When writing a research manuscript or a lab report, I have been conditioned to complete all of my experiments first and then start by writing the results section. My mentors have always encouraged me to start with the section that ‘writes itself’, given that when you obtain your experimental results, you cannot alter them. I started the school year thinking I would use this approach for my thesis – focus strictly on experiments during the fall and the start of spring semester and transition into the written portion of the thesis during late spring semester. However, while I was at home and outside of the lab between Thanksgiving break and early February, I knew I could not spend more than 2 months without thesis progress. Although I did not have my results nearly ready by that point, I began to brainstorm different ways in which I could work on my lab-based thesis without access to the lab. In this post, I will highlight ideas and resources that can help you make progress on your thesis, even while you are outside of the lab.
Begin Condensing Literature – Before I began conducting experiments, I did an extensive literature review on the methods that I would be using for my research. Specifically, my senior thesis is exploring methods to quantify the DNA breaks that occur in bacterial populations upon antibiotic treatment, so I analyzed in great detail the break types that are expected with the antibiotic class I was using in order to determine the best quantification methods. Although I had studied this before beginning my experimental work, I realized that I had not actually written this portion of my thesis yet. A significant portion of my thesis will be dedicated to experimental results and discussion, but the research related to my review of the experimental methods will also be included, as this will complement the rest of my data. Thus, a great place to start making progress outside of the lab is by outlining all of the literature readings that you have done. It may seem as if a lab-heavy thesis should only include relevant experimental results, but by taking a closer look at the literature, you will see other aspects of the research that are also worth highlighting in your thesis!
Attend Residential College Thesis Workshops – When I received the email about Butler’s Thesis Fridays workshops, I mistakenly believed that this would be a ‘writing workshop’, where students would be in a silent zoom room simply writing. This was not the case. After speaking with some of my friends that had attended, they explained that Resident Graduate Students (RGSs) were also in attendance – many of whom were conducting laboratory or field research in the molecular biology and ecology and evolutionary biology departments – and were available to answer questions from students. While attending a Thesis Friday workshop myself, not only did the RGSs help me organize and synthesize my reading materials, they also gave me suggestions on how to type up my protocols now in order to facilitate the process of writing the materials and methods section of my thesis later. Specifically, they told me that after writing a ‘step-by-step’ protocol, I should write a description in paragraph form and in past tense and third person in order to both prepare for the experiment I would perform and to prepare for the methods section. Given that the RGSs have years of experience reading and writing manuscripts, amongst other academic work, their input is very valuable throughout the process, and I will definitely be attending future Thesis Fridays as I continue to make progress on my thesis.
Meet with a McGraw Grad Peer Coach – Similar to the role of the RGSs at the Thesis Fridays workshops, McGraw has Graduate Student Peer Coaches, and they are available to meet 1-on-1 with students to discuss different strategies to approach the senior thesis. In addition, the Graduate Peer Coaches are also available to answer more general questions about senior year, preparing for the post-graduation transition, and navigating through personal challenges that may present themselves throughout the semester. If you are looking for a mix of specific advice to help with thesis progress and advice on other aspects of senior year life that will help you reach a stronger, more confident state while working on your thesis, I encourage you to meet with any of the Graduate Peer Coaches!
Work on Statistical or Computational Analysis – Depending on your research topic, it is likely that your experimental results will require either statistical or computational analysis. For my project specifically, the DNA sequencing data generated after my DNA break quantification experiments requires that I use a computational program to analyze my results. While I was at home, I explored the different programs and softwares I could use, including Princeton’s Galaxy workflow system and programs from other research groups that had been published on Github for research access. Princeton also offers remote systems, such as The Nobel System, so that you can access a Linux system remotely using any device, which allowed me to easily use even programs that had originally been designed only for Linux use. Thus, while I was at home, I worked on figuring out how to use this program. Even if you do not have any complete results yet – a situation that I found myself in during winter break – you can test sample data or work with your thesis mentors to figure out if any other lab members have similar projects that you can use as a reference. This will save you time in the long run, once you have complete results and are ready to begin analyzing.
Lab work consists of a combination of experiments, data analysis, literature readings, and writing to present your results. While it is beneficial to get ahead in the experimental portion of the thesis early, as you will have enough time to adjust or change methods whenever necessary, it is also important to work on other aspects of the project as well. Those aspects include reviewing the literature, analyzing your data using statistical or computational methods, or receiving advice on how to even approach your thesis. Thus, being away from the lab, even if it is for more than two months, does not have to set you behind! Instead, use this time to get ahead in other areas of your thesis.
-Saira Reyes, Engineering Correspondent