By Katherine Rogers
Science is challenging; don’t make it harder than it needs to be. These guidelines are meant to avoid unnecessary frustration so we can focus on the interesting stuff.
- The goal is to test—not prove—hypotheses.
- Experiments only “fail” when they are uninterpretable. Design well-controlled experiments and believe your data.
- CONTROLS ARE FUNDAMENTAL. Not everything that makes sense is true, and not everything that is true makes sense.
- Before starting a new experiment, ask the following questions:
- What question are we trying to answer and why?
- What is the ideal experiment to answer the question?.
- What is the most informative but also feasible experiment?
- Deep-dive into the literature before starting a new experiment:
- What is the best evidence that supports/discredits the hypothesis?
- What protocols, reagents, and controls have been previously used?
- If you can find someone with relevant experience/knowledge, get their advice!
- What caveats should be considered in the experimental design?
- What problems can be anticipated and how might they be overcome?
- Include buffer time in the experimental design to account for roadblocks that are inevitable but often hard to identify a priori.
- Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
- If it’s worth doing, it’s worth recording: Keep thorough written records of every experiment, even if it was ultimately hard to interpret. You should be able to revisit the experiment 3 years later and repeat it exactly (or know to avoid trying that again). This makes methods sections much easier to write!
- Campsite rule: Leave common areas cleaner than you found them.
- If you don’t have time to clean up common areas after an experiment, you don’t have time to do the experiment.
- For every reagent we should have one open “working stock” and at least one unopened “backup stock”. If you open the backup stock or if something breaks, you are responsible for communicating to me or to Will that we need to order more. It is not a problem to order more, but it IS a problem if we don’t have what we need when it is needed!
- When you fill a common waste container (e.g., embryo bleach beakers by microscopes, Nanodrop waste container, etc.), dispose of the waste and set up a new container. When a buffer is low (e.g., 1X TAE), refill it or ask me or Will to refill it.
- Do your best to be on time for meetings, but give a heads-up as far in advance as possible if you’ll be late or need to reschedule.
- Don’t talk over each other or have whispered side conversations during lab meetings. The idea is to hear what everybody has to say (including what might be confusing), and this is impossible with simultaneous conversations.
Writing and Feedback
- Start writing earlier than you think you need to.
- Know your audience. The goal is to communicate ideas to particular people; the audience dictates how you need to communicate.
- Anticipate writing multiple drafts that sometimes incorporate dramatic changes, but only send for feedback when the draft is as good as you can possibly make it on your own.
- Feedback from junior and senior lab members is a win-win: You get many perspectives on your work, junior lab members see how the sausage gets made, and everyone hones critical thinking, writing, and editing skills.
- Send the manuscript as a Word or Google document and ask people to make changes using the “Track Changes” feature. (Don’t send as an un-editable PDF.)
- Budget 3-14 days for people to provide feedback, depending on the length of the text, and give yourself enough time to incorporate the feedback.
- The following can be a useful starting structure for many scientific writing projects (e.g. grants, fellowships, papers):
- What is the best evidence for the model?
- What evidence is contradictory, missing, or unclear?
- What else could be done to definitively test the model?
- Describe the experiment you’d like to do. Suggest different possible outcomes and explain how each would support or refute the model. (Updated 2022-03-09)
- Keep a “working copy” of the document in a central location, and maintain several backups elsewhere. Save and update backups frequently to make sure you’re covered even if your computer explodes.
- Figures for publications: Keep a “source data” folder containing ALL of the raw data you show in all graphs from all figures. The chances that you will need to re-analyze and/or re-plot this data is high, and it’s much easier when all of the data is easily found in one place.
- As with writing, start working on it earlier than you think you need to.
- Also as with writing: Know your audience. The goal is to communicate ideas to particular people; the audience dictates how you need to communicate.
- A presentation is NOT a publication. You don’t have time to show every single result and every single control like you need to in a publication. What is the main point? Get to it. If an aficionado in the audience wants more detail, they can ask– this is also a good reason to include publication references (e.g. Rogers et al., eLife, 2020). (Updated 2022-03-09)
- Use simplified terminology where possible. For example, if you use gsc as a dorsal marker, and the relevant info for that slide is that gsc marks the dorsal side, label it “dorsal marker” instead of “gsc”. The fewer genes/acronyms the audience needs to memorize, the better! (Updated 2022-03-09)
- You have to make a judgement call about when to do this– think hard about what you want to convey and what you expect the audience to know
- Imagine that you are explaining the concept to a person in front of you. What do you say? What diagrams might you draw to explain your point? That’s what goes into the presentation.
- Minimal text on the slides, better to use images to jog memories about concepts. Similarly, keep titles short (one line ideally).
- Practice it out loud yourself a few times, then practice in front of others and get their feedback. Make sure you have enough time to incorporate their feedback.
- Stay within the defined time limits! Busy people will be irked if you go over, and if you’re at a conference this will inconsiderately throw the schedule off—all presenters deserve the same amount of time, and going over eats into someone else’s.
- Save your presentation in several backup locations: Locally on your computer desktop, on a jump drive you have on your person at the presentation (e.g. on your key chain), and on a cloud-based service like Dropbox. Technical difficulties with projection systems are common, and having multiple backup options is always useful.
- Get to the location 15 min prior to the presentation time to set up and deal with technical difficulties (i.e., someone may need to find another adapter, etc.). If you are a guest and someone is escorting you to the location, however, defer to their judgement.
- Pro-tips if you are nervous about presenting!
- Think of it as an “acting challenge”. Pick a favorite authoritative fictional (or non-fictional) character and envision how they would deliver the information. I like Star Trek captains 🙂 Then try to channel them and not “break character” during your presentation.
- Before presenting, take a minute to appreciate that: 1) Your data is very cool, 2) You are genuinely excited to share it, and 3) Many audience members are genuinely interested to hear about it.
Yearly and Mid-Year Reviews
- Yearly review
- Every January we have a yearly review
- The goals are to:
- Understand what you want to do, what you have already done, what remains to be done, and how the lab can help get you there
- Get and give feedback about all aspects of working in the UDS
- Mid-year review
- Every summer we have a mid-year review, which is shorter than the yearly review
- The goal is to see how we can facilitate your research and scientific development