Friday, August 28, 2015

Scientific Writing

Scientific writing is simply writing about science. There seems to be an enigma around the phrase and perhaps the belief that one should use "scientific writing techniques" to write about science or in the scientific realm. In fact, good scientific writing relies on good writing and there are very few, if any, writing techniques that are specific to scientific writing.

George Gopen is a noted expert in scientific writing, having co-authored an article on the subject and then offering lectures and workshops on scientific writing. Yet, when reading the article, you very quickly realize that his and Judith Swan's suggestions apply to any type of writing; they just use scientific prose as their examples.

I speak with some authority on this, because I have a degree in scientific and technical communication and was previously a Technical Writer. Today, I dug into the works and advice of three communication greats: George Gopen, Edward Tufte, and Steven Pinker. You may have noticed my switch from "writing" to "communication," and that's to enlarge our idea of good writing to include the visual communication we see on the page or screen. Below, I highlight an important takeaway from each scholar, but I begin with one tip with which they all agree.

Good writing in any genre is written for the audience
What is good writing? Well, certainly this is debated and contested, but as a writer, the only opinions that should matter are that of your audience. The question should be, "How do you communicate your ideas most clearly so that your reader can understand or even use the information?" The following tips can give us part of the answer.

Sentence Stress Position (George Gopen)
Gopen and Swan's article below focuses largely on the structure of the sentence, and one of the big takeaways that Gopen offers is to be aware of the stress position in a sentence. The stress position is the end of the sentence or clause, and intuitively where the reader looks for the most important information. As a quick example, I pulled language from an NSF abstract:

Original: Results from this research may be used to improve heat and mass transport models, frost heave models, and models of frozen soil creep by incorporating enhanced unfrozen water content functions, which will account for unfrozen water mobility and its dependence on soil-specific physicochemical properties.

Improved: Results from this research may be used to improve heat and mass transport models, frost heave models, and models of frozen soil creep by incorporating enhanced unfrozen water content functions.


You'll see that all I did was take off the part of sentence that seemed to fizzle. This information may be pertinent and require its own sentence, but in tagging it on to the original, we're putting less important information in the stress position. By removing it, we put the focus of the sentence back on the research results.

Visual Communication (Edward Tufte)
Edward Tufte points out that often times we write something and then add in visuals or charts and think of them separately.  Yet, when a reader looks at the same page, they don't see them separately; it is one source of information. The title, the headings, the text, and diagrams, the graphs should all work together for the single purpose of communicating an idea to the reader as clearly as possible.  This should tell you that not only is it a no-no to refer to a graph or chart that is found two pages later, but to also make sure no piece of your work distracts from your key points. And, when making decisions about how to communicate an idea, you should always choose the form (text or visual) that best communicates your idea.


Show, Don't Tell (Steven Pinker)
Steven Pinker makes the point that one makes a stronger argument and a more compelling read when one uses her text to illustrate the point, using examples, instead of telling the reader outright. The easiest way to say this is to avoid hyperbole. If something is excellent, don't tell the reader it's excellent, show them why it is and allow them to come to that conclusion. In grant-writing, it's essential for the Investigator to show why she is the best researcher to conduct the proposed project. She must do this by demonstrating her expertise and experience. She won't do herself any favors if she tells the reviewers that she is the best researcher for the job.


I hope these nuggets from some of the great communication experts can allow you to very quickly apply them to your scientific writing or whatever kind of visual communication you're working on! Stay tuned for more writing tips in the next few weeks.

Resources:
The Science of Scientific Writing - George Gopen and Judith Swan
Highlights from Edward Tufte Presentation - iSquared (video)
Steven Pinker on Good Writing - iSquared (video)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Establing Life Balance in Academe

As the academic year begins, many faculty members are throwing themselves fully back into the academy, but as the Chronicle of Higher Education's article on 'Serious Academics' at Play
suggests, it's just as important to continue to include in your daily life activities that you enjoy, and particularly physical activities to keep you healthy and sane and perhaps even more productive.

In this piece, Dr. Anne Kurzan, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, calls for the end to the "sink or swim" mentality that is often thrust upon new faculty and even graduate students, and instead advocates for a more balanced academic life that actually aids the "explosive productivity" expected in academe. In this same spirit, here are some practices to consider to keep you happy, healthy, and productive:

Make room for exercise and/or a hobby
Although you may think that there is no way you have time to exercise (and I'm certainly guilty of this) or doing the things you love, the truth is that when you don't make time for these things, that time is often wasted when you're banging your head against the wall with writer's block or spacing out when you need to be concentrating. By making time for yourself, you may find that you're able to be more focused on your work when it's time.

Schedule breaks
For the same reason described above (preventing space-out or writer's block), planning breaks help to keep you and your mind active. Artist and grant-writing guru, Gigi Rosenberg suggests taking a short break every 30 minutes that you write or work. She finds that even though she may not want to break after 30 minutes, she finds that with a short break, she is reinvigorated, and she's not away long enough that she needs to warm up again - she dives right in.

Establish boundaries
Dr. Jean Kutner, Professor in CU's School of Medicine and Head of General Internal Medicine, spoke at an ORDE seminar a couple of years ago and made the point that there is no such thing as work/life balance. "It's all life!" she said, although she was clear that this did not mean that your work should take over all aspects of your life. In that sense, researchers run into a particular challenge. Often, they set their own schedules and when all time is yours to delegate, it's easy to find yourself working at all hours of the day and night. To prevent the burnout that can come from this, set some boundaries; identify what's important to you and what relaxes you and set a schedule where there is room for all of those things.

Include balance in mentoring
The Chronicle article above also references a great mentoring article from 2013 by Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore who discusses the importance of communicating the importance of balance to mentees as well. Oftentimes, mentors who were tossed into the deep end as new Assistant Professors think that this is then the best way to mentor today's new Professors and/or grad students, but Rockquemore rightly insists that a better mentor approach is that of support for a more well-rounded academic life.

Although many folks who could benefit from this blog and the great articles referenced above may not read them in the hustle and bustle of the Fall, when they do catch their attention, hopefully, they will be inspired to make some small steps toward a healthy balance in academe.

Resources

'Serious Academics' at Play - Chronicle of Higher Education
A Mentoring Manifesto - Inside Higher Ed
Gigi Rosenberg's Blog
Jean Kutner's ORDE Talk : Charting Your Research Path

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fund Database Searching

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that CU Denver | AMC faculty were welcome to contact ORDE to have us conduct a personalized fund search, but for those of you who are not part of our faculty or those who want to do their own fund search anyway, this blog is intended to give you some fund searching tips.

To get started, you need to identify a fund database to search. ORDE relies most heavily on the InfoEdGlobal database: SPIN. If you are on a CU campus, you can access and search the database from any computer, or if you are part of the CU system you can VPN in from off campus to conduct a search.

Use Filters
The first thing you want to do in SPIN is set your filters appropriately. Filters range from choosing a specific applicant type, including whether you are a junior or senior faculty member, to being able to sort opportunities based on eligibility around citizenship. Using filters is a good way to cut down on the number of funding opportunities that are returned for which you may be ineligible or that are not applicable to you.

Use Google Principles
SPIN's search function is really quite intuitive and you can search the database using the same search strategies as you're used to with google. If you don't consider yourself a google search pro, you can quickly access the search tips by clicking help in SPIN

Consider Sponsor Speak
Most disciplines have their own language for things, but to make your search as comprehensive as possible, you want to spend some time finding different ways to describe your research in your search. Some potential sponsors may be looking to fund the type of research you're doing, but they use different language or come at it from a slightly different perspective.  By rethinking the language you're using in your search, sometimes you can find new sponsors and opportunities.

Follow Through
Certainly, SPIN is an excellent fund database, but always staying on top of every sponsor's changes and updates is impossible, even for the most vigilant organization. Because of this, once you've found an opportunity, you're work is not yet done.  You need to go directly to the sponsor's website to double check that you are indeed eligible for the program, that there are no new updates to the program announcement that you need to consider, and last but not least it's important to begin familiarizing yourself with the agency to which you think you'll apply. Unless you've worked with the agency before, you likely need to do some digging on the agency to make sure your eventual grant is well-aligned with their goals.

Resources:
SPIN page - InfoEdGlobal

Friday, August 7, 2015

Using Your Elevator Pitch Differently

Fall semester brings with it new students, new faculty, and other new faces. Whether you're new yourself, or you're welcoming the new folks, you want to make sure that people know what you and your research are about. This is why it's a good time to prepare or revisit your research elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch is a short spiel of what your research is and more importantly what difference it can make. The elevator pitch is a short speech (1-3 minutes) that can be given in an elevator ride. Although the elevator pitch has been a staple of self-promotion tactics, we actually think it makes more sense to develop an impromptu accordion conversation. Sure, it's not as catchy as elevator pitch, but hear me out.

An impromptu accordion conversation (IAC) is a conversation you might have at a reception or meeting that can be as short as a tag line but can grow to include a substantive discussion of why your work is important. Just like the accordion can expand and contract, if you plan for a conversation that can make your case in bite-sized pieces, you can allow your conversation partner to direct how they understand your research and when and how much you draw out the accordion of explanation. 

Imagine you meet a Program Officer (not quite in your area) at a conference reception, and they ask what you do.You begin with your tagline, a single sentence that sums up your research. Example: I look at how to increase memory retention of Physics students. Your tagline should be short and communicate your research in a clear and action-oriented way.

You should use your tagline to generate interest and a question in your conversation partner. For instance, they ask you, "What sort of things do you want Physics students to retain?" You then have an opportunity to describe the problem that your research is trying to solve and give the questioner a fuller sense of you and your work.  And the bonus is that your conversation partner is an active listener at this point because they asked the question and they're interested in knowing more.  With a more traditional elevator pitch, if you rattle off your pitch, there's no telling if the person you're talking to is listening or cares about what you're trying to pitch them.

Aside from having a tag line and explanations that focus on the impact of your research, your IAC should also include a call to action. Don't forget to also ask your conversation partner what they do and if there is an opportunity for collaboration or support, find ways to continue the conversation. For example, going back to our Program Officer example, perhaps you ask, "Could I send you a copy of my concept paper to see if you could point me in the right direction with whom I should talk to about funding?" or "Would you mind connecting me with your colleague in this area?" and then follow-up with an email.

So, as you prepare for the new faces and meetings this Fall, be sure to polish off your elevator pitch, or better yet, prepare an Impromptu Accordion Conversation.

Resources:
The Elevator Pitch: Presenting Your Research in Conversation - University of Notre Dame
Elevator Pitches for Scientists - The Postdoc Way


Friday, July 31, 2015

Annual Research Planning: Start the Year Off Right!

Summer is starting to wind down, and researchers are starting to look to the fall, which for many brings teaching and running their labs. It is also a good time to consider your annual research development plan. Now, creating this sort of annual plan assumes that you do have a 5-10 year research plan that outlines your goals and benchmarks, including when and where you need to apply for funding, produce publications, and continue your research work.

To develop your annual plan, you want to assess your previous academic year and summer. What did you achieve? What didn't go the way you expected? Do you need to update/revise your 5-10 year plan? What are the goals and benchmarks you hope to reach in the upcoming academic year?

At ORDE, we suggest that researchers plan along three threads: publications, project development, and funding. Certainly these three threads are intertwined and support each other, but each deserves focused and intentional planning.

Publications:
Certainly, as researchers and scholars, your publications are crucial, but they are also crucial to the development of your research plan. To be competitive for many grants, reviewers expect to see a solid list of publications related to the direction in which you're headed. They look for evidence of expertise and independence in these publications, so if your mentor is first author on all your publications, you may need to start thinking about how you can take the lead on the next publication.

Project Development:
You may be in the throes of completing your last funded research project, or perhaps you're focused on developing new courses or preparing for a fall teaching load. But, don't make the mistake of only looking at what's right in front of you. You don't want to wait until these things are complete before starting to think about developing your next research project, or you will likely find yourself playing the waiting game (for funding) later on. The most productive researchers have a constant stream of next projects in the works, so that they can submit their grants and hopefully have their next grant ready to go as they're finishing the last.

Funding:
As I mentioned, if you wait to develop a project and apply for funding right when you want to get going, you'll find yourself in a lull. Many agencies can take six months to a year to review your grant, make a funding decision and get you the funding you need to get started. Thus, most researchers can't afford to wait to start grant writing when they have a little more time. Certainly, in ORDE, our mantra might as well be "The time is now for grant writing!"

But, all kidding aside, we do realize that our faculty researchers have a huge load on their plates, and although we don't want to add any additional stress to your lives, we do know that this sort of planning and consistent focus on research and research development is something successful faculty researchers have in common.

But, we're here to help! If you're a faculty researcher at the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campuses or one of our affiliates and you haven't had a fund search conducted in awhile, please contact us to set up a meeting so that you start off the year aware of what funding opportunities are upcoming.

Resources:
ORDE Fund Search

Friday, July 17, 2015

The research development process

Laypeople don't tend to understand what the research develop process entails. Even researchers can be a little murky on the research development process, so this week I offer clarification on how we at ORDE define this important process.

I start with the following chart and offer some clarification on each stage of the process. You see that this diagram is cyclical and that's intentional. Whether you are working on a resubmission or continuing to develop your research agenda, you should be constantly working in some part of this cycle, and often in multiple parts, depending on how many research projects you have in the works.



Search literature & funding landscape: Around the time you are combing the literature to identify gaps that your research can address, you should also be getting a lay of the funding landscape. Faculty at CU Denver and the Anschutz Medical Campus can contact ORDE to have us conduct a comprehensive fund search.

Develop project & research sponsor: As you begin to develop your research idea and have identified which sponsors might be a good fit to fund your research, you should do background research on the sponsors to which you're considering applying. It's important to understand the ideology, approach, as well as preferred topics funded by the sponsor.

Develop concept paper: A concept paper is a one-two page document that gives an overview of your project and why it's important. This can be used to shop your idea around to get feedback and generate interest around your research amongst funders, collaborators, and/or mentors.

Review program announcement: This may seem obvious, but in our experience, some PI's miss this vital step and can end up with their grant rejected when they have not followed the instructions in the program announcement.

Work with Program Officers: PO's serve as the liaison between a sponsor and an applicant. PO's often have influence over the review process and even some funding decisions. It's a good idea to reach out to a PO to get their thoughts on your research project before you apply.

Draft grant proposal: Based on the feedback you get on your concept paper, and considering what you've learned from your sponsor research and the program announcement, you can begin to draft your grant application.

Seek feedback: Once you have a working draft of your grant, you should vet it with colleagues, mentors, and even laypeople to make sure that your case is clear and compelling and accessible by different audiences.

Revise and Resubmit: We find ourselves in a competitive grant-funding climate where getting a grant rejected is a reality for many researchers. The biggest difference between those investigators who ultimately are funded and those who don't is whether or not they keep submitting grants.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Got a Research Idea - Sell It!

I sat in on a webinar by Morgan Giddings last week where she offered some different ways of thinking about grant development that I thought were valuable. One important point Giddings made was that most investigators are uncomfortable with the idea of "selling." This rang true; many faculty I encounter are slow to honk their own horn much less really sell their ideas.

Yet, as Giddings observed, many investigators have the wrong idea about what selling should be. Years ago, I found myself responsible for selling customized educational programs to universities and colleges. As the Director responsible for developing this new branch of programs for my organization, I was not excited about this task. I was not a salesperson after all. Yet, I was also responsible for conducting the needs assessments and designing the programs that we offered, so I knew them inside and out. Thus, when I found myself in a conversation with a Provost or VP, I could clearly describe what we were offering and answer the questions they had.

To get past my nerves around selling or even having conversations with top leaders in higher education, I reminded myself that I wasn't trying to trick an institution into bringing a customized workshop to their campus.  I just wanted them to understand what the workshops were, what their value was, and then for them to make the decision that was best for their institution. I knew that if any institution was cajoled into bringing a workshop, we might make a bit more money in the short-term, but it would cost us far more in reputation in the long run.

So, in applying my experience, along with that of Giddings and Daniel Pink, below I identify what good selling should and should not include.

Selling should not trick anyone
As you're writing a grant or a concept paper, your goal isn't necessarily to persuade an agency to give you money, but more so to give them a clear sense of your idea and the value or importance of that idea. If it's right for them, they will be persuaded without you having to persuade them.

Selling should focus on listening to the "buyer's" needs
Daniel Pink cites researcher, Adam Grant, saying the best sellers are "ambiverts." They are not too introverted to talk to folks about whatever they're selling, but they're also not too extroverted to listen to what the buyer is saying they need. In grant development, it's essential to know what an agency is looking to fund before you decide whether or not to submit or before you start talking with a Program Officer.

Selling should clearly articulate your value
When you have a great research idea or project, your goal should be to clearly communicate it to possible funders. As mentioned, you're not trying to trick anyone into funding you.  You're trying to help them understand your project, why it's important, and why it's a good fit for them.

Hopefully, as you start to rethink what selling can be, you can begin to be more intentional in selling your research idea.

Resources
Morgan Giddings Blog 
Daniel Pink on Selling