Writing a scientific article

Why do we need to write articles? What is the fun, the excitement? Why is it to some people, writing can be hard and intimidating, while to others it is motivating and exciting? What is the difference in mentality between these different people? How do we improve internally?

These are the questions that surround me constantly when I am working in academia as a graduate student and postdoc, often having to compete for positions, funding and research ideas, as well. I am not against competitions and selections in general. I believe some competition can be good, healthy and important for the whole academic system. However, ultimately, what really matters is that we find time to evaluate ourselves, make progress in our own goals to become a better, kinder, stronger and more knowledgable person. This to me is a more important target for life.

Recently, I finally published an article in a well-respected journal, and I think it is a good opportunity to reflect on this a little so that it will improve my own work in the future. It might also be useful for others who have similar questions in their heads. This article took me probably three years to finish off, which is a substantial amount of work really. Certainly, it is not the only work I am working on. In academia, it is very common that we work on multiple projects at the same time. This often makes time-management challenging, because we must learn to better organize our ideas, materials, equipment, experiments, results, as well as writing.

So here is the paper, published in journal Astrobiology:

This project began when I started to research how fossils form and preserve. At this point, I tried a lot of experiments by growing cyanobacteria in the lab, subject them to high silica concentrations, and then run diagenesis experiments. What was found is that these experiments generally fail to preserve anything beyond 250 C, 250 bar. Everything was gone. I spent a lot of time troubleshooting and figuring out what is the cause. This took almost a year and no systematic real results were in sight.

Then an opportunity came by when I received some silicified cyanobacteria in a sample from Carolina, a colleague from Chile who met my advisor, Mark during a meeting in Iceland. The sample was fascinating; I was immediately hooked. An idea then came — why do I have to spend all the work in the lab trying to silicify organisms, while there is this perfect example of a silicified cyanobacterial community out there in nature, ready to be sampled. Why not just use this material as the starting material for my experiments? It is natural, representative and most of all, a good test and comparison with all my previous experiments that are difficult to publish.

So I took the challenge, communicated this idea with various people, and got myself an opportunity for the trip of a lifetime – to go to El Tatio, Chile and sample the living/just fossilized organisms there. The trip turns out to be more than satisfying. I made subsequent two more trips and now have two more papers that will come out of this collaboration. This example shows that as a geologist whose subject of study is nature, it is important to go out to nature. Studying and describing nature’s complicity is actually for more productive than sitting ducks in the lab. If we do experiments, we better execute experiments that are directly motivated by a natural setting, in fact, the more specific the better. When we say big goals such as: “we wanted to understand the fundamental processes how fossils form”, it is actually a very vague question that is simultaneously a very bad hypothesis, which usually will lead to nowhere. There is no experiments that can be efficiently done. There are no tests and alternatives to be compared with. As the power and the very method of science is in the detailed comparisons between experiments and controls, a vague question will not make move us to make progress. However, this is different to say that we should not ask big questions. Quite the opposite, we should only ask big questions, but well-defined questions targeting an important, insightful subset of the big question. This is the way to not only move yourself forward, but along with you the entire scientific community.

To be continued…

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