What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done. Continue reading “What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

Communicating science: simple language for complex ideas

For those who don’t know, the Rutgers graduate school (through Project AGER) regularly offers a variety of outstanding workshops on professional development for grad students.  I recently attended one on science communication.  The workshop was run by Sangya Varma, of the Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program and an alumna of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (In his post-M*A*S*H career, Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for many years and has been a vocal advocate for popularizing science.)  The center at Stony Brook offers multiple courses, a master’s program, and various workshops to train scientists to better communicate their work with different audiences.  It’s a fascinating and one-of-a-kind place, and I for one would love to take part in some of their activities.

The two-hour workshops at Rutgers provide a small sample of what the center at Stony Brook offers.  After highlighting the basic motivation for scientists to cultivate communication skills and some general principles of how to convey complex ideas in simple ways, we embarked on exercises of “translating” our own research into accessible language.  We also chose from a list of specific audiences (e.g., a family member, a group of investors, a newspaper reporter, etc.) and spontaneously tried to present our research to that audience.

This last activity really hit home for me, since a few months ago I participated in an interview with members of my group about our research for The Daily Targum.  Neither we nor the reporter had much experience with this, and while the resulting article was a nice plug, I was rather dissatisfied with it.  We ended up saying very little in the interview about our specific research activities, instead being sidetracked on general issues about the state of the field.  I also realized how terrible the spontaneous things we say aloud look when put into print.  I learned that one really has to prepare for these things: you have little control over what the reporter will pick to include in the final article from whatever you said in the interview, so you have to give them a very polished set of statements (pretty much at the level of sound bites, which is what they will end up using) that you won’t regret having in print.  Speaking off the cuff makes it too easy to say something careless, incoherent, or just plain silly.

This previous experience and the workshop (plus all those times I felt dissatisfied after trying to explain my work to friends and family) have inspired me to take a more deliberate approach in the future for communicating my science.  I’m starting with a list of audiences that I may likely interact with, based on my research and career interests:

  • Family members and friends
  • Basic life scientists outside of my specific subfield (e.g., molecular biologists)
  • Physicists outside of my subfield (e.g., condensed matter physicists)
  • Biomedical scientists (e.g., cancer biologists)
  • Biotechnology scientists and entrepreneurs
  • Science news media (e.g., Scientific American)
  • Mainstream news media (e.g., NY Times, Rutgers Today)
  • Program officers and review panels at funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, private foundations)

My goal is to prepare short descriptions of my work customized for each of these audiences.  Most of us have at least partially done this implicitly — say, by writing applications to different funding sources or concocting one spiel about your work for your parents and another spiel for your grad student friends.  But I think a more systematic approach is a good future goal.  Even a list of important points or key words to emphasize for each audience is probably helpful; for most of us, we will definitely emphasize slightly different points or use different words for distinct audiences.  For me, I would likely emphasize the “coolness” and basic science relevance of my work when speaking to my friends or peers in science (especially from physics), while to an audience of biotech people I would definitely emphasize future potential applications.

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done.

As many commentators have previously complained, standard labs teach students that doing science means following a recipe (e.g., the instructions from your lab book), and there is a “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it. (Of course, the “right” way results in data that agrees with the hypothesis.) Practicing scientists know that actual science looks nothing like this. You rarely start with a clearly-defined hypothesis and straightforward experiment to test it. Instead you usually just have some vague idea you want to investigate, and then you do some calculations, perform some experiments, whatever you can think of, but with no guarantee they will work or solve your problem. And often you end up addressing a problem different from the original one you were trying to solve (see my post about this here).

But I contend the lab report fails to teach another important aspect of science: how to craft a persuasive, evidence-based narrative. Real scientists almost never write anything that looks like a lab report. A lab report is, well, just a report: rigid, sterile, lacking any point of view. Reports are what police officers write after they investigate a crime. Scientists write papers for scholarly journals. And scientific papers, in my opinion, are much more like the literary analyses I used to write for humanities classes. They’re persuasive. They have a point of view. You start off with a thesis, which can be pretty specific and quantitative (“My model in equation 1 describes the data well”) or broad and qualitative (“Protein folding stability is the main determinant of protein evolution”). But just like in literary analysis, you’re advancing a point of view, and your job is to convince the reader that it’s valid. To support the thesis you build a narrative based on evidence — in literary analysis, this may be quotations from the work being analyzed or historical facts about the author, while in science the evidence is experimental data and calculations. One professor I had in college described scientists as “lawyers for the natural world.” Your paper describes your case. You are trying to make a persuasive case about some phenomenon in nature, convincing the readers (the jury) that your thesis is correct.

The cold, rigid nature of the lab report pretty much kills this aspect of doing science. To students the lab report mainly serves as proof that they did the experiment “correctly,” and any discussion of the data is perfunctory and merely reiterates what they think is obvious, that the data agrees with the hypothesis. We need to break free from the rigid structure of the lab report and allow students to see their write-ups as opportunities to craft convincing narratives in support of a (scientific) point of view, supported by evidence. We should select topics that allow students to form a non-obvious point of view that must be carefully justified with data and argument, rather than giving them experiments where the outcome is obvious and the data is self-evident. Not only would this teach a much richer and more accurate version of science, but it reveals a major place of harmony for the sciences and humanities: how to use evidence and logical argument to support an idea through writing.

Towards Clarity

I recently presented a paper at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Southeast Colloquium held at the University of South Florida, Tampa.  It is fairly typical within my discipline of media studies to project slides to illustrate various points of your paper rather than reading directly from the paper itself.  I find this method much more engaging as a presenter and as an audience member, but after this conference I realized this kind of presentation forces something else in my work, namely better organization.  I now know how to improve the structure of my paper after doing the work of deciding how and what to present.  Some aspects must be cut for time.  I will leave these nuggets in the paper itself, but the process of presentation hones my approach resulting in (fingers crossed) more clarity and perhaps publication.  I tell myself that I have 20 minutes or less to tell a story.  I guess I work much better under pressure.  I have decided that come the first or second draft of any given paper, I am going to go through the process of presentation even if I am not presenting it to an audience–right down to making the slides.

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Here I am presenting my work in the standard hotel ballroom. My kingdom for better lighting. The carpet is a lost cause.

The conference also reminded me of the value of feedback for the paper itself.  A questioner from the audience asked me how I defined diversity.  I confidently gave a two-pronged answer.  No problem!  Hit me with more!  But of course, the problem was that the question should have been unnecessary.  I am grateful for the question because I realized an opportunity or perhaps a demand to be explicit about a key term in my presentation, but most important in my paper.  Defining terms is one of those obvious academic priorities that countless professors rant about, right up there with “read the <expletive> syllabus,” but when we get too close to our work slippage occurs; the obvious becomes obscured.  Academic conferences, at their best, offer paths to clarity.  The Florida weather in February did not hurt either.