Look inward. What medical issues are personally meaningful for you? You need to find a topic that excites you enough to sustain your interest and involvement over many months. Here is a method, developed by Mike Gordon in Family Medicine, for finding a research topic that is "right" for you.
Buy a stack of 100 3x5 index cards and commit yourself to a month-long attempt to write a different research question on each one. This exercise should help you to suppress your internal censors about a "good" project and let your imagination roam free for a while.
At a later date, you can sort and resort the questions into stacks according to topic areas, feasibility, your own interests, etc. The idea here is that we all look at the world through personal lenses and filters -- we "see" different things. The sorting of the cards helps us to better understand the kinds of topics and approaches to research that are a natural "fit" for us.
Where to find research questions:
Look outward. Health news (http://healthlinks.washington.edu/news/) items are a great source of ideas. These are typically very accessible and cover topics of interest to a broad audience. Another approach is to identify areas of controversy or uncertainty in the literature. With a general topic in mind, do a MEDLINE search while restricting the publication type to "letter". This will lead you to research reports that generated a response from readers or to opinion pieces.
Continue to add new questions to your uncensored card file. Let some time pass, then prioritize and revise your card file. Identify a small number of research questions that sound both compelling and feasible. If a review paper has been published on your broad topic of interest, read it to help narrow your focus. Go over a list of faculty research interests (see below) to further refine your ideas.
Don't choose a topic, ask a question. With a clear question in mind it will be easier to choose which variables are relevant, to choose an effective study design, to decide which journal articles to read. A question provides a filter through which you can examine and evaluate information. A question is, by nature, more focussed than a topic. Compare, for example, "Zinc and the common cold" with "Can zinc cure the common cold?" The second form is more specific and purposeful. If you choose a question you care about, and truly can't answer, it can draw you in to the investigation in a way a topic cannot.
Your area of interest should lead you to one or two candidate academic departments. Every department has a designated III coordinator who can direct you to appropriate faculty. Alternatively, check the campus-wide Faculty Finder (http://www.grad.washington.edu/gradfac/Find_By_Specializ.html) maintained by the graduate school or the Community of Science Expertise database (http://expertise.cos.com/cgi-bin/searchexp?code=234). Lists of faculty research interests can be found:
Approach a candidate sponsor only after you have a fairly concrete idea about what you want to do. You will profit more from your mentor's experience if you give him/her a solid point of departure than if you present a blank slate. S/he will also be more likely to take you aboard if you've shown you can think for yourself. This does not mean, of course, that your mentor will not turn your idea topsy turvy before handing it back to you. You don't have to accept all your sponsor's suggestions, but do consider them. That's what mentoring is about, after all.
Once you have found a sponsor, discuss your mutual rights and responsibilities regarding the project. If possible, establish a realistic time line and set up meeting times at regular intervals. Think about what expectations you have and discuss these. If there are elements of the project that require your complete dependence on your mentor such as providing you with patient data or teaching you some skill, make sure your mentor recognizes the crucial role s/he plays. Encourage your sponsor to also verbalize his/her expectations of you. If you delay in analyzing the data, will s/he carry on without you?
School of Medicine funding. A small sum, about $150, is available from the Medical School for III related expenses such as photocopying. Talk to Suzanne Johnson or Christine Pollack in A-300.
Departmental sources of funding. Some departments have funds set aside for student research. Once you have settled on a project and found a sponsor, ask whether the sponsoring department can support your research. In addition, training grant monies from various organizations may be available within departments. In the past, these have included the American Cancer Society, and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (Stanley funds).
Sources for minority students. The Minority International Research Training Program (MIRT) (http://www.washington.edu/students/ugrad/scholar/listings/abroad/mirt.html) offers travel money for minority students to do research overseas. The NIH offers research supplements for underrepresented minorities. (http://www.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-99-104.html) This is an award of supplemental funding to support a minority student doing research with a sponsor who is already conducting NIH-supported research.
External sources of funding. Many organizations offer summer stipends for research. For these, you would need to apply directly to the funding agency. Jean Lytle in A-300 maintains a current file of agencies sponsoring medical student research and puts out a monthly opportunities newsletter.
Selective I funding. For a list of potential
Selective 1 funding souces outside of MSRTP
and RUOP, please visit