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Applying to medical school: what it takes to stand out from the crowd

Ting Cong in the laboratory

By Eleni Kanavas

Ting Cong always knew he wanted to study medicine. It wasn't until he was in his third year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto that his passion for science grew stronger. Last summer, he completed a four-month studentship at Sunnybrook Research Institute in the lab of Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at Sunnybrook and senior scientist in biological sciences. As a research student, Cong gained hands-on experience in the lab while working on a project that characterizes the role of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored proteins in T cell proliferation.

Now close to finishing his studies in immunology and enrolled in a fourth-year research experience course offered by U of T's immunology department, he tells Eleni Kanavas how his love for science and experience working in the lab strengthened his applications to medical schools in Canada and the U.S.

Why did you choose to study life sciences?
It was between science and engineering for me because my parents are both electrical engineers. But I thought science was really cool and medicine became one of the things that I really wanted to do. When I told my parents I wanted to study medicine, they were 100% supportive.

What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a doctor. I can't imagine myself doing anything else. Medicine has always been an interest of mine, and research is a huge part of medicine. Everything that is used in medicine came from the laboratory bench at some point in the past. Knowing that process, going from the bench to the clinic, really helps with understanding how medicine works. I guess that's why in the application process, schools love to see that students have research experience because they want students that have a foundation in the sciences, as well as practical experience.

How did you find the summer studentship at Sunnybrook Research Institute?
[Dr. Julius] was one of my professors in third year [at U of T], and the way that most undergrads look for laboratory positions is they go out and email different researchers and professors and look for projects that they are interested in. I found a placement in Michael's lab and I emailed him.

How did your experience working in the lab strengthen your application?
In the summer of my first year, I had a laboratory position in the National Research Council (NRC) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I worked in an organic chemistry lab making this plant hormone, which is even more molecular than what I am doing right now.

Although it was not directly applicable to medicine, my work at NRC likely helped my entrance into the Julius lab. Working in a lab certainly strengthens the application on its own, and the experience makes you stand out from a lot of the other students who are applying. But sometimes, as in my case, it can lead to bigger and better opportunities to make someone shine as an applicant.

Can you describe the application process to medical school?
The process of applying to medical school on its own is huge. It's extremely competitive, and to make yourself stand out you have to work really hard during the four years and find as much clinical and laboratory exposure as possible. That of course has to occur on top of maintaining good grades and doing well on the Medical College Admissions Test.

What advice do you have for other students looking for clinical and laboratory opportunities?
Don't be afraid to approach people and ask whether they would be interested in taking you on as a student in their lab. Definitely make sure that you would enjoy the project because every lab does something different. Students also have to be proactive. There are great opportunities in Toronto; you just have to get out there and find them.

In what do you want to specialize?
Almost 99.9% of medical students change their minds once they get into medical school and actually get to experience the different specialties during the clinical rotations. At the moment, I'm probably leaning toward something surgically related. I do like hands-on things. I guess the lab really helped me discover that.