested in science — and medical careers. Our programs here train and encourage these students — the next generation of scientists and researchers. Some will go to graduate schools and get their science Ph.D.s in the biosciences, others will get joint degrees in business, law or medicine. We're not just training folks to become faculty members at universities."

Some, like Nielsen, will go directly into medicine or allied health professions such as physician assistants, nurse practitioners, occupational therapists, physical therapists and medical lab scientists. Doze said there are other professions learning the bioscience ropes, such as bioinformatics specialists from computer science and mathematics who've enrolled in the undergraduate summer research program.

"What I've seen over the nine years that we've been running these undergraduate research programs is that these students want to go in science, research, and/or health care," Doze said. "Peer mentoring — such as Katie mentoring Amber and both of them mentoring other students — is an essential part of the experience for students."

With this ninth cohort of undergraduates in research programs around the medical school, Doze notes that when the program started in his lab, there were three students.

"We've seen a 20-fold growth and we want to see more," he said. "Funding for these programs appears to be stable, even as the federal government struggles with budget limitations. I think that's because everyone — including the funding agencies — realizes that we need many more STEM students. And it's not just the feds. Our dean (Dr. Joshua Wynne) is very supportive of undergraduate research, which is why we can support so many."

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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