Thursday, February 16, 2012

Writing in the Sciences: Injecting Your Voice into Research

I, like several other tutors in the Writing Center, am a science major, biology to be specific. Hardly a week goes by when I am not expected to produce some kind of report based on lab work. A lab report is something that is both very different and very similar to traditional “English class writing.” Lately, we’ve had many freshman science majors come into the WC and ask for help, because the concept of lab report writing is difficult to grasp at first, especially for those accustomed to the open-to-interpretation style of typical English 101 and 102 assignments. With students, one of the major struggles I have noticed is limiting the flowery wording and becoming more concise, analytical, and unbiased. This is not to say, however, that one cannot infuse the report with his or her own writing style. There are several methods one can use to ensure lab reports still have that personal touch that is so satisfying to see in one’s writing.

First, a brief overview of the typical structure of a lab report might be beneficial. Lab reports are split into four sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Introduction section introduces pertinent background information from other research and data. At the end of this section, the hypothesis succinctly describes the prediction that was tested during the experiment. The Methods section briefly describes the steps that the experimenter(s) took to test the hypothesis. This part of the report needs to be detailed, short, and written in the past tense. Next, the Results section illustrates the data obtained from the experiment, often utilizing graphs and tables. Finally, the Discussion section is the portion of the report in which the results are analyzed, the findings are compared to past research, and the hypothesis is judged by whether or not it was supported by the experimental data.

Succinct, brief, detailed, and short are just some of the words I used to describe an ordinary lab report. None of these words exactly lend themselves to personal interpretation and expression. It is true that a large portion of lab reports are very matter-of-fact and cut and dry. The key to personalizing a lab report lies in the only section in which it is appropriate to interpret data: the Discussion section. The Discussion section could also be called the Interpretation section. After the many trials you performed to complete the experiment, this section allows you to have free reign over your ideas, within reason of course. Logical, well thought out conclusions from your data are placed here, along with the implications for future research and study. Here you can state your goals for furthering your findings and advancing scientific knowledge as a whole. It is the place in a lab report where you can broaden your horizons and help other researchers become interested in your findings and motivated to learn even more, often through their own subsequent research.

No matter how trivial you may find the experiment to be, the findings in the lab report are your property. The data you find are the fruits of your labor, and your interpretation is entirely up to you. People who do research for a living submit their reports to the scientific community proud of their accomplishments. They spend much of their time polishing their reports, because they want them to be both professional and unique. This is what I find exciting about science. Researchers independently experiment with their hypotheses and then report their findings to their peers. It is a collaborative effort to further scientific knowledge, but it would not be possible without individual scientists publishing exciting and deeply personal research. The next time you write a lab report, remember this quote from psychologist John Dewey, “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”

Eddie Hamrick

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