The Key to Doing Real Science? Reading and Writing

As I write this in spring 2020, labs around the world are working hard to understand a particular novel coronavirus. Perhaps when you’re reading this, the discoveries necessary to prevent or treat COVID-19 have been found (may it be true). If so, in your now, surely there is some other pressing problem that has researchers’ attention.

Because that’s all that scientists and engineers do, right? They work away in the lab doing science things, learning about the natural world or how to develop new technology.

Well, yes, scientists and engineers work in labs a lot. But not as much as you might think.

So what do scientists and engineers spend most of their worklife time doing? Consider this scenario:

Picture two research groups finding the cure to the exact same virus at the exact same time. The groups are at different institutions, but they have the same operating budget. Which group gets credit for discovering the cure first?

Answer: the first to publish a paper saying they made the discovery.

The group with the better writers gets the credit.

The most essential skill to doing great science or engineering, to get the funding necessary to save the world, has nothing to do with the facts and concepts of science that you learn in a high school textbook or lab. But it is a skill that you are taught. Beyond tests and lab reports however, it’s not the focus of science class.

The essential skills for STEM are taught in the humanities: reading and writing.

This means two things: many more of you have the skills to excel in STEM careers than you may think; and STEM students need to pay attention in non-STEM class to best prepare for a successful career.

How do I know? I’ve worked in six different science labs — spaces where if you’d see a picture, it would scream “research laboratory.” One lab was down the hall from a living, breathing Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. One lab studied rocks from Mars. I’ve worked with lasers that absolutely would not fit in your pocket, melted salt to make ultra-pure solutions, and I’ve worked alongside people discovering new medical treatments using nanotechnology.

But at least as many of my hours spent “doing” science were spent reading and writing about science. Think of it this way: a science dissertation (the writing submitted to get a Ph.D.) can be thought of as massive lab report. Mine was over 60,000 words long. It is far from the longest.

“Real science” is a lot of repetition, collaboration, and reading and writing. Communications is all. Consider the process to find a cure:

1. Read the “literature” (academic journals) to know what’s been found and tried already.

2. Build and motivate a team. Make sure team members are all up to date on the literature too.

3. Plan experiments based on hours of conversations. Distribute the plans to everyone involved.

4. Do the experiments. Many will fail. Figure out how to fix things that break. Keep constant notes so that your colleagues repeat what you need them to and/or start the next step.

5. Interpret the results. Some of them will not make any sense (at first, and maybe never). You will probably have to ask for help from others outside of your team.

6. Repeat Steps 3-5 a lot. If things go sideways, go back to Step 1.

7. Compile the results into a report. You will write many drafts, often with a lot of eyes looking at it, and you will spend longer revising than originally writing.

8a. Success? Great! Now you have to scale up to test and produce the treatment. If you thought there was a lot of paperwork before, buckle up.

8b. Failure? Alas. Join the club, as only about 1 in 20 drug research efforts succeed. So now you go back to Step 1 for some other project.

Every step in the process of discovery has massive amounts of reading and writing. It often takes years to get from Step 1 to Step 8. So you are constantly communicating with new people — some you meet, others you never do.

This means that what STEM looks like as a career is very different from the STEM that you’re taught in high school. But that does not mean that your STEM classes are a waste — they are part of your high school learning experience. ALL of your courses can help you in STEM. Think of all the collaboration in music or sports or theatre combined with the reading and writing in the humanities. Broad skills enhance focused abilities.

So if you ever wondered, that’s why English classes are necessary to pursue any STEM program in university. In fact, the chair of a chemistry department that I once worked in said, “It’s not science until it’s published.”