CAREER COLUMN

Keeping two journals has made me a better scientist

Her habit of keeping two journals has helped Adeline Williams to develop observation and recording skills she might otherwise lack.
Adeline Williams is a PhD student in the microbiology department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, studying transgenic mosquitoes resistant to virus infection.

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A pen rests on top of an open journal filled with handwriting on a wooden table

Journaling improves many skills, including some beyond writing.Credit: Bradly Burke

Since my school days, long before I started working on a microbiology PhD at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I have kept a handwritten journal to log my thoughts and feelings as a means of self-expression. My journal helps me to piece together disjointed everyday experiences so that I can ultimately reflect and learn more about myself and the world. This habit has inspired me to maintain a scientific notebook for each project I work on. The notebooks stay behind in the laboratories I’ve worked at, for others to consult. I have found a handwritten scientific notebook, annotated with detailed observations, to be irreplaceable. Looking back to when I was an aspiring scientist and writer, I now realize that keeping two journals, one at home and one in the lab, has taught me to observe the natural world and record my thoughts in an organized manner, often through small but persistent bouts of writing.

I choose to write my scientific notebook by hand, in addition to keeping a digital copy, because there are inherent advantages to both methods. For example, many of my experiments are performed in a biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) lab, so it is difficult to transfer materials, such as notebooks, in or out. I therefore immediately use the computer to record raw data in an online digital log, and then later retrieve, print and annotate them in my handwritten notebook. I’ve found that my digital record of late-night results tends to be a little hurried. Reviewing this record the next day by printing it out and retaking the notes by hand helps me to slow down and to re-examine and interpret the data. Some results, such as big data sets, are just easier to maintain digitally. However, I tend to print out exemplary figures from these data sets and tape them into my notebook, and I almost always end up taking direct notes on these printouts to help my future self remember how the data were generated and what they mean.

Jotting down as many observations as possible makes it easier for my colleagues and me to reproduce my results. My aim is for these notes to help my labmates to understand what I was doing after I leave the lab. Taking notes by hand also helps me to better understand what I’m doing as I plan experiments or revisit results. I record handwritten interpretations of an experiment more carefully because I write slower than I type, which gives me more time to think. Plus, my hand usually hurts, and my space is almost always limited — forcing me to take extra care. Finally, flipping through written accounts on actual pages helps me to review and remember experiments. It can be difficult to make sense of results that might have happened years ago. A day-by-day account of the process that led to them makes it easier to piece the entire story together, and to understand how the results unfolded.

My personal journals at home have similar uses. Unlike my lab notebooks, I have kept them all. They now run to hundreds of handwritten pages that quietly rest in my school neon-green or nondescript moleskin diaries, wide-ruled composition pads, travelogues, university leather-bound notebook and current floral-print journal. Unlike my lab notebooks, which I always structure with ‘Objective’, ‘Outline’, ‘Results’ and ‘Conclusion’ sections, my personal entries take many forms. The only constant is that they are dated. After this, I write in whatever way I choose. As long as I’m writing, I’m happy — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a verbose narrative, a bullet-point list or a shoddy drawing. If I feel like it, I use oversized letters that flout the boundaries of the lines. Some entries are ten pages, some are three words. Giving myself permission to chronicle unedited thoughts in any form removes the intimidation of an empty page so that I can tackle the hardest part: simply starting to write.

Adeline Williams posing for a portrait outdoors with her journal

Thanks to her journals, Adeline Williams is not only a better writer, but a better scientist.Credit: Bradly Burke

Keeping both diaries motivates me to observe what’s happening around me. I find myself noticing small details that could otherwise go unacknowledged or be forgotten, because I plan to write them down later. I try to set aside small periods of dedicated time to quietly observe my environment. In my day-to-day life, this usually means walking outside and consciously noting my surroundings so that I can remember them during my nightly writing session. In my bench life, this usually means printing and taping pictures of gels to a page in my scientific notebook and writing extensive notes about them (“Just noticed I was looking at the western blot on the wrong side. No wonder there were no bands!”). I try to take an extra few seconds to register important observations in my head, almost like making a real-life footnote (*transgenic mosquito line has lots of male pupa). These deliberate cues allow me to mentally note details so that I remember to write them down later.

I feel that journaling has made me a better scientist and a better writer. Both of my journals provide me with a platform to record my unedited observations, which I can later return to and make sense of. As I review my uninhibited thoughts across the pages, I begin to notice the recurring themes by which I live and work. When woven together, the small, seemingly disjointed details tell a unique story that would otherwise be imperceptible.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01826-3

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