Finding a PI

Penn Med offers a wealth of research opportunities and experiences, but finding a research project can seem overwhelming at times. MS1 Andrew Becker shares his perspective. In an upcoming post, an MS4 will be sharing her experience getting involved in research during medical school.

PI.

I’ve got a theory that whoever first used those two letters to mean “Principal Investigator” meant it in a completely different context:

A first-year Penn medical student is sitting with his friend at a hipster coffee shop wondering if dogs have human teeth, like people have canine teeth. Suddenly, Andrew blurts out:

“Hey Esther, do you want to get a Playful Irish Setter?”

Esther laughs and replies “That sounds great! You can never have too many dogs in your life!” She writes down in her planner “Find an awesome PI (Playful Irish Setter)”

Next day, an unsuspecting classmate asks Esther what her plans are for the day. Esther reads off her tasks list:

1) Study cranial nerves

2) Figure out why Angry Birds are so angry with circular green pigs

3) Find an awesome PI

The classmate, unaware he is about to change the world, hears “PI” and doesn’t ask for clarification. He says goodbye to Esther, and starts towards the gym. Midway through his workout, somewhere in the Fox Fitness center, it hits him.

“Esther is looking for a Principal Investigator to work with!”

He could not have realized the magnitude of what he said. In that moment, PI entered the mainstream of acronyms med students will forever use.

I came into Penn Med with “PI” so burned into my vernacular that it ached. However, I learned quickly there is no rush to find one. The search does not start until the end of the first semester, at the very earliest (talking from the MD track perspective here). Most first year students start looking in the spring semester if they so choose.

In December, I started sending some emails to physicians whose work I found interesting. What I wanted to say was:

“Hi Dr. John Dorian,

I think you’re cool, how can I become you?”

But instead wrote something to the effect of:

“Hi Dr. Turk Turkleton,

I am an MS1 really interested in [insert cool interest that will probably change next week here]. If you could find time in your busy schedule, would you mind meeting to discuss your career path and interests?”

After some quick reply emails and a bit of scheduling, I set up a few informal meetings. I knew I loved surgery, but what type? Might as well have asked me what my favorite type of grilled cheese was… there’s no such thing as a bad grilled cheese. I had the opportunity to sit down with physicians in departments from Transplant to Trauma Surgery. We talked about career paths, life as a surgeon, and the place for medical students to help.

I joined a Trauma Surgeon running simulation exercises for nurses at the new Presbyterian Hospital trauma bay. The project sounded engaging and the commitment during the semester was minimal. Further, I decided not to stay and do research this upcoming summer; instead opting to do some traveling. All these questions were answered through some quick conversations and short emails with engaged doctors.

The word PI will be different for everyone. To some, their Playful Irish Setter will fill their lives with hard work and endless generosity. To others, their Purple Iguana will be what helps them decide their future career. To most, their Pricey iPhone case will be around for a short time until they find their own path in medicine (or decide to make their own to sell on Etsy). Many students may opt for none of the above, instead finding other commitments just as important.

The point being this, Penn Med is wonderful in that it fully recognizes the breadth of medical student interests. Whatever type of PI you are looking for, you can find it here at Penn.

Just be careful about using that acronym at the pet store, you may just find yourself with a new Playful Irish Setter resting on your couch while you play Angry Birds after a day of research.

Andrew is a 1st year medical student at Penn planning to take a year out for his MPH. He graduated from Ithaca College majoring in Biochemistry and Sociology. Andrew is interested in surgery, running, grilled cheese and hipster coffee.

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