I am certain that I am not the only one who spent much of their early experiences with research attempting to do sufficient work to get our names on a paper or presentation. After years and numerous projects what I never expected to hear from a mentor was “This was solely your work. I had nothing to do with it and want my name nowhere on it.” Unusual as it sounds, this was my recent experience with my upcoming poster presentation at SGIM.
Hoping to hit the ground running when working with a new mentor over the last two weeks of 2020, I attempted to lay the foundations of what I believed our study would be about, assessing how representative vaccine safety trials have been. Prior to meeting my mentor, I used the time-span of Dec 21st to the new year to compile a list of the CDC’s current schedule adult and pediatric vaccines along with the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines which were still pending approval at that time. I then looked over the source documents utilized for FDA approval, as well as relevant peer reviewed manuscripts were reviewed and various demographics including ethnic and gender distribution of participants in each set of safety trials was identified. I ultimately got so excited by the work I constructed tables and even a letter to the editor I hoped to submit. My mentor unfortunately was less enthusiastic. In discussion we decided, with the assistance of our institutional librarian, to shift to a systematic review (which is still ongoing). And she made it very clear that my attempts at proactivity were useless in her eyes given her vision and the view that given the heterogeneity of approval dates for vaccines shifting demographics precluded direct comparisons. I do want to make clear that my PI is a lovely person; she (correctly) noted my relative lack of experience and was offering constructive advice, but it still felt disheartening. Fortunately, due to a combination of confidence of unknown source and a fear I would not meet graduation requirements, I made the decision to apply to the Society of General Internal Medicine conference being held on 4/20 and the work was accepted.
The lessons of this experience are manifold. Firstly, there does not have to be a villain. As noted, my PI was simply offering advice from her vantage point of greater experience. Though it turned out to be a positive further down the road, at first pass the work seemed like a difficult to defend tangent. Lesson 2 is to have alternate means of review. While obviously less viable with laboratory research where data must be protected, having mentors beyond the most interested PI to gauge a project’s potential can be invaluable. Related to this idea of second opinions is having a reasonable faith in your own intuition. While those at our stage of training are relatively inexperienced, we have been immersed in medicine for years and do still have a sense of what questions may be engaging. While we should turn to our mentors’ experience, if you find a question exciting enough to keep pushing that may mean others will be just as excited by the answer as you are.
While I doubt single author student posters will ever be common at meetings given both the collaborative nature of medicine and the experience gradient, it has been a good experience to learn it is possible and build some confidence in myself in the process.