Learning new things

I’ve been learning many new things recently: Git (alas, this has been on my to-learn list for almost two years), Python, Linux, and parallel computing. The last two are particularly exciting and directly relevant to research. I need to run large scale models now, so I have to learn how to do parallel computing. A few weeks ago I figured out how to do that in R and in MATLAB. But as my quad-core desktop can only speeds up thing a little bit, I need to know how to run experiments on a CPU cluster. Fortunately, my school has three supercomputers that I can use. And because they run on Linux, I need to learn Linux too. My little achievement yesterday that nicely concluded the work week was that I was able to use command line to send a MATLAB script to a cluster, run it there, save the results, and pull the results back to my desktop. This means I’m almost ready to run experiments on Titan with a much larger scale that what I’ve been doing on my desktop.


Some more tips on presenting

I experimented a few things with my Preliminary Exam (PE) talk. I think those ideas worked, so let me do a quick recap.

Begin with a personal story
I started the talk telling why I became a water guy. I wanted to lead the audience to the idea that “The key to the future lies in the past”, and I did that by telling about my past and how that influenced me to change the future. I wanted to tell the audience—my Thesis Committee—why I wanted to pursue this topic.

Title at the end
Most of the talks I’ve seen show the title at the beginning—the conventional way. The exceptions are TED talks which don’t display their titles. Since I wanted to frame the beginning of my talk like a TED talk with a personal story opening, I didn’t have a title. My advisor told me that a PhD thesis must have a title (why didn’t I think of that), so I came up with a solution: put the title at the end. Some movies show their titles at the beginning while some other do so at the end; I reckon a talk can do that too. And I built the content of the talk towards that title. So by the time the title came up, the audience knew why and I hope it stuck with them.

The pause
This was actually unintentional, I didn’t realize that I was doing it until later while reflecting on the experience. I presented the main results of the Ping River streamflow reconstruction paper many times before at EGU. During these one-on-one encounters, when explaining that my model fits better to the data than the benchmark, I often paused and let the listener see it for themselves. While presenting the PE talk yesterday, I just felt like it was EGU all over again, and I did the pause too. I’ve read about “the pause” before but haven’t really practiced it. I guess it came subconsciously. But now that I’ve got real experience with this technique, I think it’s cool and I’m gonna use it more.

Special thanks to my friends J, G and Z for listening to my rehearsals! Always always rehearse your talk. TED talks are all scripted but with countless practices they all sound unscripted. Academic talks are not TED talks, but they need to be well rehearsed too.

Full steam on

I’ve just passed my Preliminary Exam. It’s a preliminary defense of my thesis where I showed what I have done and what I plan to do, and the thesis committee provides their feedback.

I’m at very good place in my PhD right now. After two and a half years into the program, I’ve finished all the coursework requirements (with 8 As and a B), completed my teaching assistantship (and received an Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from my pillar), completed two summer projects (one of which eventually became a paper one and a half years later), attended two conferences (and met amazing people), published one paper in Water Resources Research, reviewed 5 papers, and passed both Qualifying and Preliminary Exams. With all the other requirements done, I am now ready to go full steam on research. Depending on how the results are going to pan out, I have between three and six papers in the pipeline. That’s amazing. That’s so exciting. I can’t finish them all within my PhD of course, but I have enough ideas to keep going for a while even after my PhD.

I think doing a PhD is one of the two best decisions I’ve made in my life (the other one was to propose to my wife).

Keep calm and do research. Full steam on.

Writing Science – A book by Joshua Schimel

“As a scientist, you are a professional writer.”

This is the opening sentence of the first and the last chapters of the book. It completely changed my perspective on writing. I don’t just write because I must; a writer is who I am. My science is meaningless if it is done and shelved; it needs to be communicated. So, as a scientist, I do science and I write science.

“Writing is story-telling” is the second mandate of the book. In fact, the whole book is about how to tell a story that sticks. Sticky stories have six elements embodied in SUCCES: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete and Credible Stories.

A sticky story is simple so that readers understand. In every good story, there is the simplest idea that can be distilled from the writing (not buried in it). However, simple doesn’t mean simplistic. A simplistic idea is trivial and does not address the core of the problem. The idea that “Streamflow is a complex process” is simplistic. What’s a simple idea then? “Streamflow is governed by climatic inputs and catchment dynamics.”

A sticky story is unexpected so that readers remember. Unexpectedness means novelty, which lies in the reader’s knowledge gap. This gap must be identified first. Tell the reader what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. Make him think “Wow, why didn’t I think of that before?”

A sticky story is concrete so that readers can relate to. The ability to bring science’s abstraction down to concrete examples, data and numbers is what separates an expert from a novice. Concreteness is also what separates a good communicator from a bad one. I remember a particular class where the instructor did not give many examples for abstract mathematical concepts; the class was unnecessarily difficult.

A sticky story is credible so that readers believe. “Credibility goes hand in hand with being concrete”, wrote Schimel; both qualities rely on facts, figures, data, and numbers. Credibility can be undermined by buzzwords and hype, lipsticks and make-ups that mask out what is important, so beware of this trap.

A sticky story is emotional so that readers act on it. The number one, perhaps the only one, legitimate emotion in science is curiosity. It is what makes scientists ticks, it is what makes them spend their lives searching for knowledge. A good story must engage the reader’s curiosity by asking good questions.

Lastly, but most importantly, a sticky story has to be a story. It must have characters and plots. Characters are scientific concepts, and plots lie in the story structure. After spending three chapters describing a good story, the book used the next ten chapters to discuss good structures.

There are three main structures for a paper: OCAR (Opening, Challenge, Action, Resolution), LD (Lead, Development) and LDR (Lead, Development, Resolution). OCAR is the most ubiquitous, especially in specialist journals, but LD and LDR are more common in journals with broad audience such as Science and Nature. Let’s see why.

OCAR. In OCAR, the story develops slowly. Schimel compared this with The Lord of the Rings where the characters are first introduced in Chapter 1, then we only get a glimpse of Frodo and Sam’s challenge in Chapter 2, and the full challenge halfway through the first book. The OCAR structure is well suited for a scientific paper because the readers are patient and they want to assess the idea presented properly.

One thing I liked about OCAR is its spiral form (Figure 4.1 in the book).  The R must link back to the O. Even more interestingly, OCAR also has an hourglass shape (Figure 4.2 in the book): a wide opening, a narrow challenge and action, and finally a wide resolution. What’s more, the widths of O and R must match. If O is wider than R, we are overpromising and underdelivering. If R is wider than O, we are “underselling”.

Schimel Figure 4.1Schimel Figure 4.2

LDR and LD. In these two structures, the core of the story, the lead, is loaded in front, and development comes later. With these structures, busy readers are able to grasp the key part of the story without going through its entire development. They may also skip the development if they are not experts in the field, as for the broad audience of Nature and Science.

The story structure does not apply only to the paper as a whole, but for each part of it too. For example, the Introduction most typically follows the OCAR structure while the Results usually follows the LD or LDR structure. Each paragraph in the section has its own structure too. Thus, the internal parts for the paper form story arcs; each arc is a sentence, paragraph or section that tells a story of its own, and they are linked together with fluidity tools such as conjunction and topic/stress formation.

In summary, the two key take home messages for me from the book are (1) that writing science is storytelling and (2) the story structure. I’d like to close this post with a passage from the book that I particularly like.

The need to take multiple passes through a piece, fixing problems as they emerge, explains a frustrating phenomenon I experienced with my advisor, my students have with me, and you probably have as well. You write a draft, someone edits it, and you make those changes. Then, they edit their edits. Sometimes back to the way you had originally written them! Why didn’t they get it right the first time? Are they just changing things to change things? Probably not. Every time you come back to a piece, you need to look at it afresh. Sometimes the changes you scrawled on a sheet of paper or typed in seem okay but don’t really work. You may only realize this when you see the whole new piece or when you read it aloud. Sometimes changes elsewhere in a paragraph mean that you need to rewrite a specific sentence to fit the new structure. Remember the section on “Writing versus Rewriting” in chapter 1. Writing is a process of experimentation and revision; there is no single “right answer.” My last word of consolation on this is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. It might even become fun.

First paper submitted

What a day to remember. I committed myself to submitting the paper today, and I completed the task just a few minutes before midnight. My wife is on a business trip. I had to put my son to bed first before I could resume my submission, but it wasn’t easy. He missed his mommy and became too emotional. I had to put him in the carrier and walk him to the reservoir until he could sleep. Then I went back to filling all the required information on the submission page, fixing things here and there along the way. Finally, it’s done.

The adolescent scientist

Imagine our scientific career is mapped to a normal human lifespan. Then, in the first PhD year, we are all babies. We don’t know anything, and we are eager to learn. We receive ample guidance to make baby steps. And we grow up fast. By the end of the second year, which is where I am now, we have become adolescents.

Adolescence is a tricky stage. The adolescent scientist is not a child, neither is he an adult. He has gained certain skills, and there are certain expectations of him. Yet, he is still looked upon as a student. He needs to act confident but not arrogant. He needs to gain independence while yearning for guidance. It is hard to strike a balance.

The difficulties not only stem from the outside, but also from within the adolescent scientist himself. The more he learns, the more he needs to learn. With that comes self-doubt: am I good enough? Will I ever be? While asking where he is now, the adolescent scientist needs to think about where he is going. More questions. Part of growing up.

Growing up is the journey where one discovers his identity; it is a process of self-awareness and self-adjustment, baffling and tedious. Learning is a journey where one discovers his passion; it is a process of searching for a question and working for an answer, perplexing and laborious. But with every discovery comes enormous joy; it pushes him forward, ready to ask another question. In a sense, he embraces his adolescence. This stage is, without a doubt, a crucial and memorable part of his scientific career.

Look at the whole audience, and live in the story

Look at the entire audience, not just the most important person in the room. Student speakers often do the latter. Their eyes are drawn to the figure of authority—in the classroom, it’s the instructor, and in a seminar, it’s the department head or a senior professor. While this is still better than no eye contact at all, it is certainly not ideal. Putting aside the fact that the rest of the audience is ignored, this act weakens your position as a speaker. When you speak to the entire audience, you are a scientist sharing your results with the group. When you speak to only the instructor or the chair, you are a student presenting to a professor (and waiting to be assessed). The two positions are different!

The next piece of advice came from S, my unofficial mentor. He said that when he presents, he lives in the story. Now that just brings the “presenting science is telling a story” idea to a whole new level. If one is able to imagine the entire talk as a story in which he is a character, one can actually act out the story. The message will be loud and vivid.

Now, bring the two pieces together: look at the whole audience, and live in the story. The whole talk has just come alive.