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Research is a Team Sport: Build Your Team

“I am a medical student. I want to do research but I just don’t know how or where to start”

We have all heard this far too many times from enthusiastic students interested in pursuing research during medical school. While a majority of medical students are interested in research, very few are able to pursue it continuously throughout medical school owing to a lack of longitudinal guidance1. This gap prevents the utilization of the four precious years of medical school to introduce them to the joys of research, invigorating their own interest. On the other hand, most academic surgeons conduct research; though a majority have their hands full with preexisting clinical, administrative and teaching responsibilities. This is where the ‘student – resident – attending’ model can be an effective tool to help students better pursue their academic interests. The vertical peer mentoring program as an adjunct to faculty advising which has been shown to enhance overall medical school experience2-4 can be effective in mentoring students interested in a career in academic surgery. The resident (or fellow) as a mentor can help students explore their research interests, develop an understanding of common research settings (basic science/ clinical research/ health services research/ health policy research) and help them identify what resonates the most with their career vision (granted, the vision may evolve). This dynamic helps the “research naïve” student understand the concepts of research in a non-formal setting with limited expectations.

As a research mentor, the trainee has a lot to offer – from the ability to critically review literature to understanding the importance of each step in the research process (e.g. study design, data acquisition/abstraction, IRB approval); from a basic understanding of the statistics or interpretation of the results to developing the ability to convey your findings (abstract/manuscript preparation, meeting presentations) – the educational opportunities are endless. Not only does this help the students learn, it helps the resident better understand the process and identify the scope for improvement in their knowledge base and/or skill set. As the trainees develop more independence in research, the attending transitions to guide the vision of the team, instead of micro-managing. As an expert in the field, the attending provides critical feedback on ideas, approaches and progress to both the resident as well as the student. The ‘student-resident-attending’ model can be more helpful than the traditional ‘attending-resident’ or the ‘attending-student’ mentorship model in that not only it fosters research interests of students, but also provides the opportunity for trainees to develop teaching skills.

While trainees in their academic development time/research years are able to provide dedicated teaching time, the challenge remains for those in their clinical years to carve out time. With an 80 hour/week schedule, the time available for mentoring is limited; however, as you teach you realize, it really doesn’t take a lot of time – grab a cup of coffee every now and then with your mentee, discuss how things are going and address their questions/concerns. The time that you spend mentoring may not be long, but the impact that it will make on someone’s career will be everlasting. Medical students are bright, hard-working and are quick to learn new concepts. With adequate guidance, the medical students can be a valuable asset to the research team. Over time, as the student demonstrates an understanding of concepts, she/he is able to take on more responsibility and help with research tasks freeing the rest of the team’s time to focus on the other aspects of the process. This collaborative approach increases the quality, efficiency and productivity of the team, without putting extra burden on any of the team member. Research is a team sport – every member of the team is a critical part of the puzzle, committed towards the goal; the best teams are the ones where members can count on one another. Likewise, the attending understands that the trainee and the students work hard and are committed to the vision of the team, resident knows that the attending believes in her/his capabilities and the student trusts that both the resident and the attending have her/his learning and career interests a priority. Early exposure to research via a multidirectional mentoring approach can help stoke medical students’ research interests before residency, paving the path for training the next generation of physician-scientists. After all, mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction.


  1. Rosenkranz SK, Wang S, Hu W. Motivating medical students to do research: a mixed methods study using Self-Determination Theory. BMC Medical Education. 2015;15:95.
  2. Andre C, Deerin J, Leykum L. Students helping students: vertical peer mentoring to enhance the medical school experience. BMC Research Notes. 2017;10:176.
  3. Taylor JS, Faghri S, Aggarwal N, Zeller K, Dollase R, Reis SP. Developing a peer-mentor program for medical students. Teach Learn Med. 2013;25(1):97-102. doi:10.1080/10401334.2012.741544.
  4. Soriano RP, Blatt B, Coplit L, et al. Teaching medical students how to teach: a national survey of students-as-teachers programs in U.S. medical schools. Acad Med. 2010;85(11):1725-1731. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181f53273.


Kandace McGuire, MD

Kandace Peterson McGuire is an Associate Professor of Surgery and the Chief of Breast Surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University as well as the surgical leader of the breast cancer program at Massey Cancer Center. Mentoring relationship benefits both mentor and mentee and is an invaluable part of surgical training and research.

Apoorve Nayyar

Apoorve Nayyar is a research fellow at the University of North Carolina. Mentoring relationship benefits both mentor and mentee and is an invaluable part of surgical training and research. He was a former international visiting student through the Office of International Activities.