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)”

A few things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference

As conference season approaches, I always have mixed feelings about going. I feel like I’m going to be missing a lot of work time and giving a big presentation can definitely be daunting. Honestly, however, attending conferences and presenting my work have been some of the most important factors in shaping my research.  After chatting with other conference goers and getting feedback on my talk, I came back from a conference last fall with an entirely new game plan for tackling my next research phase. There’s a couple of great previous posts on why to attend conferences and how to get the most out of going to conferences. Here’s my two cents on some things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference:

  1. There’s going to be A LOT of talks and posters to see: choose wisely, make a schedule. One of the first things you should do is open up the abstract booklet with the conference schedule (or download the online version). Make notes of which talks/posters to see and have a schedule for where to be and when.
  2. Go to some talks outside of your expertise. Find something that genuinely piques your interest. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn from seeing how work is done outside of your personal research bubble.
  3. Bring business cards. Check out Rutgers Visual Identity website for a downloadable template for designing business cards. I got 250 cards printed at Kinko’s for cheap and they look good.
  4. Have an elevator speech ready for explaining your research. One of the most common ice breakers when you meet people is, “So what do you do?” Be ready to concisely explain what you do and why it’s important at the level of an educated person who has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t use jargon. Make it quick; up to 30 seconds is fine and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.
  5. Dress nicely. Talk with people who’ve attended the conference before and ask about recommended attire. If in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to directly email the conference organizers. Always air on the side of dressing up than dressing down. You want to make a good impression – you’re probably presenting yourself and your work to almost everyone in your field.
  6. Make a summary of your conference experience. After you return home, go through the notes you took during talks and type them up. Reference the papers you meant to look up. Organize the business cards you got and follow-up with people you said you’d contact. Talk to your adviser about your experience and compare notes with any other fellow students who attended too.
  7. Try to see the city a little bit. You’re there to go to a conference, but why not plan ahead to see some sites while you’re there during break times? There’s typically group dinners organized at local restaurants, like for a school’s alumni or hosted by a sponsor company – check with your adviser on which ones they recommend you seek out. Maybe you could even extend the trip through the next weekend and do some touring!

March Mad-Scientist

It’s probably been too long since I wrote when I have trouble remembering my password to submit this post. There have been times during grad school when I could easily blame laziness as an excuse, but the past four weeks have been the most taxing and stressful of my academic career: finalizing my dissertation.

So here I am, writing this, in my possession a fully revised and edited document containing over 31,000 words thinking that while my defense is still ahead of me, do I feel much different than I did before sending my final draft to my committee? Okay, bad example, that e-mail had so many emotions tangled together before hitting that Send button.  Let’s go back an hour earlier to when I packaged my Word document into a .pdf and finally had time to exhale. Breath in……and…..out.

I was surprised at how little I felt. Now, maybe this isn’t the case for other people, but I had this preconceived notion that finishing your dissertation should feel like this monumental moment in your life, the culmination of 4+ years potentially ending in you never being labeled a “student” again.  That all those sleepless nights or worse, nights you slept and dreamt about your dissertation, were going to stand for something and you’d have this sense of pride and accomplishment. For me, nothing.

Through the process of writing, editing, yelling obscenities at Microsoft Word, editing, fixing graphs in Excel, and (still more) editing, I started to see places in my results that opened up not holes, but passages for future and additional work that could show critical information. Information that would allow our whole research group to make stronger conclusions about our respective individual projects and potentially what they could mean for the scientific community. So, despite not feeling any changes, those thoughts made me realize one thing. It was time for me to go and maybe that was THE difference.

3D Printing at Rutgers

Since I am going to be using 3D printing as part of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for places to print at Rutgers for quite some time. If you’re also interested to do some 3D printing for your research, or you just want to 3D print something for fun, then I have come across a number of options that might be useful for you. I’m sure there might be even more locations available. So, if you happen to know of any other locations that allow for open use of printers, please let me know.

  1. Douglass Library, Fordham Commons area Fablab, Douglass Campus: on the ground level of the library are two MakerBot Replicator 2’s and computers with design software. You can schedule an appointment to print your project and to get pricing estimates.
  2. Rutgers Makerspace, 35 Berrue Circle, Livingston Campus: MakerBot Replicators and other fun items, like a pool table, are available here. The Makerspace normally has regular drop in hours for printing or just hanging out. The space is run by Rick Andersen who has lots of experience in computers and electronics including web design, Arduino and soldering.
  3. Rutgers Mechanical Engineering Dept., Busch Campus: the department has a few options available for Rutgers affiliates to use, including a Stratasys Objet350 Connex and Stratasys uPrint SE. The contact person for setting up an appointment to get your projects printed and for pricing is John Petrowski (petrows@rci.rutgers.edu).
  4. FUBAR Labs, Highland Park, NJ: Fair Use Building and Research (FUBAR) Labs is a nonprofit that provides a local spot for people with common interests, usually in science and technology, to meet and collaborate. It’s an open community offering classes, workshops, study groups, and long term project collaboration. You can join as a member for 24/7 use of the space, or you can drop by for one of their events to check them out.

“Sabbaticals” for graduate students

Dynamic Ecology is a fantastic blog (written by a small group of contributors) on various topics in academic research and careers, especially in evolution and ecology.  They just featured a provocative new post advancing the idea of taking a “graduate student sabbatical” — when a grad student spends a long period of time somewhere outside of his/her home institution — to achieve research goals (e.g., forming a new collaboration, facilitating field work) or to accommodate family needs (e.g., a significant other with a job elsewhere).  Usually we only think of sabbaticals for faculty members, but grad students often do similar things all the time, even if we typically don’t call them sabbaticals.  It’s a fascinating angle, I recommend checking it out!

Conferences in Mathematics

Attending conferences is an important part of academic work. Conferences help us share our research with one another, find new collaborators and research topics, and keep up to date on our fields of interest.

I recently attended a bi-annual conference hosted by Integers (The Electronic Journal of Combinatorial Number Theory). I should say that my travel was generously supported by the conference organizers (i.e. the journal, via the NSF I believe) and my department & advisor, although I should say that one part of the conference experience is waiting with bated breath to get reimbursement forms processed. The government shutdown doesn’t help with that long wait either.

Rather than talk about the math, which isn’t really the point of this blog, I wanted to share some of the peripherals — the details of the conference, its format, what the experience is like. I have heard stories from other fields of study, and conferences seem to be very different from place to (figurative) place.

The departure is usually a bit of a rush of packing and preparing slides for presentations. Beamer (or equivalent) have become the de facto presentation method at math conferences, having (somewhat recently…) displaced the long-reigning overhead projector. After a day of travel, including a bit of a drive to Carrollton GA (home of UWG), I got some sleep before the first long day of presentations. I don’t travel much, and it is certainly stressful and tiring, but in the end I do enjoy it, especially driving.

Conference presentations are usually split into short (20 min) and long (50 min) talks, the later being given by specially designated (invited, plenary, keynote etc.) speakers of the conference. Most talks aim to communicate some new results, ideas, or insights into some type of research, and even for a specialized conference, there is a great deal of diversity in the subject matter. Some speakers speak to the general conference audience, while others speak to the very best experts in their slice of the research world. Many of the most interesting talks, to me at least, don’t probe into the depth of the subject, but give a gentle introduction or overview, and then outline or sketch the major new results or ideas. I’m more of a breadth-first guy.

The conference lasts for several days, as many conferences do, with talks back-to-back from about 9 to 5 every day. There are breaks for meals and coffee, and many conversations — professional and social — branch out from the main group during and after the sessions. Conferences are a great way to meet, re-meet, or quasi-meet people. I re-met Brian Hopkins, who has done some work related to my talk, and Bruce Landman, who has also worked in a related area (and is one of the conference organizers). Both of them (and several other audience members) had interesting questions and comments following my talk — one of the best parts of a conference is getting insightful feedback from colleagues. But I also met a few people more socially. I had a short chat about hockey with Cam Stewart after overhearing him talking about the sport, and sat at a table during the conference banquet with Steve Butler, Mel Nathanson, and Neil Hindman. Mel proposed an interesting problem at the conference that provided stimulating discussion and that I’ve found to be an interesting diversion even after the conference ended.

I also met other grad students like myself, many from closer to UWG (from schools like UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.), including Kate Thompson, whose advisor Jon Hanke  spoke here at Rutgers (by coincidence) only a few weeks after the conference (he was not at the conference). Making acquaintances can be quite beneficial — in this case, Kate and Jon know quite a bit about quadratic forms, which is something that is at least tangentially related to some long-term research ideas I’ve kicked around for a little while (but quadratic forms, on the whole, is a foreign subject to me). One day, if it comes up, I know somebody I can email if I stumble across questions or ideas I can’t wrap my head around.

Conferences in other fields can (apparently) be very different — my friends in the humanities tell me that conferences sometimes (often? always?) consist of reading papers aloud and asking prepared questions, while I have seen that some (many? most?) scientific conferences revolve around poster sessions and other such media. But for us in math, at least in my experience, it is a long sequence of presentations aimed (usually) at general information for the research-level audience, describing research ideas and perspectives and leaving technical details for the published page. I like this format, especially because it promotes dialog, discussion, and feedback — and helps people like me reach out a bit and meet others with similar interests and ideas in mathematics.

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.