Moving Forward by Looking Back: Revisiting Old Posters, Papers, and Texts

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A couple of the posters that hang outside the lab.

Deep in the darkest depths of the E-quad, there is a lab I go to—a lab where I run all my optics experiments, run tests with the breath analyzer instrument I work with, and that I have come to know and love during the past year. The entrance to the lab actually includes a space for presentation posters, which show off the work of graduate students and past interns. Usually I’m in a rush to get in or out and don’t spare these posters a second glance. But last week, for some reason or another (perhaps because I was feeling less stressed than usual), I decided to take some time to  look at them.

When I did, I was surprised. What had seemed to me before like a mass of incomprehensible jargon and tangle of convoluted science was now something more tangible—here were key words I had encountered over and over again throughout the past year, concepts I had heard about many times in group meetings. Even within a mix of phrases that were still not so familiar to me, I could at least grasp what the projects were about and start to see what was so relevant and interesting about these projects. I even found the work that described the novel technology behind the breath analyzer instrument I currently work on, and I felt good being able to understand that poster in its entirety.

It’s kind of strange. Even though I had looked at these posters before, that was back when I had first joined the lab, more than a year ago. That meant my knowledge of the science behind all the projects in the lab was, at best, limited. So last week, when I looked at those posters again, it was like I was looking at them entirely anew, from an engaged rather than a confused standpoint. Indeed, I felt more like a student in a conference who learns interestedly about a new portable instrument that can detect carbon dioxide more sensitively than before rather than one who stands lost, wondering what the words “magnetic circular birefringence” and “optimization of SNR” mean.

Normally, because the learning process is so continuous and fraught with frustration and difficulty, it can be hard to tell really how far you’ve come since the beginning. While it’s true the learning curve can be very steep, and entering that frightening world of jargon is still a struggle, taking the time to appreciate the progress you have made can be a good motivation to keep going.

In fact, it’s not only limited to posters—looking back at papers I tried reading when I first entered my field of research (not the best way to get an introduction to the subject, by the way) has also been immensely instructive. You really don’t necessarily have to read something new to learn something—sometimes, revisiting old papers can be just as informative. And for me, looking back at these papers resolidified the abstract concepts and ideas in my mind, allowing me to remember what exactly has been done to date and where we’re trying to go with our current research.

So if you’re ever feeling stuck or demotivated, maybe a trip down memory lane, whether by looking through your own past work or the posters and papers of others you’ve looked at before, is the way to go. Who knows—it might even be the way forward.

– Stacy Huang, Engineering Correspondent