Thursday, November 13, 2014

The art of reading scientific literature

I have a (terrible) habit of printing out all the papers (and lecture notes, psets, etc.) that I’m going to read since I hate reading on the screen. For Mod2 journal club and report writing, this proved to be a very motivating exercise. The papers that I read or skimmed through literally piled up to 10cm high, and as I was drafting my slides and writing up the discussion section on my research article, it felt great every time I finished a paper, put them into the “used” pile, and watch the pile grow.

The most important lesson I learned for Mod2 is in fact how to read papers. I have always been complaining about the esoteric expressions journal articles use to convey their results. There aren't many captivating sentences, and all the numbers are usually packed together in a super space-efficient manner. What usually happened before was that I didn't know what kind of information to look for when all of a sudden I was presented with too much of it.

Now that I learned how to write concisely and professionally in 109, and how to analyse a paper to present it to a group of colleagues, I realized that there is in fact a common standard of scientific communication and an inherent logic of each paragraph within an article. The Mod1 M&M assignment prepared me for not only writing my own M&M in Mod2, but also digest the very dense information presented in the published M&M sections and recreate the experimental conditions. I also learned to dissect each section of introduction, results, and discussion into a purpose statement, context, findings, and implications. This was an extremely useful tip for me to parse the technically challenging information in many papers that I read for such a new area of synthetic biology. In fact, I think I am now ready to read literature completely on my own by following these general guidelines inspired by the writing and oral presentation experience.

Of course feedback is important. Agi, Shannon, and Natalie’s office hours have been extremely helpful for me to appreciate which points are relevant from other papers, what conclusions can be drawn from our experiments, and how to put our project into the bigger context of published literature. I think the main reason why I enjoyed reading these papers is not because I understood all the technical details (in fact I don’t) but because I was able to relate the overarching themes of these papers to what I know or to one another, thanks to the great help from the instructors and from my lab partners. Reading and writing (and speaking to a lesser degree) are intimately related and I am glad that I can start to better integrate them in Mod3 and future studies.

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