research

First year, through the eyes of a baby bird

From my journal, April 2014, 6 months into my first year of grad school.

This is what I feel like. Vulnerable, awkward, feeling tentative about leaving the comfort of my nest, beak wide open hoping to consume as much as possible.

I still feel like that sometimes. I think baby birds usually learn how to fly pretty quickly, but becoming a researcher is not so quick. I spent a while early in my grad career flapping my wings frantically – I was doing the activities that I saw everyone else doing, but I felt like I still wasn’t getting it in the way that they were. They’d flap and fly. I’d flap and stay grounded.

But gradually, my flapping started to lift me off the ground. Initially, I’d be airborne only briefly. Over time, I spent longer in the air. I’m still on the ground flapping some days, but I now spend much more time actually flying. I probably couldn’t yet withstand a full-blown winter migration, but I can get from place to place. The real miraculous thing is that some days I don’t even have to flap my wings so hard to fly. I flap a little, and with way less effort than I used to expend, I can soar.

But we all start as baby birds.

Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

A grad student’s perspective on piecing together a stellar research team

This week I wrote for Quartzy’s blog, The Q, which focuses on “Life, Science, and Stories for Labs.” I hope I hit on all three with my post on cultivating a stellar research team. As a PhD student, I’m far from the position of putting together an entire lab research team, but my research does require that I assemble a microcosm of a larger lab group. The Research Assistants I work with are invaluable contributors to my research, so I’ve put a lot of thought into what’s important for a research team and what I can do to ensure we stay stellar.

Interested to hear thoughts on what other people find important for their research teams, and best practices for creating the ideal ethos for your team.

Here’s the post!

Slowing down

I recently had a (teary) conversation with a mentor about my dissertation. I’ve done a lot of research, much of which I’m not even planning to include in my dissertation, but I know (and my dissertation committee said) that my dissertation could use more depth. I was attempting to pitch a new experiment to add in, and I received feedback that I was probably trying to squeeze moisture from a rock that might give me a few drops, but that other projects would probably result in better bang for my buck (more important results for the time I’d have to put in). She suggested I might be sacrificing quality for speed.

My first reaction was to feel defensive. I’m pouring effort in, churning out experiments, grinding the data as quickly as possible, and drafting up the results. There’s not much validation in the PhD process: there are no gold stars and criticism far outweighs praise.

Further, academic work often feels like a race. You get credit for the number of publications you have and the impact factors of those publications. Early on a professor commented, “You are now in the paper business. Every activity you do in grad school should geared toward that end.” I’ve embraced my role in the paper business, assimilating academia’s publish or perish mentality into my work, allowing it to drive the papers I read, the experiments I run, and how I frame those experiments, creating new stories to explain unexpected results. I’m playing the game, and I think I’m playing it pretty well, and now she wants me to slow down?

As our conversation (is it still a conversation if one person is struggling to make sentences amidst tears?) continued, I started to come around to what she was saying: yes, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself. Yes, I am hyper-focused on forward progress, and no, I haven’t thought too much about whether the work I’m doing is really the most impactful it can be. I’m staying busy and making sure I have things to show for that busy-ness. I cannot rest until I check something off a list, and at that point I’ve probably added a few more items to the list anyway.

But since I already have good research, and I’m not running out of funding, maybe it is time to take a step back. I need to pull away from the quest to find yet another p-value that’s less than .05, and think about bigger ideas: What important answers do we still not have about how metaphors shape cognition? And how can I work on those? As I started truly believing that I should slow down, I stumbled upon this great post on The Slow Grad Student – great affirmation.

One thing that helps me take a step back in evaluating my research is to truly take a step back from work. No one helps me do that quite like my best friend (whom I’m married to, coincidentally!), and I spent the past weekend visiting him (Steven lives in San Antonio and I live in San Diego).

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I hope some of the time we spent jogging, cooking dinner, and working on our jigsaw puzzle has helped me recharge and put publish-or-perish pressures on the back burner to do the best work I can.

Narratives for communicating climate change

Last week I wrote about work by UC researchers on framing climate change, a chapter that focuses on how we can harness our understanding of human psychology — how we learn, think, and behave — to communicate science better. Here’s another paper (one that’s gotten very popular, very quickly) that considers human cognition for the efficacy of communicating about climate change.

Narrative Style Influences Citation Frequency in Climate Change ScienceThe authors of this paper (Ann Hillier, Ryan Kelly, & Terrie Klinger, all from the University of Washington) started with the insight from psychology that people understand and remember story-like (narrative) writing better than explanatory (expository) writing. They considered abstracts from 802 scientific papers about climate change, and looked for different markers of narrative structure:
1) description of setting (where/when the events took place)
2) narrative perspective (the presence of a narrator)
3) sensory language (appealing to the senses or emotions)
4) conjunctions (used often in narratives to connect narratives logically)
5) connectivity (phrases that create explicit links to something mentioned earlier in the text)
6) appeal (whether the text makes an appeal to the reader or a recommendation for specific action)

The authors crowdsourced this first part of their data analysis. This means that non-scientists who use an online job platform (crowdflower.com) were given the authors’ instructions for analyzing the abstracts. This way, each abstract was analyzed by 7 independent people, and involved human interpretation and discretion, which can likely provide a more accurate index of narrativity than any computerized methods can at the moment.

The authors considered how many times each paper in the study had been cited by others as a reflection of how much impact each paper had on subsequent science conducted. They found that 4 of their 6 narrative indicators (sensory language, conjunctions, connectivity, and appeal to reader) were related to how frequently articles were cited by others. In other words, papers higher in narrativity were cited more often than those that were more expository.

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Subset of Figure 1, showing that as articles increase in narrativity, their citations increase as well.

The more citations a paper receives, the more other researchers will see the work. It’s possible that higher quality work lends itself better to a narrative style, so papers high in narrativity will also be cited often. Since this study is correlational, we have no way of ruling out this possibility that the best science is conducive to narrative presentation, and it would be cited a lot regardless of its narrative style because it’s just good research. The causal arrow is not clear here, but it is clear that impactful research tends to take on a narrative structure. Even though narrative writing doesn’t necessarily lead to citations, imitating the style of papers that are cited often doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.

This work is not the first to suggest that narratives can be helpful for understanding climate change. FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that designs ways to communicate complex issues and tests their efficacy for cognitive and behavior changes, has a toolkit that uses (visual) narratives to communicate about climate change. (Also note that the toolkit is just the tip of the iceberg for the extensive work FrameWorks has done on communicating climate change.)

Together, the work by FrameWorks and the study of narrativity and citations present a pretty clear takeaway for climate scientists (and likely scientists in many fields): ease off the traditional academic expository style and lean into a more understandable and memorable narrative style.


For an interesting (and more critical) take on this paper, see this post by Randy Olson at scienceneedsstory.com)

TLDR Guide to Ch 5 of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda

Each day so far this week, I’ve shared my highlights of the National Academy of Science’s guide and research agenda for communicating science effectively (ch1, ch2, ch3, ch4). Today I’ll cover the final chapter.


Chapter 5: Building the knowledge base for effective science communication

This chapter brings back a number of issues discussed in earlier chapters with a focus on how the science of science communication can continue to be more informative.

Scientific communications often have an underlying assumption that when communication is done well, the public’s understanding of and attitudes about societal issues will be affected. It seems like a reasonable assumption, but it has not been extensively tested, and there are likely many conditions under which the assumption is false. “Good” communication alone won’t suffice for many of science communicators’ goals.

Future steps for science communicators

The report calls for more partnerships between researchers and science communicators to put into practice the lessons revealed by research on science communication. These partnerships will also be important for furthering research on science communication and testing hypotheses about ideal communication practices.

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I had never considered the possibility that science communication could be irrelevant for the achieving end goals. I think science communicators generally believe that it’s important for their messages to be communicated, and in many cases this is probably true, but I think it is worth considering the relative importance of science communication in creating changes compared to all the other things that also matter.

Using a systems approach to guide research on science communication

In cognitive science, we’re often drawn to look at the cognition of a system. For example, we might not just look at neural activity in order to try to understand some cognitive process, but instead will consider the whole body, environment, and culture in which the cognitive act is situated. This report calls us to think about science communication similarly: every communicative effort is part of a larger system, encompassing the content being communicated, its format, the diverse organizations and individuals who make up the communicators and audiences, the channels of communication, and the political and social contexts that the communication takes place in. This kind of holistic perspective takes into account the system-wide complexity instead of focusing on isolated elements, since findings about elements in isolation may not hold in complex and realistic situations. Since research does often need to be specific to be productive, the report suggests that researchers who are focusing on a single level or element in the system should at least be “acutely aware” of the broader context.

More research

We need more research that will inform best practices for communicating science. Some of this research should come in the form of randomized controlled field experiments, which will involve comparison conditions (for example, strategy A was more successful than strategy B) that take place in identical groups (participants were randomly assigned so that people who received strategy A didn’t differ in any way from those who received strategy B except in the strategy they received).

The report also calls for more training for researchers at all career levels, both so that the science of science communication can continue to become more rigorous, and also so that all other scientists can improve the way they communicate about their own work.


Seriously, we can all get better. This report is long, but it has a lot of important points for science communicators, which I’ve tried to distill into this series of blog posts. For me, the report provides encouragement: there’s a lot we already know about ways to most effectively communicate science, and there’s a comprehensive agenda for continuing to improve.

CogSci 2016 Day 3 Personal Highlights

  • There is more to gesture than meets the eye: Visual attention to gesture’s referents cannot account for its facilitative effects during math instruction (Miriam Novack, Elizabeth Wakefield, Eliza Congdon, Steven Franconeri, Susan Goldin-Meadow): Earlier work has shown that gestures can help kids learn math concepts, but this work explores one possible explanation for why this is so: that gestures attract and focus visual attention. To test this, kids watched a video in which someone explained how to do a mathematical equivalence problem (a problem like 5 + 6 + 3 = __ + 3. For some kids, the explainer gestured by pointing to relevant parts of the problem as she explained; for others, she just explained (using the exact same speech as for the gesture-receiving kids). The researchers used eye tracking while the kids watched the videos and found that those who watched the video with gestures looked more to the problem (and less at the speaker) than who watched the video sans gesture. More importantly, those who watched the gesture video did better on a posttest than those who didn’t. The main caveat was that the kids’ eye patterns did not predict their posttest performance; in other words, looking more at the problem and less at the speaker while learning may have contributed to better understanding of the math principle, but not significantly; other mechanisms must also be underlying gesture’s effect on learning. 

    But in case you started to think that gestures are a magic learning bullet:

  • Effects of Gesture on Analogical Problem Solving: When the Hands Lead You Astray (Autumn Hostetter, Mareike Wieth, Keith Moreno, Jeffrey Washington): There’s a pretty famous problem for cognitive science tests studying people’s analogical abilities, referred to as Duncker’s radiation problem: A person has a tumor and needs radiation. A strong beam will be too strong and will kill healthy skin. A weak beam won’t be strong enough to kill the tumor. What to do? The reason this problem is used as a test of analogical reading is that participants are presented a different story – an army wants to attack a fortress (and the fortress is at the intersection of a bunch of roads), but there are mines placed on the roads leading up to it, so the whole army can’t pass down one road at a time. Yet if they only send a small portion of the army down a road, the attack will be too weak. The solve this by splitting up and all converging on the fortress at the same time. Now can you solve the radiation problem? Even though the solution is analogous (target the tumor with weak rays coming from different directions) people (college undergrads) usually still struggle. It’s a testament to how hard analogical reasoning is.
    But that’s just background leading to the current study, where the researchers asked: if people gesture while retelling the fortress story, will they have more success on the radiation problem? To test this, they had one group of participants that they explicitly told to gesture, one group that they told not to gesture, and a final group that they didn’t instruct at all regarding gestures. They found that the gesturers in fact did worse than non-gesturers, and after analyzing the things that people actually talked about in the different conditions, discovered that when people gestured, they tended to talk more about concrete details of the situation – for example, the roads and the fortress – and this focus on the perceptual features of the fortress story actually inhibited their ability to apply the analogical relations of that story to the radiation case.
    Taking this study into consideration with the previous one, it’s clear that gesture is not all good or all bad; there are lots of nuances of a situation that need to be taken into account and lots of open questions ripe for research.
  • tDCS to premotor cortex changes action verb understanding: Complementary effects of inhibitory and excitatory stimulation (Tom Gijssels, Daniel Casasanto): We know the premotor cortex is involved when we execute actions, and there’s quite a bit of debate about to what extent it’s involved in using language about actions. They used transcranial direct current stimulation – a method that provides a small electrical current to a targeted area of the brain – over the premotor cortex (PMC) to test for its involvement in processing action verbs (specifically, seeing a word or a non-word and indicating whether it’s a real English word). People who received PMC inhibitory stimulation (which decreases the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing) were more accurate for their responses about action verbs, while those who received PMC excitatory stimulation (increasing the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing). This at first seems paradoxical – inhibiting the motor area helps performance and exciting it hurts, but there are some potential explanations for this finding. One that seems intriguing to me is that since the PMC is also responsible for motor movements, inhibiting the area helped people suppress the inappropriate motor action (for example, actually grabbing if they read the verb grab), and as a consequence facilitated their performance on the word task; excitatory stimulation over the same area had the opposite effect. Again, this study makes it clear that something cool is going on in the parts of our brain responsible for motor actions when we encounter language about actions… but as always, more research is needed.

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  • Tacos for dinner. After three days of long, stimulating conference days, the veggie tacos at El Vez were so good that they make the conference highlight list.

For every cool project I heard about, there were undoubtedly many more that I didn’t get to see. Luckily, the proceedings are published online, giving us the printed version of all the work presented at the conference. Already looking forward to next year’s event in London!