Thursday, December 11, 2014

Writing about Research

I love writing. From essays to short stories, poems to letters, the ability to effectively and efficiently communicate fascinates me. While I had done extensive creative and personal writing prior to 20.109; I had done little scientific writing. Even in my technical writing experiences, I had taken a mostly ad-hoc approach to scientific writing: reading manuscripts and trying to imitate specific techniques I enjoyed rather than really delving into the principles of scientific communication.
Before 20.109, I had written two posters, one manuscript (unpublished), and given numerous research presentations. I felt confident in my ability to present before an audience; however, I looked at technical writing with dread. Concentrating months of experiments into a clear and concise summary frightened me. Specifically, I found it difficult to find the overarching story of the research and then present each experiment and finding in the context of the overall story. In addition, I consistently became lost when explaining experimental results. Figuring out ways to address the controls and experimental cases at the right level of detail was particularly difficult.
With the module 1 report, 20.109 taught me to boil down months of research into core concepts and questions to be asked. The phrase “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.,” constantly came to mind as the staff pushed us to exclude extraneous information and always tie results back to the fundamental question the research was addressing. In this way, 20.109 taught me to both find and convey the story of research; a skill which I now deeply prize. Moreover, the “bullet-point” based nature of the module 1 report allowed me to simplify and clarify my language.
With the module 2 research article, 20.109 pushed me to analyze our results in the context of other scientific work. The module 2 research article was the first time I had thoroughly delved through related literature and compared results in order to derive conclusions beyond my experiments. I loved writing the discussion section for the module 2 research article. I thoroughly enjoyed learning how to synthesize results from multiple research articles and broaden my perspective of the scientific field. For the first time, I began understanding how each piece of scientific work contributes to the greater whole; and that vision inspired me.
Overall, I have most greatly improved my abilities to (1) see and convey the overarching story of a research paper, (2) describe results completely yet concisely, and (3) relate my experimental results to the greater body of scientific work. However, I still believe that seeing the overarching story is the greatest challenge. I usually find it relatively straightforward to interpret experimental results, but tying them together to generate a cohesive narrative that answers a question is difficult. One method I found that helped greatly was to read the entire module before starting the experimental work. I did this for Module 3, and understanding the “end product” and “end results” greatly deepened my understanding of why the initial work was critical. For future research experiences and classes, I hope to understand the full map of work and how each experiment contributes to the next as early as possible in the research process.

Overall, 20.109 helped me grow tremendously as a scientific communicator. My only suggestion is to consolidate all of the scientific writing presentations/slides/suggestions into a single place on the wiki. Currently, they are spread out across modules, and people pages, and FNW assignments. Having them in a single place would make the principles of scientific communication easier to reference for later work.

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