Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Pretty sure DMEM is actually Kool-Aid and we’re all just cell chefs

Alrighty well the hardest thing for me to tackle during Module 1 had to be the hunger. The consuming, soul-ravaging, lab partner’s patience-destroying, insatiable desire for snacks. No, my hands did not shake when pipetting because of nervousness, withdrawal from fishing or other drugs, the effort of resisting the urge to belt out folk songs, or whatever other things cause most people’s hands to shake. They shook because *heart beats faster* EHS must not find out *eyes dart around nervously* I have *the voices reach fever pitch* snacks in my purse. Except not really. I don’t know what I would’ve done all those times we were working together in the evening if not for Bremy pulling out random snacks, although I’m convinced he only did so because he got fed up with me constantly being distracted by recipes on Pinterest… Hehe. Fed up. Puns. 

Picture of me reclining on a couch (if I had my life together). 
Actual picture of me. 

But in all seriousness though, the hardest part of Module 1 was probably learning how to be concise. I feel like up until now we’ve been taught the exact opposite of scientific writing. Use big words, sound fancy! If your audience has to look up a word – perfect! The mark of a successful writer is having your audience get so caught up in your rhetoric that the point of your words is almost irrelevant. But all of a sudden for us, it’s about what you write, not how you write it. No longer are we trying to leave our readers thinking “This is beautiful, these sentences are like a river of shimmering rainbow sounds in my head.” Now the goal reaction is, “Wow, this is so simple a monkey could do it! Maybe even my UROP!” Or maybe the schools I went to had weird standards for good writing. 

The rubric at least three of my K-12 teachers used. 

Besides that, it’s also what we’ve taught ourselves. Honestly, it’s weird to not really have page requirements. For years in school we’ve been told “minimum 6 pages,” and we’ve become masters at turning simple ideas, words and paragraphs into superfluous, verbose conglomerations of nouns, verbs, prepositions, articles, unnecessary restatements, and perhaps the occasional kitchen sink for good measure (or even an entire kitchen if you’re prone to getting hungry when you should be focusing on work like some of us *cough cough* me *cough* *clears throat* *pops a cough drop because yum food stuff*). Totally staying on topic, if you’re amused in the slightest by my poorly executed joking, I highly recommend this stand-up comedy clip by George Carlin on soft language. Like go watch it right now. Everything else can wait. It’s just ten minutes of your life that you could spend looking at cats. Plus it’s a great illustration of exactly what I’m talking about. And it's way better than any meme I could put between these two paragraphs. 

To be completely honest, I miss the sort of superfluous, artistic writing that we’ve gotten used to in school. But as much as it’s an art to turn sentences into beautiful flowy creations, it’s an art to condense those same sentences into neat little packets you wouldn’t be afraid to let your kid play with.  It’s like comparing an idyllic autumn picnic to a fun-size candy bar you throw in your mouth on your way to lecture.  Sure both are sustenance/writing, but one takes ten times as long to get the same amount of calories/information. Imagine how many pieces of fruit would have to be lovingly fed to you by your hypothetical partner on this hypothetical romantic picnic to elicit the same caloric guilt as a handful of Snickers bars scarfed down in the infinite.

Then again you could also bring a romantic stack of chocolate to your fruit picnic. 
That’s what makes scientific writing so hard. It’s one thing to find some berries in the forest and have a picnic, it’s another to sit down, analyze the nutrition content of everything in front of you, break it down, put it back together, leave only the essentials, and in the end turn a perfectly nice meal into Soylent. Sure it’s more efficient… But who actually likes Soylent as opposed to a fancy five course meal with confusing names no one can pronounce? Oh wait, we’re talking about scientific writing. I guess there’s something to be said for not getting buried in metaphors and language. But are citations so much better? The number of times I’ve had to reread the same sentence five times just to understand which parentheses were separating what and which parts of the sentence were actually part of the sentence… I’m pretty sure 70% of the struggle in science is training yourself to see parentheses as an invisibility cloak.

The (quick brown fox jumped over the lazy undergrad) only (because foxes are cute) way (and fish are actually puppies) to understand (you’ll need 2 eggs, a glass of milk, a frying pan, and Wite-OutÒ) a methods (novel) section (the authors would like to thank Google, their pipettes, the Academy, reviewer 3, and their mothers) (in that order).

In the end, although it’s admittedly difficult to actually sit down and start working, it’s not the writing that I found to be hardest. It was how to write, what to include. I was constantly torn between “am I leaving out necessary details” and “did I add too many unnecessary details.” It’s easy to think “well if I added that detail this one should be added too,” and it starts this snowball effect of adding more and more details until you have three pages of methods written for how you did a Western blot. Something I learned, or more accurately, am in the process of learning, is how to let go. Me being an emotional sappy mess aside, I find it hard to let go of things I’ve written in favor of making my writing more concise. Over the course of Mod 1 I found that structuring my writing before beginning helped a lot with that problem; instead of going in and proofreading for brevity post-factum, I work best outlining my main points to myself before falling down the rabbit hole that is writing. Science is like cooking. Sure, you love mayonnaise and would put it on everything if the world was an ideal place. But is it really necessary? No, you don’t need ten adjectives in the meal name; if it’s lamb call it lamb. God no you don’t need to add anise. And do you really need to inform your audience that the chicken fell on the floor during prep so you had to substitute beef but it’s all still fine voila? I have learned the answer to this is no. Unless the chicken runs out of the kitchen and informs your guests that there actually are no cows and they are eating horse. In which case, maybe you should find a journal that actually proofreads things before sending out two packages of horse meat and labelling one of them “moo.”

 Clearly, learning how to be concise in my inclusion of memes is the next step. 

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