Friday, May 15, 2015

How to trick yourself into thinking you’re writing the module report

I would like to share with you an amazing strategy I have had the pleasure of discovering via 20.109 this semester.

You see, through tireless effort, countless attempts, and endless hours dedicated to grinding out reports for this course, I have finally discovered the most optimal procrastination technique. It is so effective, in fact, that at times it will irrefutably convince you that it is not procrastination, but work of the utmost and immediate importance. It may seem difficult to implement at first glance, but believe me, once you train yourself to stop the urge to write your results down and get the report over with, you will find this technique very easy to master and even quite enjoyable. In the end, you might figure that is it too overwhelming or unnecessary to actually write the report anyway, and your problem is solved!

Curious? There are two key steps to for this process to work.

1. Read all of the related literature. ALL of it. Read it in depth and pay attention to all the details. Follow the tangentially-related references and whatever you do, don’t stop reading until you have learned the complete history and entire current state of the field.

Figure 1: Schematic demonstrating the process from a more relatable starting point. However, this is biological engineering research, so I recommend you begin the voyage from PubMed, or at least google scholar. (Xkcd 2007).

     I know, it sounds quite challenging at first. After all, you might just read a few papers and feel like you have a pretty good understanding of what is going on in general and how it fits into the experiments you did in class. DO NOT LET THIS FEELING FOOL YOU. I repeat, you have not learned enough yet. For example, you have to understand that it’s important to read beyond just all of the literature on “Ku80 related NHEJ-repair in CHO cells,” which is probably under 10 papers anyway. Have you at least learned everything on Ku80? Do you understand its crystal structure? What--you didn’t know the crystal structure was elucidated in 2001? How are you to possibly understand the molecular mechanism by which it resects double stranded DNA breaks? Aren’t you curious about the differential repair results of your specific cut topology? I mean it’s your precious, darling, unique break-site architecture for crying out loud! Once you sufficiently feel like you understand enzyme-DNA dynamics, you can move onto exploring the all of DNA repair, or at least homologous repair which you can frequently mentally compare. Don’t forget to really explore all the sub-branches, mechanisms, and implications. It’s also really important that you don’t have a system for organizing all the useful portions of the literature that you read—downloading entire pdfs and dumping them into a folder or bookmarking the tab (try to keep switching it up for fun) should work fine. If there’s anything you don’t understand, a method or a term, immediately open a new tab (Figure 1) and learn about that until your computer overheats or the deadline for the report has passed.

Take home message: Don’t feel limited in your exploration! Remember, the point of your MIT education is to learn as much as possible.

2. Make all of your figures before you write anything. Then continuously remake them. Generate many types of visuals from the same data set. Keep changing them as you find little errors or large mistakes in reasoning. This is the fun part, so give yourself every excuse to keep working on them.

       Ok, now that you have sharpened your critical reading skills, it’s time to move on to the artsy design skills you’ve dreamed of developing ever since you first used Microsoft paint in second grade. In fact, for nostalgia or for lack of more complex software, you should probably do all your figures in Microsoft paint. Sure you can plan them out in PowerPoint or Illustrator, but make sure to always drift back to Paint for any finishing touches. See how fun it is to manipulate each pixel? There is such a joy in eyeballing where things should be without those pesky guidelines always snapping and giving away the alignment solution! Make sure to spend a lot of time on font, text size, color palette, and especially about positioning the images into your report. This last step is particularly key because you have no idea how the text in your report is going to ultimately look like, so you might as well define it with images first. The text will then easily follow into the spaces you’ve confined. After all, if your report doesn’t look publication quality then how can it possibly contain useful information? So definitely make sure that the figures, and not the text, carry your research. This is also where many versions of the same image come in—if it doesn’t look “nice” then have you tried changing the significance threshold so your error bars are smaller? You might as well take off the bottom error bars that annoyingly cross the axis anyway, since your audience is scientifically literate and understands that the range is symmetrical. Also, try to log transform your data and otherwise deviate from any “overly-simple” representation to really show that you are a researcher concerned with presenting compelling and clear visual results. Oh god wait—is that a formatting inconsistency? Remake them and watch as they grow more beautiful and more plentiful! Hopefully someday research can progress where readers can follow the images and just read between the lines, you know? Then you don’t have to explain anything; just look at the graph people! After you’ve exhausted all possible data files and their representations, you should contemplate picking up the hobby as a children’s picture book author, which is perfectly suited for your visually-dominating, textually-minimalistic approach.

      Congratulations! After these steps you should have a lot more files on your computer than when you started! Wow, you really have done so much work on this report; you temporarily know everything ever and just look at all those figures!! In fact, at this point you should feel pretty finished, since the remainder of the report is just filling in the words—trivial.  In fact, it probably feels pointless to detail your results now anyway since you’ve realized it’s all mostly been done before, more carefully and much more impressively.

      So you should probably just go take a nap, since it took a lot of effort and time to truly master the most productive procrastination approach to large writing projects. You only lose 1/3 of a grade for late work, so I encourage you to continue implementing this process after the initial due date. Good luck! 

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