#Scicomm Tip: Never claim to be the first to do anything in science

You see it all the time—in a popular news article about a groundbreaking research study to even the primary literature—that so-and-so researcher is the “first” to make some brand new discovery.

This claim makes me cringe every time I see it. Why? Well to be honest, it’s highly unlikely to be the absolute first at anything with millions of scientists around the world, many of whom are working in similar fields on similar problems.

While doing a thorough literature search should be part of any research project, it’s easy to miss a paper, especially publications in lesser known journals that might not be indexed in the database you use. Or perhaps someone is getting ready to publish the results and they are a little farther down the publication pipeline than you are.

I have called a researcher out on this first-hand when writing a past article review. In the literature paper, the lab claimed to be the first to identify the presence of a particular enzyme on the surface of a specific cell organelle. Thus, the PI wanted me to include a note in my review that they were the “first” to make this discovery. However, from a quick literature search, I found another group who previously had made the same discovery and I omitted the “first” language from the review.

I can definitely understand the temptation to do this. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of doing good science and want to get credit for all the hard work and dedication that goes into a single research paper.

You may even be thinking to yourself, “Hey, if I say I’m the first to do this experiment then I’ll definitely get published or get this grant, right?” Probably not. Reviewers are experts in their fields who are usually well-acquainted with the literature and that plan may backfire if they realize you over-inflated your work.

To avoid the issue, shy away from the word “first”. Be more specific in your claim to describe what is so unique about your work, whether you used a new approach or interpreted the results in a novel way. Show what the significant contributions of your work actually are to the research community.

But if you feel compelled to go with this terminology, at least use a phrase like “one of the first” or “to our knowledge no one has else has made this discovery”. Now you’re covered from making false claims that just look arrogant or are plain wrong.



Take the Monkey and Run: Science, Evolution and the Public

Image credit: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

Yucca Plant
Image credit: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

The science community was buzzing last week with coverage of the Bill Nye (aka “The Science Guy”) vs. Ken Ham (aka Creation Museum CEO) debate on evolution vs. creationism. Instead of spending three hours watching the live-streamed event, I decided to focus on more constructive uses of my time (e.g., working on STEM outreach projects). Granted, I probably should have listened to a bit of the debate to be able to make small talk with other scientists, but for me personally, evolution is an established theory that no longer requires debate with people who refuse to acknowledge scientific evidence. Pitting science against religious beliefs in a bipartisan-type debate may also be a futile attempt to promote a science-minded society because it gives the false impression that people must abandon their religion to accept science. Instead, I think we have to focus on consistent and honest science communications with the public to keep them informed of new science and how to interpret the information to understand the world around us.

It is people like David and Sheila Spakes of the Spirit and Truth Fellowship of Knoxville in Tennessee who are organizing science cafés to regularly engage the public in open dialogue with science professionals that are doing the most good to advance public understanding of science. For their most recent cafe (which appropriately corresponded to Darwin Day celebrations), the Spakes invited Dr. Andrew Kramer, Department Head of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, to discuss the discovery of “Skull 5” at an archaeological site in the Caucasus of Georgia — a finding that may add support to the single-lineage hypothesis of human evolution.

Prior to the find, scientists thought that the hominid family tree resembled more of an intricately branched tree with many bipedal, human-like species that each represent a terminal branch in evolution. With the new find of five skulls, most likely specimens of Homo erectus (our closest relative), who all had differing morphological features from each other but existed within similar geological time spans, it may be that many of the different “species” of our early hominid ancestors were not different species at all. They may have interbred to eventually lead to the current human population with all the physical variation that we see today. This new evolutionary perspective sketches a straighter lineage of human evolution, much like the shape of a yucca plant.

Throughout the Q&A session, Dr. Kramer interacted genuinely with the audience, patiently answering questions and explaining basic scientific principles to help us interpret the recent find. He also used illustrative descriptions, such as the image of the yucca plant, to describe an overview of Human Evolution 101 and to share his own perspectives on the discovery. As a non-expert in this scientific area, the event sparked my curiosity in the topic, and I am reading on the recent work in human evolution research. I hope that more scientists and public organizations will focus their outreach efforts on activities (e.g., science cafés) to interact directly with the public. So I ask the science community, how can we create sustainable outreach and communications programs to reach the public? Based on my experience, it seems that community-based activities may be the best approach. I would be curious to hear what others think on this topic.

(Disclaimer: The interpretation of the “Skull 5” finding and the topics at the science cafe are my own interpretation of information from this open public discussion and further fact checking may be required.)

How to Build a Professional Network, Part IVa: Scientific Meetings

Professional conferences and meetings are a great way to network with people, especially professionals in a similar discipline. Also, this platform provides opportunities to gain more experience with presentation skills (if giving a talk or displaying a poster), obtain invaluable feedback on your research project, discover what science is being done outside your specific pigeon-holed research area and to form collaborative relationships. As one colleague shared with me, he feels obligated to attend conferences to “show people he’s not selling cars at the local dealership.” I think this is a logical reason, since science professionals need to show they are active and productive to progress in their personal careers.

However, you don’t have to attend a professional conference or meeting to present your work, but just attending will provide a wealth of rewards, in the form of networking and information. In the days of budget crunches and GSA scandals, you may need to choose wisely which conferences and meetings to attend and be creative on securing funding sources. The following section is a list with resources on finding conferences. Next post, I will present a list of ideas for paying the expenses to attend such meetings.

Review the list of different types of conferences and meetings to identify at least one large conference or a few smaller meetings that you could attend in the next six months:

1.  National Conferences

a.  Professional societies – From the American Astronomical Society to the Zoological Association of America, professional science societies generally host a national meeting each year and several subspecialty meetings.

b.  Government agencies

c.  Technology conferences and expositions

2. Branch Meetings – Professional organizations often have subset chapters, which also host their own branch meetings. These meetings are geographically closer and much more affordable. When joining a professional society, consider paying the local branch fees to get added to the mailing list to receive information on chapter activities.

3. Local conferences and meetings

a.  Employer organized conferences

  • Example: The Committee For Women at Oak Ridge National Lab recently held a ‘Celebrate Women in Science’  poster session and seminar, which was open to all women researchers.

b.  Local technology council and economic business meetings – If you are interested in the technology deployment and business side of science, visit your local chamber of commerce website and see if there are any technology councils or related partnerships in the area that hold a monthly tech council meeting or conference.

c.  University research conferences – Many universities host a free, annual student research conference to give undergraduate and graduate students the chance to showcase their projects.

4. Online conferences – I have not attended an online conference but plan on registering for the following example to experience the format.

5. Job Clubs – I was recently introduced to the concept of a job club, where like-minded professionals form a support group to discuss relevant topics.

6. Plan your own meeting – If you belong to a professional group at work then consider organizing your own mini-conference, like a poster session or career development workshop.

Note: Some of these resources may be discipline-specific to my background and limited to the US, but think about your area of expertise and translate the ideas to fit your needs. Does anyone have any resources to add to this list? Please use the comments section to share these resources with other science professionals!


How to Build a Professional Network, Part II: Informational Interviews

What is the value of an informational interview?

I find informational interviews to be one of the most powerful tools for building a professional network and exploring various science career paths. As the name implies, it simply involves setting up an interview to obtain career-related information from a person who is experienced in a career of interest to you and/or works for an institution in which you wish to make contacts. In general, I have found that people like to talk about themselves (and mostly not in an egotistical sense) and welcome the opportunity to share their background and career history with others. I have had success employing informational interviews as my predominant method for networking. Such interviews have yielded me the opportunity to take on different projects at work in line with my career goals and expanded my professional network at least 5-fold in the last year.

Besides gaining invaluable career-related information and advice, it is also a perfect opportunity to practice verbal communication skills, including describing your own career goals and learning how to translate your qualifications and skill sets to different audiences. Not to be too stereotypical 😉 …but scientists are not well-known for their social skills and in this ever-increasing virtual world, informational interviews are a vital platform by which you can establish professional relationships and maintain the art of verbal communications.

How to conduct an informational interview?

The first step is to identify a list of people to interview: you can start with contacts that you received from a career fair, recommendations from colleagues or even your current supervisor. Next, you will need to send an invitation for an informational interview, determine the best time based on schedules and the proper format (i.e. phone, meet for lunch, etc.) I know some people who are very hesitant to contact people for interviews, especially people that they do not know. Thus, I have gathered some examples of typical emails that I have sent to people requesting an interview in case it might help you with developing an email template.

A typical informational interview will last from 30 minutes to one hour so consider setting aside at least one lunch a week for informational interviews on a regular basis. Before the interview, be sure to look up the background of the interviewee and take some notes on questions that you would like to ask. To help you through the process, I have designed an Informational Interview Template. It can serve as a guide with the type of questions that are useful to ask and arranged in a naturally progressive order. One of the most important questions is the last one in regards to recommendations for other people with whom to speak so you can expand your list of potential interviewees. Finally, it is important to follow-up with the person after the interview with a thank you note and I will expand upon this format in a later post.