Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Getting More Minorities and Women Into Science

Today I read a post by See Jane Compute on diversity. This topic is one of my passions. As of yet, I really haven't had the chance to influence this area, other than serving as a role model, and writing this blog.

I entirely agree that it is really difficult to get underrepresented groups into the science, technology, math, and engineering fields (STEM). I'd like to talk a little about my experiences in this area.

My mom is a chemist and my dad is an MS physicist. Most of my family is in engineering or medicine. I have two aunts who are engineers and three uncles. You could say that my family is supportive of women in STEM. I have always been interested in science and engineering and my family has always been encouraging. When I was 10 I wanted to be a meteorologist, 12 an ichthyologist, 15 an engineer, 16 a chemical engineering, and low and behold I am!

When I was entering my senior year of high school I had to make some choices. I was in yearbook, french, and AP science, and math. I wanted to take AP chem and AP physics. To do this, I needed to drop either yearbook or french. I decided to drop french to allow me two take both sciences. I was also enrolled in AP english and AP BC calc. My counselor thought that it might be too 'hard' to take two sciences in the same year. She advised me to drop AP chem and continue with french. I told her, "look I want to be an engineer. I'm going to college next year. If I can't handle two sciences and a math now, I'm in big trouble." Reluctantly, they let me take both sciences. I made all A's.

The point is that I did not receive encouragement. The counselors thought that I couldn't handle a load that was inconsequential compared to a standard college load. When it came time to apply for colleges, I applied to MIT. I think I might have been the first one (at least in years) to do so. The counselors again thought that I was 'aiming too high.' I was accepted (although I didn't attend for financial reasons). They were really shocked. But the only reason that I was successful, was because of the constant support of my family. If I had not had this backing, I am quite sure I would probably be a linguistics major or something. [nothing wrong with linguistics. I actually love it.]

In undergrad, I received a great deal of support from society of women engineers. We were really quite a group. The older students set up tutoring for the younger ones. We hung out together. We went to national conferences together. The recent grads helped get jobs for the graduating seniors. It was something else. Many of those from my network went on to grad school and are beginning faculty positions like myself. This support made my success possible, because I felt comfortable in the environment, because of the other women supporting me.

In grad school, my advisor was a woman. I had a mentor who was a senior professor with four children from newborn to age 10. I participated in preparing future faculty programs and WEPAN. I had support at every turn. Even when I had my children, which is a bit unusual, my colleagues were nothing but supportive and happy. [well mostly, a few of the male profs did make some offhanded remarks.]

Despite all my fears that I won't achieve tenure, can't maintain work life balance, and will never see my children, I am a 'success' story. To achieve this, I had extraordinary amounts of support. Unfortunately, the environment for women and minorities is hostile [see my post just what is the bias against women in science]. Each student that we ferry through the pipeline will require someone at every step of the way saying you can do this, others have done this, other women/minorities, this is your place, you are normal. And that, as Jane said, is hard.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Kids, academic career, how do you handle it all?

Don't worry the how to write your first paper series will continue, probably next week. I have been overwhelmed with work, all good though, in the last week. This post is a little side musing.

Many of my peers seem to be in awe of my life. I am married. I have two children (4 and 15 mos), both of which I had in grad school. I am a postdoc on one of those super "cool" projects, and I have some semblance of a life. How is this possible?

Well to be honest, I'm not nearly as impressed with myself as everyone else is. I feel like you face the challenges that you are given. If you are strong you will rise to meet them. When failure is the only other option, you will try to succeed. But in thinking about it more, I realized that there are several things that I have done to make my life more manageable. So I thought I'd share those with you.

1. Separate Work Life and Home Life
I find this to be critical. When you have a flexible schedule and deadlines that are months away it is difficult to focus on work. One may be tempted to spend a few hours writing a grocery list, dealing with a child's school registration for the next year, taking sick kids to the doctor, meeting the plumber and so on. It is fine to do some of these activities some of the time. But if you are always the one that does these things because of your 'flexible' schedule you need to set boundaries.

Conversely, if you come home, eat dinner, tuck the kids in, and then work for another 3-4 hours each evening (and some weekends), you may get some great work done. However, if this becomes a habit everynight, everyweek, you will never have time to yourself, to just relax. When you have children this time becomes rare indeed, and if you spend all of it working, you will burn out.

What works best for me is to set very clear limits. I work from about 8:30 to 5:30. I go home. I do not do anymore work. I do not work on weekends. The notable exceptions to this were when my son was in the hospital (I took off a few days) or when I was cramming for a conference or grant deadline. I do not blur the line between work and home for more than a couple weeks a year. This keeps me sane.

2. Have Transitional Time between Work and Home
Right now I am preparing for a conference, getting my research talk ready to pitch to new students, starting on a new paper, revising a grant proposal and writing a 60 page book chapter [okay I'm a little busy and this is probably why the posts are slow in coming]. If I were to just magically teleport from my desk to home, I would probably be up half the night worrying about my work load. But I'm not.

The secret is that I listen to books on tape on my 20 minute drive home. Nothing technical, usually juicy mind-candy kind of stuff. Right now I'm listening to a great fantasy, The Kingdom of the Elves of the Reaches, by Robert Stanek. This gives me the separation that allows my to forget my work and start to think about home and relaxing.

3. Get Help, Lots and Lots of Help
Okay, so I am pretty lucky. My husband is one of those dot-com guys and our family is pretty well off. We have a maid service to clean the house and a nanny to watch the kids. I know this is not an option for everyone, but I would argue that you should sacrifice everything you can to get as much help as possible. If your husband (or children) can't pick-up the slack around the house, don't make it your responsibility. You do not have time. Actually, a maid service isn't that bad. It was only $60/wk when my husband and I lived in a small apartment. The nanny is more pricey. When I was in grad school, my entire salary went to pay the nanny, but the idea was that I would have so much earning potential when I finished school that it would be worth it. I guess the point here is don't expect that you can do it all, and don't even try. Either plan to have a slightly messy house or get some help with it.

4. Ignore 'Everyone Else'
My advisor used to say 'grad students don't go home at five,' and I used to wave to her as the elevator doors closed at 5:05. I guess that may have been chutzpah or hubris, but I have to do things on my terms to stay sane. I honestly don't care how everyone else does it. If I am doing the work that needs to be done then my system works. Don't criticize my hours, criticize my results. Speaking of which:

5. Do the Things that Need to Be Done in the Order Their Needed
There are so many different organizational systems out there, and to be successful you will need one. Personally, I like the franklin covey system, but use whatever works. In general, the covey system has you rank tasks from A-C, where A is needs to get done today, B is nice to get done today, and C is needs to get done eventually. In order to keep from going crazy, I limit my list for a day to about 10 items. If I finish more than that I can always do more. I make a new list each day and I follow my list. There is some flexibility to deal with unanticipated problems, but in general, the list is the list.

6. Don't Waste Time
I can't tell you how many of my fellow grad students spent an hour at lunch, two hours at the gym, another hour at a seminar, fit in maybe an experiment, and then spent a couple hours chatting with students down the hall. Whenever someone approaches me for conversation, help, seminar, etc. I always ask myself, "Is this time that I can take away from my work or my family." The longer that I am at work the less time I have at home. So that coffee break with a friend may translate into missing dinner with my kids. Not to say that I'm not friendly, but I don't chat around. I concentrate on my work as much as possible.

Well, I'm sure I have more, but I have to get ready for the airport to go to that conference. More next week.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Writing your first paper: Step Five: Materials and Methods

Thanks for all your supportive comments about my post yesterday. I'm really not depressed or anything, but sometimes my frustration just builds and builds until you get well...the post from yesterday. Anyway its time to move on with my series on writing papers.

This article is part of a series on writing your first research paper. I am hoping to use this material for a new student handbook when I start my faculty position, so any thoughts, comments, hysterical rejoinders are most welcome.

Note: All data is made up, but you can make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

Materials and Methods

This section is so straightforward that I was tempted not to write about it. However, there are a few things that I would like to point out so here goes.

If you are unsure where to start your paper. This is it. It is the easiest section to write because their is no interpretation. This section should describe your experiments, as you did them, in enough detail for someone else to repeat them. There should be absolutely no discussion of results here.

The materials and methods section will not be read by most people. The people who do read it are doing so because they want to repeat a portion of your work, or perform similar work. They will therefore want as many details as possible.

The materials and methods section is usually broken into sections, with one section for each experimental component or reagent/equipment preparation. Each section should contain the following elements:

For reagents: List the catalog number, manufacturer, and their location.

For equipment: List the settings, model number, manufacturer, and their location

For experimental solutions: Describe how the solution was made using exact numbers. In many cases it is better to describe a liquid solution in molarity so that it may be scaled to any volume by a reader. If multiple concentrations were used then add a table to describe the conditions examined.

For an experimental set-up/apparatus: Describe all the components used (including equipment information above) and how they are connected. If necessary, draw a diagram. This is especially helpful for complex organic synthesis, manipulating biological pathways, or when constructing complicated reactors. However, it is rare to see photos of the actual apparatus, as a schematic is much more instructive to the reader.

In the materials and methods section, language is very important. The kinds of phrases you might use in an internal lab protocol would not be appropriate here. For example, "don't heat that up too high or it will turn black and come crashing out of solution!" becomes "heat to 95 degrees C, taking care to monitor temperature closely. Excessive heating may result in product decomposition and precipitation." Professionalism is important here, and in many cases, little things are left out. If the reader requires more detail, he/she can always email the authors directly. You might find, "add eggs to warmed milk solution (50 degrees C), while stirring" but not "add eggs to warmed milk, taking care not to scald, stir counterclockwise, then clockwise, use some of milk solution to rinse egg container, then stir continuously."

There is a fine line in how much detail is provided. Some authors leave out things on purpose, to retain their lab's ability to manufacture the product in question to the exclusion of others. This is not very professional (unless of course you are applying for a patent and have IP issues). Science is based on the ability of hypotheses to be tested by individual investigators. If you withhold information, expect others to become angry and frustrated with your papers, especially if they cannot reproduce your results. If IP issues really are a concern, it is appropriate to say "using a proprietary compound" or "please email for more information."

However, if there is a safety hazard, it is important to describe it in as much detail as possible to alert the reader. Don't say, "be really careful, it might blow up," but do say, "heating to temperatures in excess of 100 degrees C will likely result in catastrophic explosion."

Below is an example section for ice cream preparation using liquid nitrogen:

Creating Ice Cream with Liquid Nitrogen

Ice cream was prepared using liquid nitrogen (LN2) as a freezing medium [99%, Air Products, Hopkington, MA]. Liquid nitrogen can cause burns and thermal stress. Use proper PPE (e.g., cryogloves) and do not use ceramic materials, which may crack, in preparation. To create LN2 ice cream, The ice cream mixture was placed in an oversized (10X final target volume) steel bowl. Liquid nitrogen was added slowly (~ 1 ml/s) in a single stream in a 5:1 ratio to the ice cream mixture while stirring. Freezing was monitored visually, and using a Fisherbrand cup-type viscometer [Fisher Scientific, No.: 1; Orifice Diameter: 0.078 in.]. Ice cream was determined to have formed when viscosity change fell to less than 5% min and visual thickening was evident.

The title and first sentence describe what this section of the Mats and Meths will cover. Note that the purity, company, and location are listed for the LN2. If someone cannot repeat my experiment and is worried that differences in reagents may be the cause, they can obtain exact duplicates using this information. Seems trite, but in many experiments reagent source can be very important! [Something to keep in mind if ever your experiments are hit with an endless stream of failures.]

The safety concerns come next. Some people like to put these later in the text, but I am always worried that someone may not read all the way through and it is better to put this stuff up front. Safety concerns to the body and to equipment are both listed. It does no good to have someone carefully using gloves and lab coat only to have the container crack, spilling LN2 everywhere. To avoid liability it is always better to say, "use proper PPE." This places the burden on the reader to determine what they think constitutes proper PPE. If you know that certain things are required it is okay to say, "use proper PPE, including cryogloves" or like I did "(e.g., cryogloves)." I cannot emphasize how important it is to outline experiment safety; you do not want to be responsible, even indirectly, for another's injury!

The next few sentences describe the preparation of the ice cream from the ice cream mixture. [The mixture was presumably described in the preceding section.] I used general terms (e.g., 10X bowl, 5:1 ratio) to allow the reader to scale the reaction to his/her system. Note that the speed of addition is important and was therefore given. If not sure what the exact number is, it is okay to estimate.

Finally, I discussed how we determined that the reaction was complete. Of course we can just look at it (e.g., visually), but we also use the more scientific technique of measuring viscosity. We need some way to know when reaction is complete, so I said when viscosity changed less than X % over X time, but in combination with visual observation. It is possible that viscosity doesn't change because reaction never took place, so it is important to combine these two observations to determine that ice cream has been made.

This pattern continues for each section needed in the mats and meths.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Scientist or Mother: My Split Personality

Why is it that it seems I can never really be comfortable in either of my two worlds?

By day, I work as a post-doc doing some pretty ground-breaking work on one of those cool research projects that you see on Nova. I love my work. The elation of finally getting an experiment to work. Probing, and then finally answering, questions that will lead to new discoveries and maybe even contribute to the welfare of society. More than this, educating those beneath me. Showing someone how to think through and experiment to get it to work right the first time (okay or maybe the second or third). To explore the unknown. These are my passions.

But in my field, there is always someone hungrier. I used to think that it was someone single who didn't mind flooding all of their time into their work. Someone who had nothing else, and therefore derived all satisfaction from work. But now, I see with new eyes. There are those who have families, children, sometimes young ones, who do not have the slightest problem with working strings of 12 hour days, or traveling to conferences for weeks at a time. Who are these people? They are simply people who want it more. And no matter how much I love my work, the thrill of discovery, or the beauty in the world around me that science can elucidate, they will always be there.

On the other hand, at night, I turn into super Mommy. My husband attends night school several nights a week. In many cases, I am responsible for putting two young children to bed, performing what chores I can, and staying sane. I am fortunate that my husband earns a good living. But this has been a mixed blessing. We live in a neighborhood that is affluent by all standards. Unfortunately, I have found that as the neighborhoods become more and more wealthy, the women are less and less likely to work. At my daughter's preschool, I would estimate that well over 80% of moms are stay-at-home. They get together for playdates and coffees. They have bakesales. They plan elaborate birthday parties. I simply cannot compete. On the weekends and the evenings, I find myself wishing that I had more time. More time to make that extra-special Halloween costume for my daughter (which by the way I wouldn't see anyway since I will be at a conference that day giving a talk). I wish I had more time to teach my daughter the songs that I learned growing up. To help her with her violin practice (which I have played all of twice in the last five years due to lack of time).

On both fronts I feel that I am missing something. I serve two masters, and I cannot give myself completely to either, and I wouldn't want to. But I am so tired of having to turn down a 5:30 meeting because I have to leave to meet the nanny, of carefully planning experiments so I don't have to work late or come in on weekends. I am so tired of turning down the upteenth invitation to do something at my daughter's preschool at 10:30 on a weekday. I am tired of other mommies asking me what I do and responding with "oh!" I am just tired.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Writing your first paper: Step Four: The Introduction

Sorry it has taken me so long to get to the next installment. I'm afraid the remainder may be slow in coming as well. I am currently in the midst of preparing for conferences and getting data together for a paper. On the positive side, everything is working!

This article is part of a series on writing your first research paper. I am hoping to use this material for a new student handbook when I start my faculty position, so any thoughts, comments, hysterical rejoinders are most welcome.

Note- All data for the ice cream example is made up. However, you really can make ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

The Introduction:
Next to the abstract, this is the most important part of your paper. This is your chance to get your audience interested in your topic and encourage them to read the rest of your paper. When researchers prepare review articles and book chapters they will read your introduction to figure out what you did, why you did it, and why its neat, and then will read your conclusions/discussion to figure out the broader implications. In many cases readers will only glance at the figures in the results section and skip materials and methods altogether. It is therefore critical that your introduction be concise, readable, and interesting.

In general the introduction should contain three sections:

1. What is the problem and why are you working on it?
2. What did you do?
3. Why is this better than previous approaches?

What is the problem and why are you working on it?
This portion of the introduction should include 1-2 paragraphs and is your opportunity to attract your reader. You not only have to explain what the problem is and why it is important to you, but also convince your reader that they should care about it too. Using our ice cream example, I would first motivate the problem in a broad context:

Every year over 10 million people make ice cream at home using hand crank and electric ice cream machines., representing a sales market of over 50 million dollars [1]. However, hand crank machines require several pounds of messy and potentially toxic rock salt. Ice cream does not form for several hours and requires constant cranking to retain a uniform texture [2]. To address these issues, manufacturers have developed electric ice cream machines that do not require rock salt and reduce freezing time to 20-30 minutes [3], but these machines are not as promising as they would seem. Electric ice cream makers use canisters to maintain low temperatures. These canisters must be placed in the freezer overnight prior to making ice cream. Thus, the user must plan at least 1 day in advance before making ice cream [4]. Additionally, if ice cream is not to be eaten immediately, the ice cream precursor must be manufactured and refrigerated overnight to obtain the best texture [5]. Although electric ice cream makers would seem to shorten the manufacturing process, they in fact require a substantial input of user time and planning.

The first sentence tells the reader that they should care about this because lots of people make ice cream at home and the market for ice cream makers is large. The next few sentences explains how people are currently making ice cream at home and the flaws inherent in that process. We are setting the reader up for the next paragraph: what I did, which presumably addresses these issues. [Citations are given in brackets and will be discussed separately in another post]

What did you do?
Keeping in mind that most people will not read your materials and methods section, explain in 1 paragraph, or 2 if particularly complicated, what you did. Use a minimum of jargon, remember you are trying to draw in readers who might be in different disciplines and unfamiliar with terms, but make it technical enough that it is not condescending. Also, always define abbreviations before using them throughout the text, even if they are well-known in your field. There is nothing more frustrating than having to google an abbreviation to figure our what it means.

To address these issues, we have developed a rapid freezing process for making well-textured ice cream using liquid nitrogen (LN2) as a freezing medium. We evaluated the speed of freezing, comparing it to that of traditional hand crank and electric machine methods. Additionally, we evaluated ice cream texture of LN2 and control mixtures using blind taste tests, viscometry to assess smoothness, and measured air content. Finally, we developed a prototype-home ice cream maker to safely produce ice cream in a home environment.

The first sentence gives a summary of what we did. If you only read this sentence, you would get the gist of this paper. The following sentences describe the specific analyses that we performed to characterize our method, without disclosing specific data, which belongs in the results section. These sentences are arranged in the order that data will be presented in the results section. No conclusions are drawn about the superiority of our method here. This paragraph is straight information.

Why is it better than previous approaches?
Here is where you bring it home. You have convinced the reader that you are working on an important problem. You have outlined your solution in an unbiased descriptive paragraph. Now is the time to say why what you did is far better than existing methods.

Our method demonstrates an improvement in current home ice cream technologies that may increase marketplace appeal, especially to time-crunched professionals. Liquid nitrogen ice cream was produced in dramatically shorter times than traditional methods, with little prior planning required. Texture and quality was superior or equal to traditional methods. Although liquid nitrogen may present safety issues in a laboratory context [6], our home ice cream prototype addresses these concerns, rendering LN2 technology safe for the masses. While originally designed for ice cream, this technology may also be used to manufacture a number of frozen treats, including sorbets, sherberts, slushies, frosties, and italian ices.

The first sentence is the most important conclusion for the reader. We have developed a method that may increase marketplace appeal, especially to a desirable target group. The next few sentences support the claim made in the first sentence. Then, limitations of our technique are discussed (i.e., safety) and addressed. This is really important, because it is your chance to address your critics. Don't wait for the reviewer to ask! If you know there is a possible problem with your technique, a hole in your data, or potentially better method, this is your chance to argue your case. Finally, the work is placed in the broader context. This technology applies not only to ice cream, but possibly to other areas as well. The last sentences are your chance to grab those readers from other areas that might be interested in your technique, but don't work in your area directly. You are in the best position to envision all possible applications of your research. This is your chance to talk about them.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Writing your first paper: Step Three: Title, Affiliations, and Abstract

This article is part of a series on writing your first research paper. I am hoping to use this material for a new student handbook when I start my faculty position, so any thoughts, comments, hysterical rejoinders are most welcome.

How should I format my paper?

Okay so you finally have enough data, you know where you want to submit the paper, you have the story mapped out, and you are ready to write. The next step is to figure out how to format your paper. As a first step you should go to the website of the publisher and print out the instructions for authors. Several journals may allow for more than one type of article, for example a short communication or a longer report. Once you have identified the publisher requirements, you should immediately format your word processor to match those requirements. (e.g., font, margins, font-size).

Different journals have different styles. For example, Science and Nature tend to omit the methods section, having this data at the end of the article in really tiny print or as footnotes placed amongst the references. In this series, I will step through the style for "the typical journal," but it is important to find out the specific requirements for the journal to which you wish to submit. I find it extremely helpful to print a couple sample articles to get the general idea of organization.

Selecting a Title:

Once you have the formatting figured out, you are ready for selecting a title. The title should be concise, but should include the relevant information plus any buzz words that might attract attention to your article. For example compare "A Novel Technique for Creating Ice Cream" with "Ice Cream in the Deep Freeze: Liquid Nitrogen as a Freezing Medium for Reduced Ice Cream Freezing Times." The first title is vague. I know that the paper is on ice cream and that they have a new technique, but I know little else. Also, the word novel is not a good choice for a title. If you work isn't novel, you shouldn't be publishing it. In fact, some journals (JACS?) have banned the word from titles. The second title has a catchy beginning that draws the reader in and provides a "sexy" element. The second part of the title explains what the novel technique is and why it is better than the normal technique. A lot more information is contained here than in the first title. Now compare these with, "Ice Cream Produced Using Liquid Nitrogen as a Freezing Medium with Enhanced Taste, Texture, and Shorter Freezing Time." This title is okay. It is a little long, probably contains too much information, and doesn't grab the reader.

Authors and Affiliations

The authors should be listed with the primary graduate student (and author) first and the primary advisor last. Other graduate students should be listed after the first author in order of greatest contribution. Other professors/collaborators should be listed from the end in order of greatest contribution.

All affiliations should be outlined for each individual. Include both department and center affiliations. Additionally, one author, usually the last author, should be designated as the corresponding author. For this person, contact information including address, email, and phone number should be listed.

The Abstract

Far more people will read your abstract than will ever read your paper. The abstract is THE most important part of your paper. Because of this, I usually right it last. I find that as I put the paper together sometimes I see connections and impacts that I didn't envision at the beginning of writing.

The abstract is a summary of your paper. It should be concise, usually between 100-250 words. The first 2-3 sentences should describe what you did, and if not obvious why this problem is worth investigating. The next 2-3 sentences should provide the details summarizing your results. The next 2-3 sentences should describe why it is important and how it compares to the work of others. The final 2-3 sentences should describe how this work might be used in the future and its broader implications.

For example:

To reduce ice cream freezing times, we examined liquid nitrogen as a freezing medium for vanilla ice cream. The taste, texture, and freezing time were compared with that of ice cream made using a traditional hand crank ice cream machine, a modern electrical machine, and a commercial ice cream machine. Liquid nitrogen ice cream was produced in 1/100th the time of traditional methods with texture superior to that made on an electrical machine (30% reduction in air content), and statistically equal to that of the hand crank and commercial machines (p < 0.05). This technique may greatly impact the ice cream community by providing superior product in a fraction of the time normally required. Existing equipement can be easily modified to use this new technique, allowing rapid commercial adoption at a low cost.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Writing your first paper: Step Two: Where should I submit my paper?

This article is part of a series on writing your first research paper. I am hoping to use this material for a new student handbook when I start my faculty position, so any thoughts, comments, hysterical rejoinders are most welcome.

Where should I submit my paper?

Journals are ranked using something known as an impact factor. The impact factor is the average number of citations that an article in that journal receives. So an impact factor of 10 means that each article in that journal is cited on average 10 times. This number is evaluated by ISI Web of Knowledge each year as part of the Journal Citation Reports. You need a subscription to access it, but most instituations seem to have one. To find out a journal's impact factor, access web of knowledge (or web of science). Then, using the dropdown menu at the top of the page, select Journal Citation Reports and hit go. You can search by journal or topic. The spelling seems to be problematic, so it can be helpful to search by ISSN if possible.

Journals are roughly divided into three catergories: broad impact, trade journals, and specialized. It is very important to target your paper to the appropriate journal. If your aim too high, your paper may be rejected and you will have lost the time taken for review. If your aim too low, you miss the opportunity for exposure. In my career, I initially made the mistake of aiming too high. Do not believe that your article will slip in. Editors are fully aware of the kind of research that is appropriate for their journal. There is nothing more discouraging than a rejection, especially when the comments are things like solid work, but not appropriate for this journal. And you can easily lose 6 months in the review process, exposing you to the possibility of being scooped and making your work less relevant. If you are uncertain, ask a colleague to review the work and give their opinion. This could save a lot of consternation down the road.

The journal to which you submit depends on the amount and quality of your results. Broad impact journals (impact factor > 10) like Science and Nature are generally for research results that are not only high quality but that also contain a “sexy” component. Realize that this is the research that you hear about on the news, or the Tonight Show, or in popular journals like Scientific American. Is your research so exciting that even someone in a totally different field, or the lay person, would want to know about it? This caliber journal likes to report "firsts." For example, using our ice cream analogy, the first time that liquid nitrogen was used to make ice cream (any flavor) it might be reported in this kind of journal.

In addition to exciting research, with broad impact, these journals require a complete story. Frequently, articles here could be published as two or even three separate articles in other journals. So there is an opportunity cost to publishing your research here. You may pass initial review only to be told that an additional year of experiments are required for publication. On a positive note, most of these journals use a streamlined review process and will reject a majority of manuscripts outright, in the first few weeks. So it is not a large risk to throw an article this way if you are unsure. Chances are, though, if you have a Science or Nature paper, you know it.

If your research does not have broad impact, you will need to consider journals in the next category: highly ranked trade journals (Impact Factor 2-10). For example, Advanced Materials, Journal of American Chemical Society, and Biomaterials are some of these journals in my field. This type of journal requires a strong story, but does not require that research appeal to a broad category of scientists. Research should be interesting to anyone working in your area or a tangential field. For example, modifications of the liquid nitrogen ice cream making technique for chunky mixtures might be published in a journal like this. Marine biologists might be interested in the fact that liquid nitrogen can be used to make superior ice cream (science or nature paper), but not in the fact that chunky mixtures require certain stirring patterns (trade journal paper).

The last category of journal is for work that is still important, but only relevant to those working in the same area (impact factor 1-2). There are a number of area specific journals of high quality that are appropriate for this kind of paper. For example, if you have a paper that describes in great detail the temperature profile of ice cream during the liquid nitrogen freezing process, this would be of interest to other liquid nitrogen ice cream makers. However, other scientists are much less likely to read this report.

Once you have decided what kind of paper you have you might want to ask yourself what journals do I frequently pull articles from? This will give you ideas as to where you should submit. You can use the impact factor to help you place those journals into categories and guide your choice for submission.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Writing your first paper: Step One: Am I ready?

Well, its taken a little longer than I would like, but I thought I would do a series on writing your first research paper. I am hoping to use this material for a new student handbook when I start my faculty position, so any thoughts, comments, hysterical rejoinders are most welcome.

How do I know if I have enough data for a paper?

This is a tough question and depends in part on where you plan to submit the paper. A more prestigious journal like Science or Nature will require more data, sometimes up to two years worth! The real question that you need to ask yourself is: Do I have a story to tell? Specifically, did you find an interesting effect or make something new? Did you do the experiments that explain why that effect occurs or demonstrate the functionality of the new creation?

I try to think of all of my experiments from the perspective of the story. Sometimes it is helpful to layout what you want the publication to look like well before the experiments are complete. This allows you to think about what experiments are required, what the controls should be, what the figures should look like. For example, say that I have developed a new method for making ice cream with liquid nitrogen (hehe! try this sometime its really cool). I want to write a paper about my method. What would it look like? Well, I would need to describe my technique and demonstrate that the product is actually ice cream. I would probably want to include a negative control (no liquid nitrogen or regular freezer) and a positive control (traditional ice cream maker).

However, just demonstrating the method is not sufficient. The liquid nitrogen method is cool because it is very fast and reduces the ice crystals in the mixture. The best paper would communicate this to the reader. I would need to show that the amount of time required to go from liquid to a certain viscosity (hardness) is shorter with my method, perhaps using a viscometer to get nice quantitative data. I also need to show that the method reduces ice crystals/has good texture flavor. I could do this by performing taste tests, but that is very subjective. I would want a quantitative method to measure ice crystals/smoothness of the mixture. This might be accomplished by measuring the air content (a standard measure of ice cream quality). Finally, I want to make sure that I have enough data to convince my audience that I have a statistically relevant result.

I have read several papers that are technically new, but not very exciting. For example, if 10 people have shown that liquid nitrogen is good for various types of ice cream, and if I try to write a paper saying it can also be used to make rocky road, that is not very interesting. If it can be used for chocolate, vanilla, etc. it is likely that it can be used for rocky road as well. That is not a good paper. A good paper must take the next step. For example, what if we made rocky road using liquid nitrogen and found that it maintains the texture of the marshmallows exquisitely. If we characterized marshmallow fluffiness and the distribution of marshmallows per scoop and found that they were superior to traditional methods, that would be a substantive contribution. In this sense, it is very important to place your work in context with that of others. A good couple of weeks in the library should help, and although I always seem to do this step after getting most of my data, the best researchers would do this before even starting out.

Once you have an idea of what the data will look like, you can lay out each of the figures. Then, go back and pretend that you are critiquing your paper. What additional data would you like to see? What are the most likely arguments against your work? For example, if I demonstrate my procedure with vanilla and chocolate, reviewers might wonder if it works with chunky strawberry. Would whole fruit interfere with the freezing process? Would the strawberries freeze at a different rate than the rest of the ice cream interfering with consistency? Other criticisms, might include safety and cost. Liquid nitrogen can be a hazardous substance, is not readily available to the average consumer, and might be more expensive than traditional ice cream making methods. How do the benefits of my approach outweighed these limitations? You might need to collect a few more data points, and perform a few more quick experiments. However, sometimes it might not be possible or desirable to conduct experiments to address all of these issues. In that case, be sure to address these points in the text. "We found that liquid nitrogen makes superior ice cream for smooth mixtures, chunky mixtures remain to be examined, but will likely produce equally good results because the rapid freezing technique employed should prevent ice crystal formation throughout the product..."

Tomorrow: Choosing a journal for submission

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