An SDS Excerpt: “Writing to Understand”

Today I am thrilled to highlight a guest post from “Sabrina Does Science”, a blog started by a Vanderbilt IGP student, Sabrina Van Ravenstein, during her first year at Vandy. Sabrina decided to start her blog about the academic sciences to offer her own unique perspective as a woman in the scientific field as well as offer advice to newer or potential grad students. This is a great example post, and you should check out more of her stuff on her blog!

-by Sabrina Van Ravenstein

2nd Year IGP/Biochemistry Student, Dr. James Dewar Lab

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Ah, writing. Sometimes it feels like the bane of your existence, but like it or not writing is one of the core pillars of academic success. Most of the time, we write in order to gain something–the good grade, the grant, or the chance to present at a conference conveniently located on a European island in the middle of January.

Nevertheless there is another major way you can capitalize on the power of writing: Writing in order to understand something. The human mind is not capable of holding every piece of information–and if you don’t write down your results or the conclusions of an important paper, you are liable to forget it later. Writing your thoughts down not only reinforces your knowledge, but you may make connections between pieces of information that you wouldn’t have made otherwise.

Here are three ways that you can write for your own personal success.

  1. Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography has three parts–the citation formatted in your preferred citation style, a short paragraph summarizing the paper, and then a short paragraph connecting the paper to your project/other papers. This is something that is often not required, but over time it will accumulate into a personal library of curated knowledge. By writing this up, you will literally be teaching yourself how to analyze the literature better, and when you need to go back and utilize the information you can easily look up old research findings without rifling through an intimidating stack of paper or a million computer folders.

It might be helpful to have different annotated bibliographies for different projects/collaborations and if you are kind enough to share busy professors and students will find it incredibly useful!

  1. Digital Notebook

In all honesty, you can do this in a physical notebook as well, but having a digital write-up of some sort will help you share your data more easily with your lab. A digital notebook/write-up should have three main sections: 1) Objective/Purpose of your experiment: Why are you doing a particular experiment? What is known before, and what do you hypothesize (or hope) you will see? 2) The results: These can be images, and all relevant experimental information can be included here as well 3) Conclusion: What is the big take-away from your data? Did you answer your questions or see anything interesting–jot it down! Next steps?

Personally, I have both a digital notebook that is broken down, experiment-by-experiment, in different Word documents. In fact, each experiment has its own folder on my laptop. Then, I have a Master Excel “Index” sheet which includes a hyperlink to each numbered experiment, as well as a quick one-sentence conclusion.

You can make your own system, but trust me when I say that nowadays a digital notebook of some kind is KEY if you are a student.

  1. (Practice) Introduction and Background

This one is more situational–I will only write up an introduction/background of my own volition if I feel that I need to “catch up” in my personal understanding of a topic. The nice thing is that you don’t need to show these to anyone, so please don’t fret if it’s too short or too long in length or if your sentence structure isn’t perfect.

The more important thing here is to summarize a large body of findings in a concise and clear way while also making sure you cite things properly. If you need extra encouragement, imagine how much smoother it will make writing the Intro/Background section of a paper down the line if you do the bulk of the work now, right after having delved into the literature.

Need more help with writing? I recommend “The Craft of Research” by Booth et. al., or “How to Write a Lot” by Paul J. Silvia.

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Want more? Check out “SDS” at www.sabrinadoesscience.com/blog.

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