Reading

Reading is solitary. Readers are not. Readers find each other. I just joined a book club. The idea is similar to all other book clubs (I assume). You read a book, and then you meet at a member’s house and discuss the book for about an hour.

We used to have journal club every other week when I was a graduate student. The idea there was to share the latest findings with fellow group members. Each member was responsible for one journal and would bring 2-3 interesting articles to share with the group. This was great to keep the group up to date on the latest articles and there would always be one or two articles that were really interesting. Here is what happened though: 1. “Oh I should read this paper.” 2. File under “must read”. 3. Forget that paper exists 4. Read that paper if and when you need it for your thesis/paper/research and not remember it from journal club. A more ideal journal club would be one where everybody comes to the table having read one interesting article in detail. The keyword here is detail. Depth is what science is all about. You need breadth, so keep up the journal club. But read that one article, discuss it, dissect it in detail. Go over its outline, the language, the flow. What is strong about it, what makes it a good paper, what makes it a bad paper? What is the major contribution, is it significant, is it interesting, would you like to continue that research, if so how?

If there is one occupation in which reading should take more time than the occupation itself, that occupation is writing. A writer must read more than she writes. I just made that up and not because I am a bookworm or an avid scientific article reader. In fact, I am not, and to be perfectly honest, I have not been for some time. Too much on my plate. Life got in the way. But low reading, I found, is a surefire recipe for my well to dry up. I cannot write. I cannot write because I have not been reading enough. (Boy am I glad my blog is hidden in obscurity and my students are not reading these words.) The one thing this sabbatical is helping me get back to is reading. All reading. Reading books, reading fiction, reading scientific articles.

I just read about the daily habits of wealthy people and it turns out they do a lot of reading, too. I don’t buy it. There are many readers that don’t make money. I know that the fact that those wealthy people read a lot is simple selection bias. But it gives me hope to hear that readers are cool. Reading is cool. I really look forward to more reading this year.

Lab Girl

Lab Girl is a memoir by the plant scientist Hope Jahren. Hope Jahren sure can write. Indeed, her website is https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com/. Not only can she write, you can tell when you read the book or her blog or her twitter feed that she must. She is a superstar communicator. You should stop reading this and go and read the book. But, here goes…

Writing. Most of a scientist’s day is spent writing. Writing grant proposals, writing journal articles, writing references for students. It is a lot of work. You don’t just write, you edit manuscripts written by students and colleagues. I’m telling you; it’s a LOT of work. Yet, some scientists can’t get enough. They write blog posts, they write popular science articles and some even write books. I wish even more scientists would write for the public. The scientific approach applied to world affairs, to politics, and to policy formulation would be such a welcome change from all the hand waving, the populism that drives hate speech, and the fake news we are experiencing today.

Wit. Hope Jahren is a funny and witty author. She is, nonetheless, dead serious about her research and will not tolerate any horsing around. She has a hard time in the lab as well as in life and she shares all of her troubles with us in a most heartfelt way. Her description of her failures are both self deprecating and encouraging. I felt like she wants to make sure the reader loves the science through the witticism despite the hardship.

Grit. While reading this book, I could not help but think about my favorite (fiction) book in the past 5-10 years: The Signature of All Things. Yes, it is by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray and Love fame. The Signature of All Things is an epic saga about Alba, who is a moss scientist. Like any moss scientist, Alba is patient. Alba has grit. Alba is in it for the long haul. Not only is Alba curious and asks questions, but she also knows that she must wait until all questions are answered. Alba perseveres. Sometimes, I think this is a trait of women scientist. We nurture our science. Hope Jahren is very patient, too. She says at the beginning of Chapter 8 “Establishing yourself as a scientist takes an awfully long time.” (This chapter is worth the admission price so I will ask you to go and read the book again.) To make sure her students learn to be patient, too, her first assignment to them is to label empty vials. Then, with Bill (read the book), they tell the new recruit that he did it all wrong. She sees two ways out for when you run into major obstacles: Come back the next day and start over. Or you can work an extra hour longer and “stay in the moment of what went wrong”. Clearly, Hope Jahren always chooses the second option and wants her students to do the same.

Science. It’s all about the science, you know. When all is said and done, Hope Jahren is a plant scientist. Her main goal in life and in writing this book is to understand (and explain) how plants communicate, how they grow, why they grow, how they sometimes don’t grow and wait and survive, why they sometimes don’t grow. The how and the why keep Hope Jahren going. The how and the why keep all of us going. Once you start asking the how and the why, you are a scientist. She says it best: “What comes first is a question, and you’re already there”.