The importance of the lab notebook

Having just trained a new crop of undergrads, I experienced a lot of the sound of my own voice in the last week. One of the things I said over and over was, “You need to have a lab notebook. This is partially for me, so I can see how you’re doing, and so I can keep track of data you collect, but it’s also for you. You need to develop good scientific habits, and this is the best way to start.”

Of course they all stare at me blankly and nod–it’s our first meeting. They all want to seem willing. And then maybe they forget, and I forget to remind them, because they’re just counting seeds, or they do it for a while and then trail off, or, or or.

The blank page can be intimidating. You stare at the blank page and think, Are my thoughts about counting seeds worthy of immortalizing on this page? Are they going to help me do better science or have better ideas? In fact, there’s a whole bunch of research about how to make it LESS intimidating. For example, a recent paper by Willoughby et al looked at whether using templates in lab notebooks could improve output. The results were mixed. In their words, “Our results showed that using structured templates can improve the completeness of the experiment context information captured but can also cause a loss of personal elements of the experiment experience when compared with allowing the researcher to structure their own record.”

It’s that personal element that is ultimately so important. That’s the spark of inspiration, the insight into what went wrong, the core of your scientific personality! But how else to get at it, while also tearing down the walls that make it so hard to write, if too much structure prevents it from coming through?

My solution, as silly as it sounds, is to force myself to write every day. I write about counting seeds. I brainstorm what I’m going to focus on the next day. I try to always have my notebook with me, so if inspiration strikes, I’ll be ready to write. Here’s why: when you make yourself write every single day, even when what you did seemingly nothing of consequence, you break down the self-consciousness that prevents you from writing freely. You form a habit, so the instinctive thing to do when you have an idea is to write it down. It also helps when it comes to writing papers, where the same kind of blocks are often present. It has undoubtedly helped my thoughts be more organized and my goals more coherent.

Now if only I could get my students to do the same… but mentoring skills will have to wait for another post!


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