Medical student research retrospective: James Docherty, DO

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

Medical student research retrospective: James Docherty, DO

Jan 11, 2024

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.

AMA Research Challenge

The AMA Research Challenge is the largest national, multi-specialty medical research conference for medical students and residents to showcase and present research. 

James Docherty, DO, MS, came to medical school with a research background, having completed a master’s degree program in biology. That training gave him a baseline for the work he conducted as a medical student researcher, relating to osteopathic manipulative treatment in Parkinson’s disease. Now an academic faculty member, Dr. Docherty shared the lessons he learned as a medical student researcher and how they have continued to shape his career.

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. 6. Five finalists who will present their research to an expert panel of judges, with AMA President Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, hosting. Watch as the winner of the $10,000 grand prize is announced live.

Medical student research retrospective: James Docherty, DO.

Current position: Family medicine faculty at United Health Services in Johnson City, New York.

Specialty: Family medicine.

Medical school: New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.

How I got interested in doing research: I completed a master’s in biology before attending medical school. My curiosity about science, specifically microbiology, drove me to infectious diseases. My original plan was to pursue a career in that field with a heavy emphasis on research.

My first foray into medical student research: That was over the summer between first and second year. I looked at how much pressure was used by medical students when palpating the thoracic spine of osteopathic somatic dysfunctions, and compared right- versus left-hand dominated and the pressures used with either hand.

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My signature medical student research: My main research project in medical school focused on osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) on Parkinson’s disease. I participated in many other projects involving osteopathic medicine. I wanted to pursue research that investigated the utility of OMT in various fields. The New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine has a Parkinson’s disease center and the project was underway when I started.

My research on OMT and Parkinson’s disease is the work I’m most proud of. I published the results, which showed that OMT did not have an effect on oxidative reactive species in the serum as compared to controls.  It was also the first randomized controlled trial that I worked on. I also managed the trial, which was a new experience for me.

How my research relates to my physician specialty choice: Research led me to spending an extra year in medical school pursuing a second master’s degree. I sought a career in academic medicine with an aim to further osteopathic medicine. Family medicine lent itself best to regularly using OMT.

Now that I’m practicing, it’s become clear to me that being able to read scholarly work and making determinations on the quality of the work is important in any field of medicine. Experience with research teaches you the tools needed for this.

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Medical student sitting on a stack of textbooks

How much research I conduct in my day-to-day practice: It’s variable how much time I spend on research-related work. When I was writing a manuscript for publishing, it was a couple of hours a week. As I’m just starting a new role, I haven’t started any new scholarly projects.

How medical school supported my research: I entered a one-year master’s program that gave me the structure to pursue my project with OMT and Parkinson’s.

Barriers I encountered in conducting medical school research: Time is the biggest barrier both in medical school and now. Another barrier is the capacity to do OMT research, as I’m the only person in my program who uses it regularly.

How I have identified research mentors: There was a poster day early on at my medical school during which I read various posters and was initially drawn to the project on OMT with Parkinson’s. I asked the principal investigator of the project about opportunities, which led me to many of my projects.

My mentor gave me opportunities to edit and comment on grant proposals and institutional review board (IRB) submissions. I was also able to sit in on an IRB meeting. My first mentors were in undergraduate and my first master’s. They taught me much about the scientific method and evaluating work while conducting background research.

Advice for medical students with designs on publishing: Find a small project that is nearly done. This will make it easier to get to the writing part, which is where the authors get the most recognition. Doing other work on the project may not get a name on a paper. Doing data entry and analysis is another good way of entering into the publishing world.

Other tips for medical student researchers: Find a project that interests you. One needs to be driven to finish a project and the best way to ensure that is finding a study you are passionate about. Learn statistics. Not too many people love it, so if you’re able to understand it, everyone will want you on their project. I was asked to join at least three other projects because of my ability to run statistical tests and organize data sets.

Advance your research