Lab Talk: Where does the science go?

Borrowed from imgs.xkcd.com

So I said I’d try talking about the basics of what it’s like in the field of biology, and here’s my first attempt to say something about it.

First, I’d like to start off with myself and where I’m speaking from. I just started a Ph.D. program in genetics this semester. I’ve worked in a lab as an undergraduate for three years, usually for credit during the school year, but also full-time for two summer programs. I’ve done poster presentations, I’ve done/presented/written up an undergraduate thesis project, and my name is on one of the papers put out by my lab.

That said, as I’m just starting my graduate career, there are things that I’m sure I’ll change my mind on, and maybe we’ll get to see that on this blog. My intention is to address topics that are fairly basic, though, so I should know enough about them that I’m not going to need to correct my statements with time.

The first thing I want to talk about is what happens when a research lab does experiments and gets results. There are three basic ways researchers present their data to colleagues outside of their own labs: 1) papers in journals. 2) conference presentations. 3) poster presentations.

The first one is the big one. In academia, everyone wants to get published. This is important for everyone in an academic lab, from grad students to PIs (Principal Investigators, the name given to the professors at the head of a lab). There are many scientific journals out there. Amongst the most prestigious are Nature and Science. You’ll notice that these journals publish more than research papers, but I’m not going to talk about that.

The scientific papers that I’m talking about are the ones with abstracts, figures, and very specialized titles. If you look at them, and I’m not saying you should, you’ll notice that they’re very much geared towards others in the field. The further the topic is from something you’ve worked with, the more trouble you’ll probably have reading the paper. This is the main way that research gets out there.

As there are a lot of journals, there are also databases compiling all of these articles together, so we can search papers by topics that are relevant to what we’re doing. PubMed is the one I’ve used most often, and it’s the one most people I know go to. Despite the name, I was still primarily using this database when I wasn’t doing anything related to health. So it’s a general biology resource.

Conference presentations are the ones I know the least about. People give powerpoint presentations about their research and answer questions asked by the audience. I’ll throw in more details when I’ve been to more conferences.

I’ve been to some poster presentations, though, usually set up by a department or a school for people to get an idea of what the people around them are doing. It’s a more casual event, where people put up posters with data and information on their experiments and everyone walks around, looking at the posters. Sometimes people just read the information, sometimes they ask questions, sometimes they ask the person who made the poster to present it to them. Fitting all that information on one small poster or in one five minute presentation is not easy, by the way.

The take away is that papers are the most important of these and have the potential to reach the most amount of people, provided enough people are interested in the topic. The databases referencing all of the papers allow people to search for specific research that relate to their own projects. The journals that accept the papers are peer-reviewed, meaning that other scientists working on something similar will review the work before it’s published.

Feel free to ask questions or ask for clarification in the comments. Also feel free to give any feedback–constructive criticism, alternate opinions, whether or not you got anything out of this post.

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