Writing about science for the public

Some good bits of advice for writing about science for the public, including this one:

Readers can be very clever, but it is not their job to know all of the words that you and the twelve people you call colleagues made up.

I particularly like the focus on telling a people-centered story. This is so far from the comfort zone for most researchers, but I agree that it’s essential to effectively connecting.

Evernote in the lab

EVERNOTE logoThis summer the lab is using Evernote again as an organizing tool for our work. I upgraded to a premium account on a month-by-month plan to test and see how well it would work, and so far it’s exceeding expectations. We just have a single account for all five research students, with each student maintaining their own notebook within the one account. I like this approach for a community space like a lab because I can keep each computer logged in to the one account and everything’s already there. If they each had their own account, I could imagine students accidentally saving to another user’s account if they sat down at a computer where somebody else had been working.

Each student has a slightly different approach to using it, but they all post their daily activities, experimental plans, timelines, and observations. A couple are collecting primary data in their notebooks. Some attach spreadsheet files with results. Some have uploaded images that they are analyzing. All use it to take notes on the articles they are reading.

Speaking of readings, I also created a notebook for journal articles related to all of the various projects going on. That is the main reason I upgraded, so we could upload and store many PDFs without running into the upload limit. A few of them have found articles on their own and uploaded them, but I’m mostly the one collecting the literature.

Whenever I would come across an important paper in my Papers library, I would hop over the Evernote on the web, create a new note, make an attachment, open the PDF in Finder, and drag it in — a tedious process, to say the least. This would be easier if I logged in to the lab account in the Evernote client on my Mac, but I like to stay logged in to my personal account with that.

Papers application dialog boxAs I was looking over the options in Papers, I remembered I could email notes to Evernote through a private address. I created a contact on my Mac called Lab Evernote, pasted in the private email address for the lab Evernote account, and tried it out — BOOM! it worked. I can even specify the ‘papers’ notebook by adding @papers to the subject line. The PDF becomes fully searchable, too, which makes it easier to find later.

I’ve tried lots of different tools for managing lab groups, including blogs, wikis, Dropbox, and network shared folders. I have to say, Evernote is the best tool I’ve found. I can’t think of any way to do it better.

Defining success in summer research

Yesterday marked the first day of the summer research season. One of the things I really like about my job is the cycles of the academic year: the excitement and anticipation of the new school year every fall, the sense of exhaustion just before the break, autumn on campus (you can almost picture the tweed, I know), intermission between semesters, etc. Summer research with students is one of my favorite times.

I was at the dentist yesterday morning, and he was asking what projects I was working on in the lab for the summer. I told him a few of the new directions we were heading and he commented that he hoped everything went well and that we had a successful summer. That exchange started me thinking about what defines a successful summer for me, and it may not be exactly what you would think.

Of course the highest form of success for summer research is to generate publishable data, and I make this the clear goal for the students. In an ideal world, they would work on an important question, carry out carefully controlled experiments in a systematic way, and find a clear difference between their control and experimental treatments. Although the first 3 of these factors are under their control, there is no way to know the outcome of an experiment and its significance in advance, so I try not to think of success in terms of the outcomes of experiments and whether or not they represent publishable results. If I were at a research university, I’m sure I would have a different perspective, but I’m not, and the nature of working with undergraduates doesn’t permit this definition of success.

If the publishability of the results doesn’t determine the success of a summer research experience, what does? For me, I think summer research has been successful when a student has done real research. That means they grasped a question (see below for more on this), conceived of an experiment to test a hypothesis, performed the experiment, analyzed the data, and evaluated the results in light of their original hypothesis. Sometimes (hopefully) their work forms a unit on or around which other units can be built into a paper.

‘Grasping a question’ is not to say they get free reign to choose any topic they want. In my lab, students have to focus on an area that supports the direction of the lab as a whole. I think it’s important that they own the project to some degree, but the only way to ensure the importance of their project is to limit it to something in my area of expertise.

AJB Special Issue on Tropisms

I am honored to have a paper in this month’s American Journal of Botany, a special issue focused on plant tropisms. Below is a collection of links highlighting some of the work:

Scientists join forces to bring plant movement to light:

Elementary school students often learn that plants grow toward the light. This seems straightforward, but in reality, the genes and pathways that allow plants to grow and move in response to their environment are not fully understood. Leading plant scientists explore one of the most fundamental processes in plant biology—plant movement in response to light, water, and gravity—in a January Special Issue of the American Journal of Botany.

Low Phosphate Alters Lateral Root Setpoint Angle and Gravitropism (our paper):

Lateral root orientation and gravitropism are affected by Pi status and may provide an important additional parameter for describing root responses to low Pi. The data also support the conclusion that gravitropic setpoint angle reacts to nutrient status and is under dynamic regulation.

I’ll post again on the work that went into our paper, including a breakdown of the inputs of time and talent that made this work possible. In short though, three awesome students worked many hours in the lab over the course of four years to produce these insights.

Science apps

The Mental Floss blog has an article on what I was talking about yesterday:

Scientists have started to use the abilities and prevalence of smartphones to their advantage, creating apps specifically for their studies and crowdsourcing observation and data collection. When almost everyone has an Internet connection, a camera, and a GPS unit right in their phone, almost anyone can gather, organize, and submit data to help move a study along. Here are 10 projects and apps that will turn you into a citizen scientist.

OK, so its focus is apps for phones, but it’s getting there. Many of these examples are doing things that rely on the assembly of technology to do something that couldn’t be done without it, or not as well.

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