By Katherine Rogers
Abstracts are a crucial advertisement of your work. They attract readers to your article and attendees to your presentation!
A good abstract is:
- Targeted to the appropriate audience
- Covers all major findings
- Contextualizes the research
- Indicates why the research is exciting/novel
- ~200 words (but check publication/conference requirements!)
- Exercise 1: Find an abstract book from an old meeting (or see attached abstract book from the SDB 2020 International Meeting). Make a list of the posters you’d like to visit / presentations you’d like to attend based on the abstracts. Why did you choose them? What “caught your eye”? What was engaging about them? Why DIDN’T you choose the others? What influenced your decision to read an abstract? Did you prefer reading long or short abstracts?
- Keep your answers to these questions in mind when you write your own abstracts 🙂
- Exercise 2: Read a publication’s abstract, then explain what you think the publication is about to a labmate WITHOUT referring back to the abstract. Then read the publication and see if you were on the mark. Did they do a good job of conveying their results? Did the abstract oversell/undersell the paper?
- Exercise 3: Read a publication WITHOUT reading its abstract first. Then write an abstract for the publication and compare with the author’s version. What is different? What do you think they/you did better?
“Blah draft” to overcome blank page paralysis:
If you are having trouble getting started writing, one helpful strategy is to write a “blah draft”: Write down the ideas you want to cover informally, as though you were explaining it to a friend in a casual setting (in fact– it may also be helpful to actually explain it to a friend in a casual setting!). Do not worry about grammatical logic or jargon at this point, you just want to put the ideas on a page. This gives you some material to “play with”– does the order make sense? What else would the audience need to know to understand this project? Is there a missing concept? Once you’ve expressed the key ideas– however inelegantly– you can then go back and translate each sentence into scientific abstract language. It is often easier to edit than produce something de novo, and this strategy can help overcome blank page paralysis.
Here is ONE WAY to structure an abstract (new biology-oriented):
Brief description of general process of interest, conveying its importance and ideally awesomeness. Big question about your process of interest that you will address here (may also be presented as a model/hypothesis to test). Description of your model system that gives enough details so the reader will understand the rationale behind the your experiments; may also highlight why your system is particularly well-suited (1-2 sentences). Broad description of the approach(es) you used to tackle this question in your model system. First, we [method] and found [result], ruling out / supporting / suggesting [idea]. Next, we [method] and observed [results], ruling out / supporting / suggesting [idea]. Finally, we [method] and observed [results], ruling out / supporting / suggesting [idea]. Together, our results support a model in which [what do you think is happening based on your data? should be easy to see why you think this based on your results]. Indicate how this is different from or expands previous work, and how it affects how we should think about general process of interest.
Here is ANOTHER WAY to structure an abstract (methodology-oriented):
Brief description of general process you have developed a method to assess/manipulate, conveying its importance and ideally awesomeness. Explanation of why this process has historically been difficult to experimentally probe. Description of the ideal solution without technical details. Technical (but simple) explanation of how you propose to implement that solution. Description of how you tested whether the solution worked as expected / characterization of what it does #1. Description of how you tested whether the solution worked as expected / characterization of what it does #2. Description of how you tested whether the solution worked as expected / characterization of what it does #3. If applicable, description of how you adjusted/modified your method and how that improved/expanded its applications. If applicable, description of new biology that you uncovered using your novel tool. In summary, our novel tool [summarize what you’ve demonstrated it can do]. We expect our tool can be applied to [other model systems?] and will be useful for expanding our knowledge of [?].