Scientists need to communicate effectively in order to share their research with colleagues, win fellowships and grants, and inform the general public. “To become successful scientists, students need to write, write regularly and with ease,” says Graduate Writing Center (GWC) Director Elena Kallestinova.
“We are here to help graduate students become confident and competent writers. We offer assistance with every stage of a science student’s academic career: applying for NSF and other grants and fellowships, crafting rotation talks and conference presentations, preparing research papers for publication, and ultimately writing a dissertation. We put a lot of focus on the practical aspects of writing, through peer-review sessions, interactive exercises, and individual consultations.”
“With all the other skills science students are picking up, I think good science communication can sometimes get lost in the mix,” says GWC Fellow Andrea Hodgins-Davis (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology). This year, she and the other Writing Fellows have enjoyed “coming up with programs that entice students out of their labs to learn something new.”
“Because scientific work is so specialized and calls on very specific skills, many writers struggle when they have to switch to a communication mode, but disseminating findings is a critical step in the scientific method,” notes GWC Fellow Brett Marroquin (Psychology). “One of the great things about knowing nothing about pharmacology or theoretical physics or molecular biology is that when I sit down with a student from one of these fields, he or she is forced to communicate effectively in a way we can translate onto the page. And as a side benefit, I get to learn about the shapes of protein kinases, groundbreaking methods for finding invisible particles, and cutting-edge applications of nanotechnology to problems in the developing world.”
Every year, Yale students win fellowships from the National Science Foundation. Funding from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) provides both generous support and a sign of achievement on a resume or curriculum vitae. The Graduate School provides guidance throughout the daunting process. Early last fall, about seventy five first- and second-year students attended an information session with Assistant Dean Robert Harper-Mangels to learn about the fellowships. As the submission deadline approached, GWC Writing Fellows and advisers in the sciences and social sciences conducted a two-day program that included in-depth peer reviews of applicants’ personal and research statements, using a form designed by Kallestinova and the GWC Fellows. Immediately before the due date, the GWC hosted a writing session on Science Hill for those who were finishing up their applications.
Scientific Talks, Papers, and Journal Articles
Because scientists are frequently called upon to speak about their research to other scientists, the GWC ran a two-part program earlier this year titled “How to Give a Great Talk in the Sciences.” Part I, “How to Prepare a Captivating PowerPoint Talk,” covered how to write a strong rotation talk and conference presentation. At that session, Graduate Teaching Center Fellow Marie Bragg illustrated ways to attract and keep an audience’s attention.
Part II was interactive. “The practical experience that students received was what made this workshop so valuable,” says Kallestinova. Writing Fellow Yagmur Muftuoglu (Pharmacology) gave an oral presentation with slides and then asked for criticism. After participants shared what they liked and what they thought could be improved, they each spoke about their work and received oral and written feedback as well as a video recording of their presentation.
The six-session series titled “Research Paper Writing in the Natural Sciences and Engineering,” while not new, was significantly redesigned this year. Kallestinova walked students through the stages of writing a research paper and gave tips on how to strengthen every section of a standard research manuscript from title and abstract through methodology and literature review to conclusions.
I wanted to become a writing adviser because developing our writing and presentation skills is as important
our bench skills.
“I signed up for the program because in my department, we don’t receive any formal training in writing scientific papers,” says Laura DeMare (Genetics). “I would highly recommend the workshop for graduate students – it was, by far, the most worthwhile workshop I have attended while at Yale. The faculty expect us to know how to write a paper for an academic journal, despite the fact that most of us have never done it before. This workshop helped me with the mechanics of what goes into a good manuscript and also made me more confident in my writing.”
Once students master the art of writing research papers, they need to turn them into publishable articles for peer-reviewed journals. The GWC hosted a panel, organized by Andrea and featuring four distinguished Yale researchers – Anjelica Gonzalez, Jo Handelsman, Vivian Irish, and Elsa Yan – who spoke about how to identify the right journal for a research manuscript, communicate with editors, and navigate the submission process. The panel session was recorded in two videos: “Preparing to Publish” / Part 1 and “Preparing to Publish” / Part 2.
Writing the Dissertation
Other new or expanded programs this year focused on the dissertation, beginning with how to write a prospectus. Writing Fellow Jessica Nelson (Neuroscience) presented a step-by-step explanation of how to draft a dissertation proposal and then moderated a panel discussion of graduate students who already had their prospectuses approved. Kallestinova led two eight-session-series of Dissertation Writing Workshops. And during Spring Break, the GWC hosted “Dissertation Study Halls” on Science Hill and at the Medical School, to keep students on track and help them meet the mid-March deadline for submission.
Taiwo Togun (Computational Biology & Bioinformatics) signed up for the Dissertation Writing Workshops in the fall and defended his thesis in March. He wrote to Kallestinova, “Thank you for your kind words, motivation, and practical lessons on how to actually synthesize a decent thesis. My committee members were very happy with my draft, and they had just a few edits.”
Among the useful services the GWC provides are individual consultations. This year, the Writing Center increased its staff and doubled the number of sessions offered, as compared to last year. Meeting at the Writing Center (35 Broadway), the Medical Library (333 Cedar Street), and the Center for Sciences and Social Sciences on Science Hill, these one-on-one sessions focused on whatever students needed to work on: fellowship and grant applications, journal submissions, prospectuses, and dissertation chapters. Writing advisers have reviewed an impressive total of 642 pages of student work.
“I wanted to become a writing adviser because developing our writing and presentation skills is as important as developing our bench skills,” Jessica says.
Nikki Springer (Forestry & Environmental Studies) is a writing adviser because, “Prior to coming to Yale, I lived and worked in Shanghai without speaking a word of Chinese. Knowing how difficult that experience was for me has motivated me to help others at Yale find their voice. In the process, I’ve met some amazing students and learned about their ambitious research goals.”
“Writing has always been a challenge for me,” admits Camille Avestruz (Physics), who sought help from the GWC. “The Writing Center offers the wonderful opportunity to work one-on-one with writing advisers. They have been incredibly helpful when I’ve struggled to flesh out ideas, emphasize points, and tie together a cohesive piece.”
Another student, Catherine Chen (Pharmacology), found it useful to “get out of my head and seek an outside opinion. My adviser, Brett [Marroquin], really helped me think about my thesis more clearly and give it a stronger structure.”
Lauren M. Moore (Pharmacology) admits, “I find it difficult to evaluate my writing objectively; however, the feedback I receive from my writing mentor helps me look at my work with a new perspective. After a writing session, I have a clear and defined strategy and know exactly how to restructure my work to communicate more effectively.”
Yagmur Muftuoglu adds that she is “grateful for the opportunity to help others make the most of their opportunities. We encourage students to make the most of all that the Writing Center offers!”