Four years as an Undergraduate Researcher

Author:  Akshay Sharma
Institution:  Kasturba Medical College

As a youngster we all have great ideas, soaring ambitions and flights of imaginations. Most of us aim big, real big, king size but as the race keeps getting longer, we keep losing faith, in ourselves, in our dreams and keep falling out of the main ideology of ours and settle down for something that comes second, third or fourth, fifth, sixth in our lists. But then there are some determined enough, those who aim for something, something that may not be that grand or majestic but something indispensable they can't really continue further without. And they reach out for it and get it and don't rest until they are competent enough to say, "We did it!" Such are the instances; such are those individuals who inspire us to keep going further, in our ambitions, in our aims.

When I joined the medical college four years ago, I found myself in a totally different world all together. New people, new surroundings, new subjects, and somewhere in that rumble were these two hundred and fifty odd students trying to figure out, "Alright buddy, reached till here.. Now what next??" And in that vast expanse of uncharted territory, creating a niche for one's self was a formidable task, let alone setting an aim and working for its accomplishment. But the same iconic figures that I've mentioned about earlier, that I had in my mind acted as my guides. Since the beginning I had been inclined towards science and research. Even before I knew how to spell the word research', I knew I wanted to become a Scientist, and that too a medical one.

Thus began my first assignment. Encouraging teachers and supportive classmates and friends and above all parental commitment led me to complete my first research project in the first year of my medical college. I wouldn't stay back to confess that an important factor in me contemplating to do that project was indeed promised reward and recognition but nevertheless that was important too; to an extent to kindle that fire within. But now after having spent considerable time in this field I do feel sometime that research should never be reward oriented or carried out to win recognition and applause. No doubt these do follow at the successful completion of the set goals but these should never be the driving forces behind a young researcher. Many a times the goals set are either too high or the input is not enough and the targets are not achieved. And in those circumstances if the reward was the only driving factor behind the young researcher pursuing his or her research interests, it is a catastrophic ending to the budding research career.

My first project was on Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) 1. More than me, my guides were confused so as to what I am contemplating doing. Truly speaking even I had very little idea of what I was doing initially, but the topic was so exciting that I just couldn't resist and jumped in. Had good times, bad times and really ugly times during that project, was ridiculed at by fellow students who thought I had lost my mental balance at times having taken up such a topic. But then I was always so curious to know about the sixth sense myself that I kept going. I failed miserably on the statistics part of my report that I prepared and couldn't get through the assignment I was pursuing that project for. So here my first project died a premature death, or was rather killed by my inexperience in statistics but it was good in a way since now I knew why and how important that was. Soon I was up to my new assignment to find the contamination of currency by pathogenic microorganisms2. This again was something that I personally was interested in. This happens a number of times in undergraduate days; students tend to blindly follow their mentors and try to make their mentor's idea their own, which many a times is not healthy. Students must have their own imagination, their own ideas. Agreed, at times they may not feasible or not encouraged but nevertheless that should not stop them from dreaming and thinking, because that's how research works. Ideas can come from anywhere but students should strive to find something that would stimulate them mentally, because there is nothing more rewarding to see something coming to shape than what you have always yearned for.

Continuing with the natural course of a researcher, I decided to get my studies published. I first approached a couple of journals to publish my second study about the bacterial contamination of currency that I believed was "more conventional" but never really stopped caring about the first one on ESP. I was absolutely sure that the ESP study of mine just needed the right time and right place and that it didn't have anything less to make a wonderful study. And as fate would have it, through the efforts of me and my guide, we could actually get the first study of mine accepted even before the second one; which kept on getting rejected. Faith in one's self is the key to success; and no matter what others say, never lose faith on one's self. By this I don't mean that you should not listen to others comments. That would be disastrous. Lots of times ideas percolate through one's peers, criticisms can be very rewarding at times and give clues to vital issues or major blunders that we might not have given importance to, but nevertheless they shouldn't be discouraging. Through my four years as an undergraduate medical student, I have been involved in many other studies and projects which too gave me a great insight into the methodology but I feel I have made the point I wish to convey very clear with the previous two examples.

Having said that, I would now briefly try to pass on the message that this article was intended to convey. Though rewards might be the initial push required for students to get into research, they should not be the end. Rewards as good as long as they remain reinforcements for the young researcher but the fact remains that one has to have a passion for the subject and a quest to know why' which alone can make him or her a good researcher. Apart from the quest the other thing that is mandatory is maintenance of a high degree of ethics. Ethics in research are like a person's moral character. As long as a researcher is true to himself and accepts his mistakes, accepts critical appraisals and pursues them, the path is golden ahead. Lastly I wish to end on a note that results may not always be as expected, recognition may not always be achieved but every new experiment, every new patient, every new idea is an experience in itself. Though Charles Best was not nominated for the Nobel Prize for their work on insulin along with Fredrick Banting, still Banting did share his prize money with his student who had diligently worked with him for the study and the entire world today recognizes their effort.


1. Akshay Sharma, Urban JA D'Souza. Extrasensory perception-A preliminary study. Accepted for publication in Borneo Journal of Medical Sciences.

2. A Sharma & B Dhanashree. Detection & typing of bacteria isolated from currency in circulation. Indian J Med Res 2008;127(6)(suppl):S698. (Abstract)