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Direct your scientific curiosity
Finding *your* path through mountains of human knowledge
The amount of scientific literature available at our fingertips is staggering. It is impossible to navigate it all. For anyone. No matter your expertise, there will be decisions you need to make about what literature to read. Which information to gather from those articles. And how to assemble that information into your own unique narrative. This is an insurmountable task. This activity is one way to develop the skills needed to make some of these tough decisions. It also makes a good lab meeting activity.
This activity is modified from Direct Your Curiosity in “Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways” by Sarah Stein Greenberg.
The purpose of this activity is to learn your process of navigating scientific literature. When conducted in a group setting, you can share your process with others and learn about how different members of the group have distinct processes. At the end of the activity, you’ll reflect (and share) how you felt during the activity.
You’ll need access to primary research papers or other science articles, and a way to comment or write about them. I find that perusing twitter or browsing RSS feeds is a good way to find a paper. If a primary research paper is too daunting for you, find a science article that is at your level.
Find an article you are attracted to but haven’t yet read. Why were you drawn to this article?
Read the article. What did you find interesting about it? It could be a technique. An environment. A gene. A result. A way of visualizing data.
Write down one aspect of the paper that speaks to you and what you liked about it. Then, search for a second paper with this same characteristic. [For an added challenge, find a second paper without using the references from the first paper]. Read the second paper. Write down a few characteristics about what’s interesting to you. It might be a characteristic that is different than the original paper. For example, you might be intrigued by a specific interpretation of a main finding. Perhaps a line of code or a statistical test sparked your interest. Perhaps it was the lack of certain relevant information. And so on. Your next task is to find a third paper that exemplifies the new characteristic that caught your attention in the second article.
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Keep going in this way, until you’ve read six papers in total. Each jump should be based on some aspect that intrigued you in the previous paper.
When finished, reflect on what you’ve found. You’ve formed a unique path through the literature that serves as a snapshot of the type of science you are naturally attracted to! This is almost certainly going to be a path that is unique to you. This awareness can be valuable if you are having a hard time finding your interests or are stuck in a mental rut and in need of inspiration.
Second, think about how you felt during this exercise. Was it different than how you normally feel when navigating the literature for a class or while doing research? If so, how were these feelings different? What was it about this activity that made you feel different?
Is this activity a microcosm or metaphor for anything else you are navigating? A challenging project? Experiments? Relationships? How can your new insights help you focus and adapt to these other areas? Could you apply this activity to these other aspects of your life?
A second version of this activity, for use with groups, is to have the group start with the same paper and to trace where each group member ends up after reading six papers. Did any members select the same articles along their path? Where did they diverge? Were there any unexpected directions? This group activity is a good way to identify the interests and strengths of each member of the group around a specific topic. It also highlights how your team compliments one another. Understanding these differences can help to assemble teams with complementary skills.
We’ll be trying this out in the Carini Lab over the summer. There are many ways to modify this exercise to work for your group. If you try it, we’d love to hear from you! What worked? What didn’t? Let us know in the comments below