Producing official research work – a master’s thesis – that is going to be recognized and graded by professors from your University is exciting work. It’s also incredibly challenging.
With the approval of the Bologna Treaty in Europe, most longer courses like Engineering and Medicine require students to complete and defend a master’s dissertation before you graduate. I presented my final paper in December 2015, about 6 months before graduating.
I considered starting a research project in late 2013. I was in the 4th year of medical school (out of 6) and the clinical stage of studies inspired me to participate in the research efforts of my University. There’s nothing more rewarding than to see that the project ended up as a successful thesis.
This post tells the story of my project and gathers a few tips for other students trying to go the same path.
Splitting open people’s heads without killing anyone? Sign me up.
I wrote about how students could start research projects before. That’s exactly what I did back in late 2013 – I went looking for a researcher in my Faculty’s research division who would take me as an apprentice. Luckily I was taken into my supervisor’s care, who was and still is a great researcher and teacher.
I chose a field that would be equally interesting and adapted to my skills, so I went for MRI analysis. This research group used computer algorithms to analyze the brain volumes across hundreds of patients at the same time, a method called Voxel Based Morphometry or VBM.
Voxel, yes, like in Minecraft, one of those cubes
Unsurprisingly, as a medical student I had little background in advanced Mathematics or Engineering, apart from some programming experience from coding a couple of Android apps for fun. I had a lot of reading and studying to do.
I asked my supervisor to guide me in the vast oceans of information online – Pubmed was the library of choice, but I still needed to know which papers I should focus my attention. In total, I studied over 30 papers, about Voxel Based Morhometry, Type 2 Diabetes, Neurodegenerative diseases, fMRI and other buzzwords related to the field.
Hacking away, To The Master’s Thesis!
I quickly understood that there were a lot of research opportunities in this field, especially regarding nervous system damage in patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (DM2). That was my cue – thanks to all my homework – I defined a research problem, which I considered to be poorly addressed in the existing literature.
What brain areas are most subject to atrophy associated with DM2?
It was time to start working on the project itself. In simple terms, so that readers from all fields can understand the methods, what I had to do was:
- Get my hands on MRI scans of normal patients (controls) and diabetic patients, which also had to obey certain criteria (weren’t smokers, didn’t have cancer, weren’t alchoolics, etc.)
- Process the scans so that they could be read by MatLab, using an add-on called SPM.
- Process the scans even further, so that I could isolate the grey-matter of each patient (I just wanted the brain information of the scans, nothing else).
- Across every patient (I had about 70), compare the controls’ brains with the diabetic ones. The result would be a parametric map indicating the probability of finding atrophy in a particular location.
This all sounds pretty straightforward, but, you guessed it, it isn’t as easy as it looks.
Voilá! Parametric mapping of brain atrophy.
It was always difficult to balance study life and the project, yet efficient planning and personal organization still work wonders. The daily quota trick also contributed to most of the work I’ve done – by realizing that even 15 minutes a day becomes 1h45 minutes a week, I got a lot of work done, step by step.
Showing off (I mean presenting)
Throughout the whole process, the best idea I had was to document the project carefully. Taking notes, saving every reference I used in every report, print screening all steps of the process – I forced myself to do it and it was an effective communication strategy.
Putting together slides, writing the final paper and even going back to the sources if I needed to, all of these were much easier thanks to my documentation efforts. I urge you to do the same.
The most important pieces of final propaganda material were:
- My final paper, which I handed to the teachers in October 2015 and which served as the kick starter for discussion in the final session in December 2015.
- Slide presentation, which I presented a couple of times in conferences and science meetings.
- Poster, which I used the most in conferences and contests.
Ahhh, the original poster (OP)
Preparing all of this material ahead of time, even months before having to hand them in is a good idea. It was part of my vision to share all of this with the scientific community and having it ready to go at all times facilitated my participation in scientific events (conferences, contests, meetings).
From March 2014 to September 2015, I was a proud participant in these events:
- Local poster contests, in my University and in other Portuguese cities.
- European Students Conference, in Charité Berlin
- Leiden International Medical Students Conference, in Leiden, The Netherlands
- YES Meeting, in Porto, Portugal
I won some prizes in some of those events, which definitely catapulted the value of my research project. Being able to present your work to a committee of several professors and then say: “Oh, and I won a couple of national and international prizes” is awesome.
Accomplishing all this work was definitely a professional, academic and personal victory. Going from just a vision, an idea of a completed scientific project and arriving at results you can actually present is glorious.
- I scored 19/20 in the overall project. The teachers appreciated both the quality of the work, the documentation efforts and the events I’ve participated in.
- I have a better grasp of how Science works nowadays – the challenges of modern researchers, the criticism you may face regarding statistics and data presentation, how papers are submitted, etc.
- My name will be on PubMed – how cool is that? [Will publish the paper here as soon as it’s accepted]
- I’ll be a Master in Medicine in 6 months – always an epic achievement, I guess.
Whatever your research dreams are, I urge you to make them happen. Expanding the boundaries of human knowledge is one of the most noble and instructive things we, as students, can do. There’s no horizon we can’t beat.