Tell Abstract Authors You Love Them

Abstracts, posters, meeting presentations: great for organizing your thoughts, great for meeting new people, lousy for getting you motivated. A typical scenario: you’ve just finished a poster at the last minute, had it printed minutes before you were due to leave for your conference, gone to the conference, saw lots of talks, got lots of new ideas, and then had to deal with all the stress of coming back to “real life” and all the work that piled up while you were away. Seems like a perfect time to rest on your laurels and let that poster ride a little longer (after all, you really did put a lot of effort into it, and it came out generally okay, right?).

There are those who are extrmely driven, seem to have enough time to do everything they set out to do, and even complete the Paleo Project Challenge every year. Then, there are the rest of us. Just a reminder during this holiday of seasons that for every ounce of inspiration you are lacking to finish things up on that particular project that’s been sitting around, data-heavy, for a few years and needs to be shaped up into manuscript form, there are probably dozens of people in your field who feel the same way. Why not give them a bit of extra encouragement for the coming year?

So, my own challenge to keep the science flowing: if you come across an abstract in your research that seems promising but has no later published version, especially if you aren’t acquainted with the author, drop them a friendly line. Tell them how much you appreciated the effort and that you’re waiting for the paper. Let them know you’d love to see the data in print. If you take five minutes of your time doing this, maybe we’ll all get the benefit–plus, who doesn’t like being praised for work they had abandoned for the assumption of lack of interest?

Clever abstract artists may find a way to monetize this, if the data are interesting enough. With a little PayPal encouragement, who knows what can be accomplished?

Looking for Inspiration in the End of a Project

It’s the time of year again where I get a break from classes and from being in North Dakota in general, and get to go visit the folks for a few weeks and get some down time. “Down time” being, for a graduate student, the opportunity to get some serious work done without the distractions of classes, advisors, people down the hall, etc.

Basement whiteboard

One of the projects I want to get mostly completed by the time I return in January is to produce two graphics based on literature and museum data concerning my family-level taxon of study. The first of these will be a range chart of the fossil and modern genera (if not species…we’ll see), the second a map showing where all of these taxa can be found. To the commonfolk (i.e., anyone who has never tried this before) this might seem easy, but it’s really going to take a lot of digging through old papers, searching PDFs, and racking up a heck of a list for interlibrary loan next semester. I rediscovered earlier this week that although there may be a lot of information out there on my taxon, some authors didn’t do the best job of organizing what they knew.

Now, you might ask me why I want to use a great deal of my “break” time to do research. The first reason is that I would like to graduate somewhat soon, and the time for, well, wasting time is over. The second reason is something I had to come up with myself for motivational purposes: I want to help people understand things, and to do that I need to be able to make good graphics.

“Infographics” have been the hot new thing for a couple years now, and Tufte will tell you over and over again that you need to include what data are needed and eliminate the stuff that doesn’t matter. I would also argue that things need to be aesthetically pleasing to be educational, something to which I attribute the use of such soothing colors in introductory textbook diagrams. The point I am trying to make is that I need practice in this area, and I might as well practice now, at the beginning of my dissertation, than at the end when all I will want to do is hand-scribble a diagram, scan it, and call it good enough to hand in.

Optimally, my goal is to make these figures (my range diagram and global distribution map) not only good enough to include in a peer-reviewed journal article but good enough to print out as posters and hang on the wall! This is the goal toward which I am striving: I want someone in a similar research area to be able to use my work as a visual reference, and I want someone who has no clue about my research area to be able to look at it and say “oh yeah, I see how this can be useful.” For a great example, see the “Unionoida cum Grano Salis” poster from the Mussel Project.

Goals like “aesthetically pleasing” and “understandable” are intangible and hard to quantify, but that’s also not the entire point–sure, I’ll be happy to get as close as I can, but my real reason is the second motivation I listed above. If I can picture the future where I’m done with the figures, they look good, and I publish them so others can use them, it makes the drudgery of collating occurrence data that much more bearable–and if that is what gets good science done, let’s do it.