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"Should I do research?" (Wilson's experience)

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Part 1: The First Round

During my third year of undergraduate studies at UC Davis, I attempted to try my hand in research as a way to enhance my dental school application. I met with a PI (whom was recommended to me by a dental specialist), and volunteered in his lab for about 2 quarters. I started off doing paperwork for the lab, with the intention of eventually transitioning into benchwork. Unfortunately, I never had the chance.

He seemed like a great caring mentor, but, because he was away frequently, I reported to a post-doc who never wanted to teach me and constantly got frustrated at the people around her. The last straw for me was when she agreed to let me watch her do some benchwork, and then 10 minutes into it she changed her mind and asked me to leave because my peering over her shoulder apparently was a distraction to her. I sent in my resignation letter the next morning feeling like I did not belong in that lab if even shadowing was forbidden.

Needless to say, I was bummed out and even believed that research was perhaps just not right for me, until dental school came along.


Part 2: The Rediscovery

Following my acceptance at UCSF (but still during my gap year in San Francisco), I kept in touch with a research advisor/program administrator at UCSF who encouraged me to attend student research journal clubs every Tuesday. I listened to upperclassmen discuss articles and current research on embryology, lasers, and the sugar industry...etc. Though difficult to comprehend at that time, these research talks were fascinating to me because they were almost always directly related to dentistry. I left these meetings with excitement (and also confusion), but it opened my mind that research in dental school could be drastically different than my experience in undergrad.

Dr. Darling showing her support during my poster session

Once D1 year was fully in session, I met with multiple research PI's and ultimately became a research fellow in Dr. Cynthia Darling and Dr. Daniel Fried's lab. The fellowship consisted of full-time lab work during the 12 or so weeks of summer break between D1 and D2 year. I felt so fortunate to have been in a lab that gave me the type of attention and mentorship I wanted. There was always an open door policy so that I can get guidance whenever I needed it. At the same time, I did not feel micromanaged nor a feeling that I didn't belong.

UCSF Research Clinical Excellence Day

Needless to say, I had a great summer experience studying the application of near-infrared imaging in dentistry. In fact, my project went so well that I decided to deliver an oral presentation at the UCSF Research and Clinical Excellence Day, a competition in which everyone (faculty, peers, deans) at the school attended. I spent two whole weeks creating animated slides and carefully drafting the words of my script, trying to merge story-telling with my research so that it would be both engaging and informative even for those not in the imaging field.

I felt incredibly fulfilled upon hearing that my presentation was well-received and also felt fortunate to have earned 2nd place in the pre-doctoral category.

Although the lab work portion of my experience was over, my story doesn't quite end here...


Part 3: "That One Time When..." (pictures > words)

My PIs took me to attend the biggest laser conference on the west coast (SPIE Photonics) right here in the heart of San Francisco:

The Fried/Darling Lab (2018)
SPIE Photonics Poster Presentation

I presented orally again at my fraternity's annual regional meeting where I won 1st place (disclaimer: I was the only one who volunteered to present research 😁):

I flew to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and delivered my presentation again at the American Association of Dental Research's annual conference.

Oral presentation after a red-eye flight

I presented my findings at the 2018 UCSF Alumni Weekend:

Poster Presentation with my buddy, Dr. Eric Hsu

I traveled to the historic Peabody Hotel (duck obsession) in Memphis, Tennessee to represent UCSF at the annual Hinman Student Research Competition, in which I was given the Most Outstanding Research Presentation award:

Home of the Blues!
The Historic Peabody Hotel
Meeting new friends from other schools
Trying authentic southern food for the first time
Graceland, Home of Elvis

And finally, to cap it all off, "that one time when" I got published as first author:

*Check out my paper here:


Part 4: Practical Advice

1. If you are in undergrad, take advantage of the research opportunities that your campus has to offer. You never know, it could open many doors and boost your dental school application to the next level.

But also, don't get discouraged by a previous bad experience with pre-dental research. Dental school gives you the chance to start over again with research projects that are more closely intertwined with the profession.

2. Take your time to explore the different labs. Find a mentor who will guide you the way you want. Ask for their expectations, but also provide them with some "expectations" of your own, within reason. Then, learn as much as you can from them. If it's your first time doing research, don't be afraid to questions before you mess up a critical step.

3. Define your end-goal for participating in student research. Personally, I was always and still is intrigued by public speaking. I knew from the get-go that I would want to merge this interest with my endeavors performing student research. Due to this early understanding, I was more able to easily sought out opportunities in which I could deliver oral presentations.

So... what is your goal? To get published? To network? To travel and attend conferences? To explore the possibility of a career doing dental research?

Through my own journey, I realize the possibilities are endless as long as one embraces challenge and keeps an open mind to try new things, both of which are coincidentally inherent in the nature of researching.

*** This story would not have been possible without the guidance of Dr. Cynthia Darling, Dr. Daniel Fried, and Roger Mraz. Thank you.


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