Beyond the bench: The critical value of clinical experience

If you’re a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, you’ve likely heard the importance of having a 3-minute “elevator speech” describing the importance of your work. But have you been encouraged to seek some clinically relevant experience related to that work? If not, I’m telling you to do so now. And no, this is not just advice for early graduate students.

Amy Palubinsky

Studying a diseased state or process—no matter how basic science-y your research may be—solely from the bench is great, but you may be surprised by what you’re missing when you start to think about your project from the clinical side. Similarly, later-stage students may be surprised by how refreshing this clinical experience can be in terms of considering the work that has become a huge part of their life. Gaining a new perspective can jumpstart and/or rejuvenate your bench work in ways you can’t even imagine.

For some, projects revolve around understanding highly prevalent diseases, in which case we think we’ve seen things from the clinical side because “Aunt Susie has cancer or Uncle Tom has Parkinson’s disease.” And while this may be true, Aunt Susie and Uncle Tom are but individual cases among billions. The heterogeneity of the population you’re studying can be lost with such thinking, but there is someone out there treating many patients under these circumstances—seek them out!

For others, projects focus on more rare conditions. In these cases, we often feel there is little opportunity out there to actually “see” things or get involved on the clinical side. We forget or overlook the fact that while we may not be able to interact with Ebola patients, we can think about other opportunities. For example, could we still learn something from patients with blood vessel damage, often the result of hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola? If a disease state exists, there is someone out there treating it, or at least something similar—seek them out!   

To the point of seeking, I lucked out. My mentor, Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, recognized the gap between bench and bedside. She has worked tirelessly to conceptualize a program, secure donors and funding, and now direct the Vanderbilt Clinical Neuroscience Scholars Program, which provides doctoral candidates opportunities to partner with clinical mentors working in realms related to their thesis work. This program has made a major impact on my graduate career, from writing a more personal and informed first paragraph of an introduction (no more “___________ is a devastating disease, classified by the WHO as blah blah blah”), to kickstarting side projects with new collaborators, to coming up with new hypotheses, to simply reminding me why my project is so important and necessary to begin with.

And while not all (OK, barely any) graduate programs have subprograms like this readily available, if you think your studies will benefit from a new perspective, there are ways to make it happen—you just might have to think a bit outside of box. Before the Clinical Scholars Program existed, and with the help of my mentor, I found other interesting ways to gain more clinical experience, including turning my university’s independent-study credits into a self-developed course in conjunction with the Neurology department. Lastly, I’ve found that doctors, whether at a major teaching hospital or not, are often more than happy to at least let you shadow. After all, It’s not like you’re a random person who was walking by their clinic and decided to stop in. Have your CV ready, make a plan, and initiate contact. They’re likely to oblige. Because in the end, you’re seeking to help the same people they are.  

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Amy M Palubinsky

Amy Palubinsky is a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University and mom to two human children and one fur-kid. She hates mornings and therefore loves coffee.

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