Narrowing Your Topic Without Losing Your Mind

I’m studying this year (in Research Science 2) alongside the Research Science 1 students; this is all of their first times doing “real” research and they’re at that point where they have an idea that’s good but still frustratingly abstract.

One girl in my class approached me about a week ago with a worried expression and wide eyes… “When will I know what I want to study?” she asked. I guess I gave her a confused look because she quickly corrected herself: “I mean, when did you know what you wanted to study?”

That got me thinking…

1. Write out a list of 5 things you’re interested in.

I hope this is self-explanatory, but your list should NOT look like this:

I’m glad you’re friends with Joe and I actually encourage you to continue eating pizza, but…come on.

Something like this is a great starting point (notice “Playing xbox” is still in there…you’ll see why):

Okay, awesome. Then fill in 2-3 ideas surrounding each of your 5 topics- questions, random thoughts about the topic, things you know about it…

Now get out there and find some answers!!

For now don’t worry if you think your question has already been answered or not. Just write whatever first comes to mind.

2. Talk to people. As simple as this sounds, the more people you talk to about your project the more insight you’ll gather and the more potential help you’ll receive.

Even if you don’t have a solidified idea yet, just throwing ideas out there often works. (“Oh yeah, I worked with thyroid cancer cells once! Maybe my college professor will answer some questions for you! Here’s his email address…”) Congrats, you are now 82634876 steps closer to starting your project than you were 3 minutes ago.

3. Go to this website or this website or this website or this website (for kids) or this website  for ideas. The importance of keeping up with current science events in order to choose a topic of study can’t be stressed enough.

Enjoy and hit the contact page for extra advice or help!

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Take some time to check out this article from the NY Times… It’s one of those articles I read that really just hit me.

BAM. And now I understand.

On Finding a Mentor

Ah, mentor-hunting. Not as hard as it sounds, if you follow a few simple guidelines.

So what is a mentor?

It is someone who is invested in your study just as you are; someone to bounce ideas off of; someone to ask questions of; someone to guide you if something goes awry. A teacher who happens to be an expert in your field.

  • Keep your eyes peeled

Mentors are literally everywhere if you take the time to look. They don’t have to be some strange professor at a foreign university. Teachers, parents, friends’ parents, family friends…the list is endless.

I found that the more people knew about my research, the more potential mentors I found. On a casual visit to my neighbor’s house, in fact, I discovered that my friend’s dad was close friends with a guy who worked in my field exactly.

Badda-bing badda-boom.

The bottom line is that people get excited when us younger folks are interested in things other than sports and teeny-bop music, and if you share your research experiences with them, you will find a plethora of open arms and listening ears.

  • Know who you’re dealing with

Sometimes we’re in one of those I-need-help-now scenarios. In this case it’s perfectly fine to do some internet research to find that help.

Look for professors and scientists doing research in your field. But, before you contact them, look a little further into what they’re currently working on. Are they in the midst of an experiment? Have they recently published a journal article?

It will make this person 1,000 times more likely to help you out if you can reference something like this when you contact them. It shows that you have a serious interest in their work specifically (even if this isn’t 100% true).

  • Keep it inquisitive

I love my research science teacher to death, but I think I’ve found a much better way to approach a potential mentor than she has instructed me. She told our class to send out emails similar to the following (filling in the blanks, of course):

Dear Dr. Please-Help-Me, 

            I am a student at ______ enrolled in a course called _____. I am looking to conduct a study in the field of _____. During my study I hope to find out ______.

            I am writing to you to request some assistance. I am trying to find a professional who has experience in this field outside of my teacher to help guide me with my research. I was wondering if you would be willing to mentor me with my study. I need someone who would be willing to: ____.

            I am hoping to find a mentor within __(time)__ so that I can get started on my project. I have a __(time)__ frame in which I am working to carry out my study.

            Please contact me via email if you would be willing to assist me. Thank you for your consideration and time.


Your Name

I’ve found that the response rate for this approach was much lower than if I had emailed a professor with just a few questions that I thought they could answer quickly. These types of “quick questions” often turn into deeper discussions that often turn into mentorships on their own.

Short, sweet, interesting.

  • Keep them updated

Keeping constant contact with your mentor is important. Send them updated drafts of whatever you’re working on (research plan, protocol) as well as information on where your study is headed.

Even if you don’t need their help at that particular moment, you very well may need it soon. And nothing’s more annoying than that friend who only calls you when they need your help.

  • Keep trying!

As I mentioned in my Advice to a Young Scientist post, this whole process may take a little while (for me, about 15 emails)- remember that having a professional guide is invaluable. Try email, a phone call, even a formal letter.

If you need any help with your search, please contact me! (getoutthereblog(at) I’ll do my best to get you started.

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Mentors really are everywhere. Check it out!

The Art of Balance

This year while conducting my experiment, I stumbled upon an unexpected phenomenon. My project was very… well… scientific. It forced me to be precise and organized. Towards the end I was becoming increasingly tired of the meticulous measurements. I started to dislike the fact that I was required to write everything down in a notebook.

So I turned to an old hobby of mine- tie-dying- because something inside me felt I needed a creative outlet. I almost craved something not so exact.

It worked out perfectly. I splattered and dipped and threw the dye on as I pleased, and the shirts always came out looking neat. Then, miraculously, I could return to my calculations with a clear head.

I guess I learned there’s something to be said about using both sides of the brain simultaneously. One thrives off the other. Yin and Yang.

I present to you… The Art of Balance.

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Mae Jemison has some awesome ideas on this topic, although she focuses more on the integration of the two rather than using them for balance. Either way, lesson learned.

It was sort of funny looking through my pictures from this past year- tie-dyes mixed in with research photos. Gotta love it…

Home Experiment Photos

For your entertainment…Measuring some mussels


Looking scientific…

And again…Measuring salt water for the tanks
Basic set-up of my experiment- wine chillers for constant temperature, air pump on the top right chiller, tanks beneath the bench, a sweet tie-dye sheet to the left for my enjoymentHeroically smashing up salt to make my salt water (looks like a lot more fun than it actually was)
My babies!

Advice to a Young Scientist

Not to be confused with P.B. Medawar‘s book Advice to a Young Scientist– I’ll actually cover his ideas later.

What I’ve come up with are five essential pieces of advice for budding twenty-first-century researchers or scientists (or research scientists, for that matter).

1. Sense of Direction-

You must have some idea of where you intend to go. This is one of the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of research, especially if you’re new to the process.

Keep in mind I am by no means telling you to have a two-year plan of what comes next by the time you begin, because that will all come naturally once you get started. But it is many times more difficult to approach a teacher or parent with a question like: “What should I study?” rather than, “How can I set up an experiment looking into mussel growth?”

Think about a branch of science you’re interested in and narrow it down from there. Mine was environmental science. Yours may be engineering, computer science, psychology.

Don’t worry too much about picking the “wrong” topic at first, either. Use your younger years to explore new subjects and ideas.

2. Fearlessness of Failure-

One of my favorite topics, mostly because this year I essentially learned the most graceful way possible to fall flat on my face. I had the Sense of Direction and dedication, but really had no idea what I was getting myself into. For some reason I thought my experiment would work out flawlessly.

When it didn’t, I cried like a baby.

Then I found this article on failure and slowly started to feel proud of how much I was learning by not doing everything right. When something didn’t work out, I wrote down potential reasons for the failure and learned to move on. I’m telling you: anything that could or may go wrong probably will.

Brace yourself and enjoy the ride.

3. Persistence-

Goes along with #2- don’t let those little glitches defeat you. It may be the toughest thing you will do- yes, even tougher than the statistics- but find a way to clear your head and get back up. Talk to a colleague, a teacher. Write down a couple possible solutions.

This also includes a piece of advice that you just have to learn for yourself: Anybody will respond if you contact them enough times. You’d be surprised at how many borderline-instantaneous email responses I’ve gotten after this:

“Dear Dr. So-and-so, I write to confirm that you received the following email I sent a few days ago. (Insert email here)”

Works like a charm.

4. Find a mentor-

It goes without saying that in life in general (and in science particularly), we need someone to ask questions of and to bounce ideas off of- an expert who’s willing to be your teacher. So, find yourself one of these people.

Not so easy. I wager I wrote about fifteen emails to different scientists, researchers, experts in my field before I received one hopeful-sounding response.

It’s not that these people have anything against younger scientists or think your ideas suck or don’t want to help, but often they’re simply too busy and don’t think you’re serious enough to dedicate any substantial amount of time to.

You need to prove them wrong by showing them you’re interested in your (and, therefore, their) field and that you won’t give up after one disheartening response. Ask for suggestions if they truly can’t help you themselves- colleagues? Journal articles? Websites?

Finding a mentor is difficult but rewarding work- I’ll get to all the essentials in another post.

5. Own it-

Excuse the cheesiness, but my favorite way to describe this one is: If you don’t believe in your research, who will?

The hardest time to do this was at science fairs when the kid standing next to me conducted cancer research that was being looked into by the Johns Hopkins medical school… You think I’m kidding?

Somewhere along the way I’ve learned to be proud of my work, even if it was nowhere near as earth-shattering as I’d hoped. Because I know that with a little more work, someday it very well may be.


Want even more ideas? Check out this TED talk by E.O. Wilson. “Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes…”

What do you think is the most important attribute of a young scientist? Comment or hit the contact page to let me know!

‘Til next time.

Where I’ve Been (Part II)

I know what you’re thinking- nobody wakes up one morning desperately wanting to see how water temperatures will affect some mussel species. So I’m going to try to break down for you where my interest stemmed from.

My parents have always been more eco-conscious than most, doing their best to separate our recyclables and to reuse plastic grocery bags. My mom lives for our local farmers’ market and my dad prides himself on taking over two weeks to use a tank of gas. But I don’t believe just growing up in a household like the one I did gave me the push I needed to start looking into climate change- though it certainly helped.

It really started in the 4th grade when my teacher assigned every kid in my class an environmental topic on which to write a short essay. Ms. Falcone nonchalantly plopped my future on my desk when she gave me a packet titled “Climate Change”.

“I think you can handle this one,” I remember her telling me. The flame was lit.

Fast-forward a few years, and I was racking my brain for ideas in my school’s ROGATE classroom (ROGATE is an optional, extra class for ‘gifted and talented’ students in elementary and middle schools). It was the beginning of 7th grade and my teacher had just announced that we could choose our topics for our year-long research projects that we would present to kids from across the state at the end of the school year.

I had no idea what to do. Looking back now, I don’t think I even knew what I was interested in at the time. Sure, I played soccer and enjoyed writing and did well in school, but I didn’t exactly have an identity yet. And I had no intentions of wasting an entire year studying something I didn’t like.

Then I remembered my fourth grade paper. From there, it didn’t take much convincing from my teacher and parents to pursue the project; everything I read about climate change fascinated me.

My hypothesis? “Manhattan will be underwater within the next fifty years.”

Yes, I was a bold one.

But I presented and was awarded a bronze “Satori” medal for my project. I can’t remember feeling prouder. The flame began to grow.

Another year and I was starting 8th grade. I had the option to continue my ROGATE project from the past year in hopes of receiving a gold Satori award. I flipped the decision over in my mind- this would require doing some sort of internship or volunteer work, getting published, and giving a public presentation all related to my project.

I was overwhelmed. I talked to my teacher about it and we came up with a plan: intern at the NY Department for Environmental Protection for a day, get published in a local weekly newspaper, give a short talk at a regional speaking contest.

Guess what? Check, check, check- I did it.

That flame was now a fire, and it was starting to spread uncontrollably.

And so I leave you with this quote:

“Everybody who’s doing anything positive in life had a teacher who turned the wattage up and wouldn’t let them turn it down.” – Chris Gardner

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Just so you don’t feel bad about yourself- how’d you like this picture to get published in the newspaper your whole town reads? Thanks, Dad.