Sabina Warns was thrilled when her faculty mentors Campbell Grant, MD, assistant professor of urology, and Kristen Fletcher, MD, associate professor of internal medicine, asked her to join their work on a research project during her first year at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.

Initially, she helped with familiar tasks, such as analyzing data and graphing it in Excel.  

Then came an unexpected request: did she want to write an abstract?

Sabina recalls nervously messaging Lillian Sims, PhD, a lecturer in behavioral science and her first-year Introduction to Clinical Medicine (ICM) preceptor. “I’d love to continue working on this,” she said, “but I’ve never done an abstract before. I don’t know if I’m the right person to do that.”

For a medical student, research projects – particularly for unfamiliar areas, like medical education research in this case – can be intimidating. Dr. Sims said students may feel imposter syndrome, that they are strictly medical students and not researchers. And many do not know there is research experience available beyond the lab.  

Dr. Sims gave Warns the reassurance and guidance she needed.

“You have absolutely nothing to worry about,” she said. “Please don’t say no just because you think you’re not qualified. We will help you each step of the way.”

Dr. Sims said they viewed this as a chance to teach Warns the process. “This is where so many students are hesitant to volunteer for opportunities like this,” Dr. Sims said. “They think if they don’t already know how to do something, they can’t do it, but we are trying to get them to see it as the opposite: if you don’t know how to do something, this is the perfect time to learn a new skill.”

Many UK College of Medicine faculty collaborate to establish early networking opportunities that help students ease into new areas research. Mentors like Drs. Grant, Fletcher, and Sims and others involved in undergraduate and graduate medical education enjoy helping students develop confidence in medical education research, which catalyzes improvements in medical education for future physicians and scientists.

“We would love to have more students develop an interest in medical education and medical education research,” Dr. Sims said. “Many of our faculty already do this work, and we have a vested interest in developing the next generation of academic physicians.”

Likewise, faculty are helping students explore other new skills like Quality Improvement research and case reporting, and many departments facilitate clinical research experiences for students.

To help connect preclinical medical students with residents, fellows, and faculty mentors, Dr. Sims and her spouse, UK nephrologist Tyler Sims, MD, host monthly medical student dinners. In fact, it was at one of those dinners that Warns was connected to Dr. Fletcher and then to Dr. Grant. They welcomed her into their research project, which involves preparing future residents for encountering patient complications. Warns said much of the current literature focuses on the patient side of how to prevent complications, but there is more to learn on how trainees can best emotionally handle the stress and what support systems can be put in place.

Warns knew that research would help her stand out in applying for competitive residency programs. So, she took Dr. Sims’ advice: “go for it.”

Excitingly, Warns not only was a first author on the initial abstract. It was accepted and upgraded to an oral presentation, which Dr. Grant and Warns will share during a virtual transition to residency symposium with the University of Michigan.

After a successful project, Warns has built self-assurance to pursue additional opportunities. “It’s really given me a confidence boost in regards to research,” Warns said. “Now I can say I have this experience. With the right kind of guidance, I think I can do it again.”

She has even reached out to UK radiologists, a specialty of interest, to get involved with future projects, something she said might not have happened without the support of UK College of Medicine faculty.

“I think if I can give myself advice when I was a first year, I would say reach out as much as you can,” Warns said. “Don’t be afraid.”