Why you should consider basic science or translational research

04 Dec 2019

By Gillian Goddard, MD

My path has deviated significantly from what I envisioned when I started medical school. I would never have anticipated that future me would join a basic science lab during residency, commit another 2-3 years to training, and actually enjoy it. As with anything, there are times when research can be frustrating – especially when an experiment does not work and sends you back to the drawing board. However, the knowledge, skills, and mentorship that I have gained during my time in a basic science lab are invaluable and will help guide me through my future career, academic, or otherwise.

For those considering whether or not to take dedicated research time, what type of research to pursue, or those who think I’m crazy for choosing basic science research, here is what it has taught me.

  1. The foundation to think critically. Research teaches you to question EVERYTHING. Spending time with our PhD colleagues in the lab and designing/planning experiments has taught me to approach problems using a hypothesis-driven method. It has also allowed me to become more comfortable critically assessing everything from study design to journal articles to clinical decision making.
  2. How to learn from failure. For the majority of medical trainees who go from college to medical school to residency, experiencing failure, is unfamiliar and possibly debilitating. Basic science research will teach you that failing is a part of learning. While hard and frustrating at times, various projects not working for XX reason has helped me to obtain a growth mindset. Nothing is fixed and one can always be better. 
  3. The importance of multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional work. Every single person looks at your project with a slightly different lens based on their background and training.  It gives you new insight (even if it’s hard to hear sometimes). I have learned time and time again that collaboration is truly the key to success. This tenet directly translates to clinical care as everyone (nurse, registered dietitian, concerned family member) comes to the table with a different area of expertise. Only by working together can we deliver the best patient care possible.  
  4. Improved technical skills. Initially, I didn’t think of my time in the lab as a way to increase my technical skills; however, after learning how to do ileocecal resections with 9-0 suture on mice, I now think otherwise. Many surgical basic science labs have the opportunity to operate for their animal models, and you should take it!  
  5. The challenge of implementation and the importance of sustainability. Before starting my prospective translational study, I had no idea how hard it was to implement something within the context of patient care. The actual execution of any translational project (no matter how small) takes time, persistence, and (wo)man-power. I have learned that a lot of projects worth doing take time, which in some instances means multiple years and way longer than any of us will ever spend in research during our training. If a project that you are working on won’t be finished by the time you need to return to residency, you will be the one responsible for figuring out who will and can help once you resume your clinical responsibilities.  Without placing mechanisms of sustainability in place, your hard work (and PI’s funding) will be wasted.
  6. Significance of mentorship, sponsorship, & connections. In research, we have the opportunity to work with individuals from different fields and ways of thinking. The surgeons, neonatologists, and PhDs whom I have met and worked with while in research have all guided my academic and personal growth in different ways. Beyond simple guidance, this experience taught me the importance of having both a mentor and sponsor to guide my development and advocate for my advancement. 

Learning and growing through basic science and translational research has been rewarding in a way I never could have imagined. Maybe now you can.


Gillian Goddard, MD graduated from McGovern Medical School, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She then completed two years of general surgery residency and is currently a research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Her main research projects focus on further delineating the interactions between the microbiome and bile acid metabolism that are occurring in the context of intestinal adaptation. Other research interests include gastroschisis, and necrotizing enterocolitis. In her free time, she enjoys trying out new coffee shops and figure skating.

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