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I am a recent graduate of biochemistry from the University of Maryland, College Park and am currently working as a postbaccalaureate fellow at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.

For context, I work in a group studying rare inborn errors of metabolism. Our lab is transitionally oriented as we are working on the development of animal models of the disease and gene therapy.

I pursued research in a rare disease group as I am a patient of a rare congenital skin condition. I am currently enrolled in a study which is working to defined the molecular characteristics of my disease (outside of the NIH).

I would like to remain translationally oriented in my graduate pursuits. My proposal in its basic description would be to develop an animal model for my skin condition and pursue gene therapy or gene editing to correct its manifestations. This area of research (gene therapy in dermatopathology) in general is relatively underrepresented in the scientific literature (does this make my proposal stronger?). If anybody would like any more information I can absolutely elaborate.

I will be applying to graduate programs next year. How should I approach investigators (relevant to the described field) with a research proposal such as the one above before and or during applying? I would appreciate hearing your perspectives!

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Graduate programs in the United States (since that is all I know) will typically have a letter you write as part of your application. It is there where you identify an area or areas you are interested in working in. My program in particular requested that I speak to this in the written letter AND identify a few professors and areas of research I want to pursue in explicit fields in my application.

Besides doing the above, you have a few options that all center around getting feedback on your proposal, which I cannot stress enough. I've lost count of the number of times I thought I had an excellent proposal or idea, when in actuality it wasn't all that great; however, having a kernel of an idea gives others a starting point to help guide you into a better direction. One option is to discuss this with your supervisor at NIH and see if there is any potential for you to either present work similar to your proposal or attend a conference to network and speak with people that work in this area. Knowing which conferences to attend could be based on your supervisor's opinion or you can find labs or people working in your field and see where they usually publish.

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Good mentors want to know two things (1) what you bring to the lab; and (2) what you want to extend in the lab.

  1. For example, are you familiar with the techniques their group uses? While a PhD is a training opportunity, a well-qualified PhD student who already knows a lot of stuff is going to be more attractive than one who will need a year or more to catch up. That said, the second type of student can and is accepted with strong argumentation on their end. Secondly, labs are collaborative. Can you teach the lab new things?

  2. This one sounds like the sub-part of (1), but think about it scientifically. A PI doesn't need (necessarily) a student to do something someone's already working on. With their guidance, what new directions will you go on? How can they help you achieve them? Show that you can do that.

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