The Goal of this Site

When reading this blog, please relax, enjoy the journey that is scientific learning and remember that science is for everyone.

Lets start in the clearest spot for me - what I don’t want - and my motivation behind this site. This shouldn’t be a site dedicated to just my work or specific field of interest1. All to often it is easy to get caught up in our specialty and lose sight of the larger field. My hope is that this site will help introduce topics in an easy to understand way. Some of my greatest ‘Aha’ moments have been when I finally understood how and why a technique is useful. Also, if you read the About Me section, you will notice that I have worked in many seemingly closely related fields. However, I have been surprised how disparate they are in terms of cross talk.

Science and biology can be understood by everyone.

In addition, my classes with other general scientist have made it clear that one of the greatest barriers to reading and understanding scientific papers outside your specialty is the methods section. Many times it is neither practical2 nor appropriate3 to explain the logic behind a technique in a paper. It can be hard to find a good summery of what the this technique actually is in the broad sense. While wikipedia might be your first stop, it can get into the nitty-gritty and be quite challenging (even for me) to follow4.

With all that in mind, I hope to bring techniques to you in digestible bites and maybe even point to their elegant use in the literature. Posts will included an explanation level rating. You may have note that with these different levels, some techniques may get multiple entries at different levels, but not all will. I personally believe that any technique can be explained at even the simplest level. Thus, if a level of explanation isn’t already available here, feel free to ask (via comment or email) for a post covering it.

Ultimately, I hope to encourage discussion on these techniques. There is no such thing as a dumb question. If you don’t understand, then I didn’t do a good enough job explaining. I also strongly encourage commenting/discussion as I am not an expert on all of the techniques I will be covering. Additionally, the best way to really master a technique (I am looking at you graduate students) is to teach it. I have have been repeatedly told that to tackle a new technique you should ‘watch one, do one, and then teach one’. The whole point of this is to encourage greater collaboration between specialties and get everyone engaging with science.

Guide to Explanation Levels

Introductory is intended for a general, non-scientist audience (middle school or above), including those scared5 by science. Expect analogies and a focus more on the purpose behind a technique.

General is aimed at anyone with an interest (but not necessarily training) in science. This will include more on the logic behind the technique and its application (use and conclusions).

Detailed is reserved for biologist-in-training, as it will include some discussion of the measurement involved in the technique, which may be beyond the interest of a casual reader. However, the level of detail will still be at that of an introduction rather than a protocol6. Additionally, this will be where differences in variants on the technique will be discussed in greater depth.

  1. While I want this site to cover a wide variety of scientific topics, to start with it will be focused on biology. This is a reality of the fact that my personal knowledge is biased. However, as this blog grows, I hope to have other explanations branching out in to general science (physics, informatics, etc) and statistics. 

  2. It’s wonderful to condense a methods section to “Gene expression level was measured via in situ hybridization per some_other_paper” for word count, but this leave the reader with two bad options. They can either interrupt their reading to look up the cited paper or they can move one with basically no idea of the actual experiment. 

  3. Tons of detail allows others to repeat the experiment but can overwhelm the reader - huge blocks of text are scary - and can obscure the intention of technique. 

  4. This is especially true if there is complex math or chemistry behind the technique.  

  5. Note that I am not saying bored or turned-off as I believe this is just someone who hasn’t yet had a good experience with science. There is no judgment here and if anything I am more liable to blame us scientists for poorly engaging the public with long or unclear explanations.

    I am not a historian. I hate memorizing facts like dates, but I think its great that people study how events in history fit together to lead to others. I have found history so much more enjoyable when I get a person to actually put it in simple terms for me and guide me through it. I hope that this blog can be something similar for those who feel that way about science. 

  6. There are many sources for this - methods papers and technical manuals such as Molecular Cloning readily come to mind. I would also strongly suggest contacting someone familiar with the technique as they can provide a bunch of insight into important steps. There is no substitute for experience