Research During Residency

Medical student research retrospective: Hannibal Person, MD

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Medical student research retrospective: Hannibal Person, MD

Nov 6, 2023

The research one conducts as a medical student can further the body of knowledge used to improve patient outcomes. These scholarly pursuits also can shape careers and help bolster a residency applicant’s credentials.

As a medical student, Hannibal Person, MD, conducted extensive bench research on infectious diseases. One of his discoveries allowed him to create a new assay by conducting research in Alzheimer's disease, successfully applying his work to looking at bacterial protein surface expressions. Since his days as a medical student, Dr. Person has seen his research interests evolve to areas such as medical education and the clinical arena. 

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For medical students looking to gain insight on the research process and the work their peers are doing, the finals of the 2023 AMA Research Challenge take place Feb. 4. Five finalists who will present their research to an expert panel of judges, with AMA president, Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, as the host. Watch as the winner of the $10,000 grand prize is announced live.

Medical student research retrospective: Hannibal Person, MD.

Current position: Pediatric gastroenterologist in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Seattle Chilrren’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Specialty: Pediatric gastroenterology. 

Medical school: Duke University School of Medicine.

How I got interested in doing research: My interest in science led to my interest in medicine. I always enjoyed my science classes, particularly biology, and was fascinated by how research could explore understanding of living creatures.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a program for underrepresented in medicine students in high school and college who are interested in careers in biomedical science and medicine. This program gave me the opportunity to do biomedical research related to human health, and I developed a deep passion for using scholarship and science to better understand human health and treat disease.

My first foray into medical student research: I was fortunate to be able to complete a dedicated year of research with Patrick Seed, MD, PhD, at Duke University School of Medicine while completing medical school. I performed microbiology bench research looking at a species of E. coli implicated in certain human infections and studied its expression of surface proteins as a potential target for antimicrobial therapies.

Not only was I deeply inspired by Dr. Seed’s commitment to scientific inquiry but bonded with my amazing lab mates in their projects and benefited from a rich environment of research and scholarship. Ultimately, it demonstrated to me how dedication and hard work and investigation could yield valuable information to meaningfully help those impacted by illness.

In considering where to perform my medical school thesis research, I wanted to remain at the bench and also had developed a passion for microbiology. I learned many important lessons in completing my medical student thesis research, the most important of which was finding high-quality mentorship. I very much benefited from being in a supportive environment with a mentor who is committed to not only my project but my professional development.

I also learned that while research can sometimes seem like an individual journey, collaboration with my lab mates, including sharing ideas and suggestions, was crucial to my success. The last lesson I learned was one of failure, as so many experiments despite the best design do not work. Finding that place of curiosity about why an experiment failed instead of sitting in a place of defeat became crucial in continuing to push forward in my project.

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My signature medical student research: I was most proud of my medical school thesis research because I was able to develop a new assay by cultivating research in Alzheimer's disease, a condition completely unrelated to my project, applying it to looking at bacterial protein surface expression in a way that was successful.This made me feel like a real scientist in terms of not only enacting an experiment but innovating.

How my research relates to my physician specialty choice: While my career and research interests have evolved over the years, and I now participate in clinical research and medical educational research, the lessons I learned at the bench still stand.

The important processes of experimental design, literature review, data management and analysis still stand. These experiences made it clear that I wanted research to be part of my career not only because of my passion for science but natural curiosity.

How much research I conduct in my day-to-day practice: Research is an important part of my career. I currently have 30% of my time allocated to research. I am currently researching educational interventions to address bias on the part of health care practitioners that may negatively impact patients.

Not only are research skills needed for my research career, but I am constantly using them and interpreting medical literature and other data to provide the best care for my patients. I also use these skills and participate in national meetings and speaking engagements.

How medical school supported my research: My school offers a dedicated year for research, and I was supported in attaining funding through the Infectious Disease Society of America’s Medical Student Grant. There was further structure for me to identify a research mentor in a field of interest. There are also other didactic opportunities including a biostatistics course to help me build scientific skills.

Barriers I encountered in conducting medical school research: Time and cost have always been major barriers to conducting research, particularly in medical school. I was lucky to attend a medical school where our research year was part of the curriculum and there were numerous sources of support both in terms of mentorship, protecting time and supporting your project.

While I was able to accomplish a lot in one year, more time would have allowed me to accomplish more, and I feel the balance between the many educational demands of medical school and wanting to perform research it's always a challenge.

How I have identified research mentors: My medical school offered information on potential mentors, and after meeting with several people it was easy to identify a very motivated and engaged mentor. I was also fortunate to attend a medical school where there were many successful faculty members eager to meet with and collaborate with medical students and other trainees.

My mentor helped me grow tremendously as a researcher not only through direct feedback throughout the development, enactment, and analysis of my project, but through personal interactions in which he gave me insight and guidance into my career development and opportunities to facilitate my own success.

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What I would do differently as a medical student researcher: Knowing now that my research career would evolve in a different direction, there were probably opportunities to diversify my research education to include more skills in clinical and other research outside of bench science that would serve me today.

Advice for medical students with designs on publishing: Publication of research as a medical student can be challenging, as many research projects take a significant investment of time. Many medical students find that while they have some protected time to participate in research, seeing a project from conceptualization to publication can be difficult.

I would recommend identifying strong mentorship, including mentors who are motivated to help you publish and include you in publications. While you may not have the time or resources to lead a project from start to finish, you can develop valuable skills in participating in the projects of others including middle authorship. If you suspect that research will be a strong part of your career, advocating for your development as a researcher, including protecting time for research and participating in larger projects.

It is crucial to look out for opportunities for additional funding or other awards to support your work, and groups including the American Medical Association offer abstract awards and other opportunities. Be sure to attend meetings when possible. They are opportunities to both practice presenting your research and forming collaborative relationships with those who share similar interests. Consider investing additional time to build specific skills and research including getting a master’s degree or completing relevant coursework to increase your skill set.

Other tips for medical student researchers: Having the skills to interpret research studies, including their limitations and the quality of their findings, is crucial. While peer review does provide a rigorous evaluation of the quality of published literature, there are numerous examples of times where I have read scientific studies that, in my view, overstate findings or have methodologic or other flaws limiting their applicability to the care of my patients or to my own research. It is crucial that all health care professionals have a strong skill set in research to interpret medical literature and other sources of data in caring for their patients.

In addition, I would advise that some of the initial research questions you will encounter will not necessarily be your research questions, and [it] is far better to identify a high-quality mentor who works in a field that may not be directly related to your interest versus a low-quality mentor who is doing work specifically in your area of interest. Mentorship can make or break your success in research, and I would always prioritize the better mentor not the more interesting project.