Communication as an Art Form

Performing research is only one aspect of being a scientist. Science is a communal discipline built upon sharing knowledge. As such, a scientist must be able to communicate his or her work. Unfortunately, a large portion of the scientific community has only been educated on the technical side of its discipline. I came to this conclusion after reading countless research papers this summer. The goal of technical writing is to convey information. A writer should focus on making his or her statements clear and concise with minimal jargon. A large component of the MARC program is practicing communication. Attending the MARC program has allowed me to hon my communication skills by giving PowerPoint presentations and attending writing courses. As I write this blog I am reminded of Craig Cotich’s writing courses. He has turned writing into an art form. I personally enjoyed his discussion on writing for emphasis and coherence. Did you know the end of the sentence is the position of emphasis? Really important words should be moved to the right of a sentence. Did you know sentences should not stand alone but complement each other? Writers should end a sentence with content they will begin the next sentence with. These examples are only a few small reminders of the writing techniques that I have learned and will employ in future publications. When I publish a paper, an intern just starting his or her research career will take comfort in being able to understand what I convey.

PowerPoints! I have become very accustomed to giving PowerPoint presentations. One disclaimer if you are planning on an internship through CSEP: you will get an ample amount of criticism, and that’s a good thing. Part of the experience is learning how to take criticism. Don’t take criticism as an insult. In fact, take criticism with gratitude and willingness. The critiques are going to make your presentation stronger and clearer. At each presentation, I bring a notebook to write down each critique and any comments that will help me improve my presentation. As I write this blog, I am also drafting my final PowerPoint presentation and I am reminded of Scott Shell’s engineering a successful talk presentation. Did you know people only retain about 5% of what is lectured to them? This is why slide design and presentation is so important. Slides should maximize the information to ink ration by using diagrams, graphs, and pictures. Even with perfect slides and lecturing to go with it, your audience will only retain 20% of the content if they are focused. To optimize the audience’s retention Dr. Shell provided us with tips such as demonstrations and having the audience participate. These techniques can increase retention up to 75%. We even got into “professional” tips. For example, if you have seen Steve Jobs give a presentation, he used slides with black backgrounds. He was able to pull it off because of how captivating he was. I am not Steve Jobs. I use white for my slides’ background so that I fill the room with light to keep the audience awake. Maybe if I become as captivating and iconic as Steve Jobs, I can use dark backgrounds. Until then, I’ll stick to white.

An internship through CSEP is a great learning experience in all aspects. The aspect I elaborated on in this blog was communication through writing and presenting, however there are many more such as elevator pitches and posters presentations. Aside from developing communication skills, the research is the largest aspect of the program and I could write another blog on only the research. If you are thinking about an internship through CSEP, I highly recommend it. Good luck, I have to go work on my slides and research abstract now. On your MARC, get set, go!

“Can You Repeat That?”

“Can you repeat that?” is what I’ve been asking my mentor for the past three weeks. It is amazing how much I don’t know. This realization has come to me after beginning to work in a genetics lab within the chemical engineering department this summer. On multiple occasions, my chemical engineering professors have claimed chemical engineers are highly suited for nearly any position in stem because of our extremely versatile and rigorous curriculum. While I still believe this claim has merit, I think it is up for review with me as the case study. There is one aspect from the curriculum that I adhere to every day as an intern. That is: know it now, and know it alone. Prior to joining Professor Dey’s lab, I had basic knowledge of genetic processes acquired from obtaining an associate’s degree in biology. This knowledge served to stimulate my interests in the field, however it was far from sufficient to allow me intricate understanding of the methods used by professor Dey and his lab. I had a lot to learn, and I still do. For the past three weeks, I have worked on learning genetic processes, cellular processes, two new programming languages, DNA sequencing techniques, Dr. Dey’s novel technique for detecting double stranded DNA breaks (stay tuned for publications), DNA repair mechanisms, and much much more.

Starting out is the hardest part. The first week was the roughest because I needed to build a foundation of knowledge on which to build upon. Research is acquiring knowledge that has not yet been discovered. This aspect of research makes it quite exciting, but also difficult when starting out. It is difficult because previous knowledge in the field must be completely mastered so that previous knowledge can be applied to acquire new knowledge. This means countless hours reading papers published by scientists currently and previously in the field. I am new to regularly reading scientific papers and I have been previously spoiled by clearly written and edited textbooks. Every week I read at least three papers and provide summaries and insights that would help our research. While reading a paper, it is important to write down unknown words and obtain knowledge on them. The first paper I completed took me a few days. This is because every sentence had concepts and terminology I was unfamiliar with. It was a game of google searches and asking for help from my mentor.

These past few weeks I have learned how important networking is. The term networking seems like an artificial term which is why I think of networking as the human connection. It’s important to have the favor of people so they are willing to help. For example, I am in a new lab that is just starting out. We have limited funds and our lab is not set up yet. The graduate student, with the office next to ours, is working in a field similar to ours. He comes into our office regularly to store his food in the fridge and we would talk to him. One conversation we mentioned culturing cells in a pay per hour lab on campus. This graduate student has a cell culture station in his lab that is rarely used and he offered to let us use it, free of charge. This connection will allow my lab to conserve its resources and maybe offer collaboration between labs.

My research experience has just begun and I have a long way to go. If I can offer any advice to incoming researchers, it would be to humble yourself to learning. Starting out is rough and daunting, but perseverance rewards personal elevation and passion. An undergraduate curriculum is a passive experience; however, research requires one to take action. On your MARC, get set, go!