Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Questions every biologist should ask before starting research

It's getting to be that magical time of year again! No, it's not Christmas. I'm talking about the time of year when most professors and students have time off from coursework and can venture out to do fieldwork! Whether you're spending the better part of a full day traveling to Madagascar or driving a few minutes from home to your field site, field work is arguably the best part of being a biologist. That said, there are a few things I've learned from my own experiences that I think are worth sharing. Here are ten questions I think everyone should ask themselves before they head to the field.

1. What's the point? No really, what is the significance of your research? This matters because you're probably going to have to include a significant portion of your write-up, whether it's a thesis, academic paper, or paper for class, to what makes your research matter. Knowing the significance of your research also helps you if you're applying for any type of grant or funding because it will definitely be a major factor when considering if your research is worth funding.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife
2. What are the applications of your research? Can anyone use your results? If you're working in a national or state park, are those officials going to use what you've learned in their practices? Or will your results make a difference to future research projects?

3. What's the minimum you need to accomplish this research? Stuff goes wrong. Plans fail. Something you never could have imagined happens and completely changes your plan. Can your research survive? What part of your methods is essential?

4. How much data do you want to collect? What's the least amount of data you need to collect in order for your project to be successful?

5. Who can you rely on for help? You'll likely have questions. Maybe something will go terribly wrong or maybe you'll think of a great idea while in the field. You might not have the time or resources to research that new idea or alternative plan fully, so who can you call? Who can you email for advice? Are there experts out there you haven't met personally, but who may be worth mustering up the courage to shoot an email to? I'm a big fan of collaboration and scientists helping scientists. Chances are, if you're polite and the person you're requesting help from isn't a total jerk, that person will extend a hand or point you in the direction of someone who can answer your question.

6. How excited you are about this research? Because you're going to encounter bumps in the road,
you're probably going to work on this project more than you ever imagined, and your project is going to be questioned and scrutinized, so you better love it. You better be invested. You're going to have a much harder time if this was really your advisor's idea and it's not your baby, it might be a long road.

Me observing sifakas
Photo credit: Saotra Rakotonomenjanahary
7. How can you connect with nonprofits and conservation organizations to make your research have a significant impact? Yes, your research probably has a very important indirect effect on conservation biology. Sure, studying the reproduction of the Vences' chameleon will help us understand more about the species, thus conserving it. But wouldn't it be better if you could pair with WWF for example and attach a more direct conservation project to your research, collaborate with a partner outside of academia, and make more of a difference?

8. What's the best way to collect data, knowing you're going to eventually enter it all into an Excel sheet and run statistical analyses on it? Think about how you're going to analyze your data. Think about how you're going to arrange your observation sheets and your field notebook so that it's painless (relatively) to enter it all into your computer. You also want your data to go smoothly from your Excel or FileMaker Pro or whatever to a statistical software package. Reformatting your data because you didn't take the time to think about it beforehand is painful and can be very time-consuming. If you're not sure about your statistics or data entry, go talk to a statistician (your advisor should also be able to help you with this).

9. Think about how you're going to present your final product and what details you might want to collect or note while you're doing research that aren't essential to your research question, but that might be nice to have. For example, it's hard to show a slide with a photo of everyone in your lab if you never took that photo. For your study on behavior and daily activity budget, it's impossible to determine if humidity might have had an effect on how much time your giraffes spent resting if you didn't measure humidity. Think about the little things.

10. What photos are you going to wish you had taken when you return home/finish your research? There's always at least one...

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