Monday, September 18, 2006

LESSONS FROM RESEARCH 1

As they say about fine wines, you can never know what the experience of drinking them is until you actually take a sip. I may know all their chemistry, have a smokin knowledge about the detailed geography of all the wines in the world, and read and assimilate a hundred texts on wine composition and flavour. But me the non-winer still won't know what it is that inspired Vino Vita Veritas until I let the spirits flow down my throat and prance around in my bloodstream.

And so it is for research. All the books that you can read about Newton, Darwin, telescopes, DNA and nuclear fission won't prepare you for research. I am not implying that that means research is something for the chosen few, only that just like for other endeavors, you won't ever really know what details really matter until you do it. For some reason, all the books that I read about science never told me about the gory details involved and for a good reason, because that may have scared the wits out of my already feeble mind. But now that I am here, I have learnt a few things that they did not mention in the books. These matter now because they are so trivial that they actually turn out to be important. So here are a few humble words from an almost broken spirit (not the liquid one, again).

1. It's the simple things that matter:
Of course we knew this. It's so simple, isn't it? That's precisely why it is forgotten. More than once have I had the entire plan for a project or calculation well organised in my mind, ticked all the assumptions, requirements, and protocols in my head, and then begun the calculation or experiment, when I realise that I have forgotten to do the simplest possible thing- note down a value, check/uncheck some box, or used the wrong unit in adding two numbers. While that makes me want to tear my hair out, it's also a sober reminder of how there is great beauty in simplicity as Einstein said, or in this case, great frustration.

2. Physical and mental presence in the lab is not an option:
The bad thing about drudgery is that it's boring. The good thing is that you can mechanically do it like a robot, without really thinking about it. The bad thing about the good thing is that you may end up doing the wrong thing. Case in point; I was delighted that my results for one molecule were looking exactly the same as those for another molecule, a desired objective. But then I began to wonder...the results look exactly the same. No wonder! I was actually looking at the same molecule in both cases. Oranges will certainly turn out to be apples, if what you are looking at are apples in the first place. Another three hours consigned to glare from the monitor. Sometimes, with enough practice, you can actually get away with doing tedious, routine work in a zombie like manner. But it's hard work becoming a zombie. Well known axiom to this principle- always ntuple (the nth power of double) check your results if they look too good to be true. I don't want to become another Bengu Sezen, albeit a dramatically less attractive non-Middle Eastern one.

3. Write it down:
Another simple piece of advice, often avoided because of the time lag between writing speed and thinking speed. But actually, it turns out to be refreshingly easy to simply state in plain English what you have found (or not found). I could summarize last two month's work in two pages today (And no, I won't answer your question about how much work I actually accomplished in two months). I am notoriously prone to not accurately documenting my work regularly. But now I have found out that not only is it going to save me a nightmare later, but also that it's actually not too difficult. The language in such summaries need not be technical, although it helps to formulate accurate statements that would give you practice in writing scientific papers.

4. Common sense really is uncommon. No, really. No, really:
And somehow, I always find myself on the receiving end of this statement. However, more often than not, such a lapse in common sense is simply because you (actually me) are too eager and enthusiastic to obtain results, run your protocol, or make your point. The yet one more simple remedy for this: Surveillance should precede saltation (Or Look Before You Leap)

More to come soon, since I will keep on making mistakes.

12 Comments:

Blogger The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

nice! I've been building a list like this in my head too.
Regarding #3, after going through the trauma of writing my first paper, I have started maintaining a diary every night of what i did that day (a suggestion i got on my blog!). it's cathartic, helps me catch mistakes early on, and is of great help in putting together manuscript 2. I don't leave lab without writing it now.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Ahh... really refreshing! And thanks a lot: just starting on my own grad career myself. I guess these should be handy :)

9:08 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Ipanema: Admirable. I don't think I will ever manage to do that!

Sudipta: Yes, and send me yours when you discover them (if I have not already that is!)

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one! I finished grad school a little while ago but I still remember the pains. :)

2:05 PM  
Blogger The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

It's like blogging. really. gets addictive after a while. try it!

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's one thing you must give to Bill Bryson - he does describe the tedium of research / lab work in the Short History.

I guess it was impatience with many of these requirements (without explicitly realising it) that made me not opt for the pure sciences.

BTW, have you watched Madhur Bhandarkar's 'Corporate'?

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Testing 123
(Till last week, it wouldn't let me comment logged on to blogger beta).

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It worked!

Praise the Lord! Hallelujah! It's a miracle brought on by your 1$ Bible Sale! Did you find the Latin Vulgate?

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright, now I could check blogger help - but its easier to ask.

Does blogger / blogspot have features like 'favourite' blogs folder and some indication when one of those blogs is updated? (Like the favs and updated lists on bloop?)

8:17 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I think it does but the technoschmuck does not know how to activate it.
What was the deal about bloop beta at. al.? Why couldn't you comment earlier?

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am exprimenting with jot.com to create a person Wiki. This way I (and my advisor) can access my research log from any place. Its been just a few days, hopefully it will continue being useful.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not bloop beta, blogger beta. I could not sign-in and leave comments on a regular blogger after upgrading to blogger beta. Damn irritating.

It is weird, I don't know which one of my favourite blogspots have written new entries till I go and visit them. Bloop's 'fav' list shows 'updated' diaries so I can check those.

Also, does blogspot have a mechanism whereby I can view all the comments left for me in one view?

BTW, have created an artharaja.blogspot.com as well. My 'review' on Argumentative India is still WIP - have you gotten a chance to read it?

5:26 AM  

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