Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Professor David Rovnyak on the labors of writing as a chemist

David Rovnyak, Professor of Chemistry
It’s Labor Day weekend, which I am going to celebrate by….writing.  My kids are off basking in the glow of grandparents, giving me the chance to get some manuscripts out the door.  Writing this reflection will be a little victory, and a bit of harmless procrastination to boot.

I write the way most chemists probably do.  I prepare the figures first and drop them in to a document and write. I use the figures as my outline.  No figures?  No paper.  Don’t even start.

I write the abstract first, and I completely rewrite it at the end.  Yup, it’s wasted time, but it's an aspirational statement of the paper, it gets me going, and I like to write linearly from start to finish.  The introduction is brutal: have we cited everyone? Did we show why this is exciting to us while staying formal?  How much theory do we review?  Have we crafted our little puzzle piece to advance the scientific enterprise? Next come the results, discussion and conclusion, which are the fastest and most fun to write.  We all love to talk and write about our data.  In fact, I go back to them whenever I need a lift.

I always involve students in the writing process.  Writing the introduction is a good challenge for them, or I may outline a section and have them fill it in.  They can take a stab at the abstract, and they should always be proofreading.  I am so thankful for many students over the years who are gifted proofreaders and have helped me become a better writer while they are learning the ropes of scientific writing themselves.  You know who you are.  Most satisfying of all, is that the first drafts of many figures were made by the students, and it’s a thrill for them (and me) to see their graphics in print.  

Unfortunately, the first draft is a mere shadow of the final paper, and we all know it. It has to be better for a lot of reasons, pride being one, but here's another that worries me a lot.  Every month, thousands of scientific articles appear in print and online and it’s getting worse. We desperately need an Artificial Intelligence that reads these thousands of articles and generates meta-research from them.  That day is coming, sooner than we might think.  But while we wait, I want the paper to read as well as possible, not for the eyes of some silicon life form years from now, but for all of us struggling to keep up with the state of the art.  

I've learned many of my weaknesses, and if I have any advice here, it’s to confront your weaknesses, too. I look for repetitive writing, run-on sentences, and all of the other writing sins I thought I had atoned for in the past.  It takes far more time to revise the first draft as it took to write it. 

Developing a more structured, deliberate and logical approach to writing that first draft is the area I work on the most. True, many of us hone the core-dump, stream-of-consciousness technique into a strange, but often very effective, art of scientific writing. It’s important to recognize that early, more spontaneous writing will likely need laborious revision before a draft nears completion.

And then it ends where it began: the abstract.  I know that Mom and a few specialists are the only ones to read the fine print.  But most readers rightfully expect to get a perfect summary of our hard-fought research from the 250-word-limit abstract and the now ubiquitous table-of-contents figure, a masterpiece of minimalist but information-rich graphic design that I fantasize would make even Edward Tufte blush a little.

When it is all done I make false promises like I do after Thanksgiving meals that I’ll be more disciplined next time, and we steel ourselves for the peer reviewers who will ask us to do it all over again.

When not writing, David Rovnyak enjoys attending conferences with students and meeting alumni.  Pictured, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute, from left to right: Levi Craft, B.S. Eng '17, Ed Peltzer, Ph.D., BU '72, Matthew Miele, M.S. '15, David Rovnyak.

Bio: David Rovnyak joined the Bucknell Department of Chemistry in 2003 after earning a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and performing post-doctoral study at the Harvard Medical School.  His teaching and research interests include biophysical and bioanalytical chemistry.   Students in his lab perform research in areas such as bile chemistry, protein structure, signal processing, as well as the metabolism of humans and honey bees.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Research and Writing in the Sciences, or Rob Jacob Communicates From a Glacier

Rob Jacob, Assistant Professor, Environmental Geophysics and Hydrology, Department of Geology
Writing is a chore. Writing for a geophysical audience about research to be published as a manuscript is not meant to be the fun part. Developing the idea for the research, honing your skills within new and diverse areas of science, developing equations using physical laws in order to predict an expected outcome, collecting data in spectacular locations, analyzing/interpreting the data to develop the results, and comparing the results to the expected outcome – all of this = excitement, fun, and constant enjoyment.  In order to communicate my findings with my colleagues in science, it is critical to write.  Hence, when I am in the final stages of the gratifying research process, writing begins in my head, with short notes, maybe even sentences, expressing thoughts toward the final manuscript.  The key for me is simple: 1) do not stop writing, 2) carve out 6+ hours to write, and 3) fake a deadline.  I write best when I have enough time to formulate coherent thoughts and when I’m under pressure - or at least I write under pressure.  When I’m not under pressure or have only a short amount of time, I plod along, writing quick notes and only portions of the complete manuscript, or I switch to a new project in order start the next thrill ride. 

Currently, I am on the west coast of New Zealand working on data collection during the day and data analysis/interpretation at night to examine the subsurface of an unexplored glacial feature - icy debris fan - that stores and translates material to the rapidly retreating glaciers.  In addition to this "cool" research, I am writing this blog (and giving myself a deadline of tonight), and have several other active projects in various stages of the writing process.  Several are in the late intermediate period, where data has been collected and analysed (yes, in Kiwi - and British - you spell this with a "s"), and I return to each in short (<20 min) intervals and write down notes or different ways I can rephrase aspects. I have one manuscript in final stages of publication, and the next manuscript in the queue is waiting for a solid block of dedicated time.  

In addition to my three listed tricks, I provide students who conduct research with me or are looking to improve their writing process several further suggestions: 1) write early, write often, don't delete - just make a new version until you have fleshed out the particulars, 2) READ OUT LOUD. Ideally, you do this step a couple weeks after finalizing a draft – my short term memory will insert words that aren't there if I read a draft silently or when it is too fresh in my mind.  I have to read out loud or the writing will be rubbish - or close to it.

Every form of communication is important, but the more I gain experience communicating to clients, students, colleagues, administrators, the public, and my children, the more I realize that writing is different.  Writing is expected to be polished, not abbreviated or left unclear. Eventually, as you gain experience/ voice, even your spoken words are expected to be polished. And the best way I have been able to improve my ability to speak in front of an audience (such as a class or some clients looking for an underground storage tank or sinkhole) is by improving my written communication.    

Monday, March 9, 2015

Wendy McTammany ’95 on changing careers and adapting her writing to suit new audiences and purposes

Wendy McTammany ’95, Physical Therapist Assistant at Evangelical Community Hospital
Who I am as a writer has changed over the years based on my career, but more so as a result of whom my audience is at any given time. Something that I feel I was able to grasp at Bucknell, when I was writing every day for different classes, was that clear communication is paramount. I know that this sounds a bit cold and clinical, but depending on his/her audience, a writer has to change vocabulary, structure, organization and/or format. Even the most informal writing is ineffective if your reader cannot understand what you are trying to say.

When I was at Bucknell, my English essays were far different from the short stories I wrote in my creative writing class. Not only because they were for a different purpose but also because they were for a different audience. My social science essays needed to clearly communicate in the language of that discipline. When I went to graduate school for education, I had to write lesson plans that communicated to my cooperating teacher and to the professors at school while also teaching my students. As a teacher, I had to write test questions that were clear enough to elicit intelligent responses from my students and also answer my question. I made it clear to my students that clear communication and audience focus was important to me. I responded to student complaints that their history or science teacher was asking for different formatting for essay references by reminding them that different audiences and purposes require different styles of writing, different ways of communicating. (Not that they liked that very much, but I do think most of them eventually understood what I meant.)

Communication, one can see, is the reason that we write. We write to share knowledge, to express emotion, to elicit a response from our readers.

After eight years at home and doing little more writing than emails and an occasional poem or story for a now defunct informal writing group, I went back to school to become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA). I had been out of the classroom as a teacher for eight years and out as a student for twice that. I was going to have to learn to communicate in the language of the medical professional and that was a bit intimidating. I clung to my focus on audience and purpose, and that focus helped me to tackle a technical writing class and then move on to writing daily patient notes when I got my first job out of school.

As a PTA, I write daily notes about patients that have to quickly and clearly convey information about that patient’s symptoms, progress, exercise program, pain level, etc., so that any therapist who sees that patient after me can quickly know just where that patient left off and what needs to be done to best care for him or her in the future. I may not be available for questions, so I have to be clear and, as time is a factor with appointment scheduling, concise. Again, it all comes down to clear communication.

I don’t get the opportunity to write for fun very much, but I feel that I am truly blessed to feel so confident when wading through the sea of different kinds of writing. I think that my writing experiences at Bucknell were varied and not always easy, and tackling them gave me the writing confidence that I have today. I love to craft a piece of writing with an audience in mind; it feels (at the risk of sounding too sentimental about writing) almost like creating a personalized gift for that audience. Thank you, Bucknell for giving me one more writing assignment. This is my first blog post… another new form of writing to add to my ever growing list.