We're a little crazy, about science!

Scientific figure design

Well I’ve done it… sort of. I edited the grant for the semi-last time. Now we’ve got a working copy that reads the way we want it to read, so it’s off to the scientific writer to read over it and make sure it sounds good. You would think that means my work is done, but no. I need to do arguably the hardest part and create some of the figures we will use in the paper. Writing well takes practice, but making a good figure, well that’s art.

Today we’re talking figures, but first a quick recap for those just joining. I’m a third year neuroengineering PhD candidate. This blog took a major shift and for the last two years I’ve been blogging daily about my life. It’s not all about school, sometimes it’s about mental health, sometimes it’s about hobbies, sometimes it’s about how I manage my time. Most of the time I’ve got work to do, so we talk about that… sort of like today. I’m in the end stages of writing my second grant!

Now grants are for PI’s (primary investigators or the people who run the labs) and since I’m not a PI, my name goes nowhere near the grant. Instead I get a gold star on any recommendation letters should the grant be funded. Since grants rarely get funded (< 20% by some estimates) I’m writing a few (here’s where I talk about the first). The grant needs to be submitted for internal review by the 9th, so not a lot of time to do anything!

I’ve been running around like a madman trying to get it all figured out. There were experiments done, data that needed processing, and conclusions to draw. It’s been a ton of work in not a lot of time. The most time consuming parts are the data processing and the writing of course, but thankfully they can be done simultaneously for the most part. I can set the computer to do the work and walk away from it (for the most part) which is what I did.

With the grant written well enough that my Co-PI decided it was time to send it off to the experts, we’re free to do some minor edits in parallel, but more importantly I’m free to make the figures for the paper. I’ve already finished one, but I still need to make two more and they are arguably the most challenging in the proposal, so I am eager to get started. If a picture is worth 1000 words, a good figure is worth a million. I’m not saying that a figure will make or break our proposal, but it will definitely carry a lot of weight and can clarify anything that text doesn’t.

Basically designing a figure is like telling a part of a story using a single frame of a movie. Capture the perfect frame and by just looking at it you can tell what’s going on. If the frame is too cluttered, not clear, confusing, or otherwise looks like trash, well you’ve ruined the story. Figures should complement the text and while there are different schools of thought on how to approach it, like the text should be able to stand alone and so should the figures), I believe that they should work together. It’s like an orchestra, sure separately any part of the orchestra can play an entire symphony, but only together does it sound the way it should, or at least the way it was intended.

In my field there are examples of excellent figures and terrible. One lab in particular (not naming here) has a reputation for great figures, so much so that I tend to make fun of it and say the figures are too nice, clearly they didn’t focus on the science. I don’t think that I could make figures that nice, certainly not in the time I have, but I can do a decent job making figures that are clear and easy to follow. Figures that help guide the story and support the text. That to me is the role of figures in a paper, or in this case a grant.

Figures also make the read more enjoyable. I feel like a lot of times we feel the need to be super stuffy about how we talk about the science. Yet we’re scientists because we’re excited about the thing we’re exploring, I mean at least I hope that’s the case! It is certainly how I feel about it, I get excited anytime I get to do an experiment, even years into the program. Figures are a good way to convey that excitement in my opinion, to show, not just tell, why the thing you’re researching is so damn cool!

All this to say, my Co-PI expects some very well thought out figures for tomorrow and 80% of today will be me trying to figure out (1) what the part of the story is that I’m telling, (2) how to best tell that to people, and (3) how to make others excited about the work. Sure, it’s a lot of weight to put on figures, but without figures we’re just telling and I really think we need to be showing as well.


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