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!


Plant of the week: Streptanthus farnsworthianus

Flowering S. farnsworthianus

This week’s Plant of the Week is Streptanthus farnsworthianus. Its common name is Farnsworth’s jewelflower, and it is found primarily in the woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Its flowers are very similar morphologically to the other jewelflowers I have shared recently (which is expected, since flower form is one of the primary characters that has been used in the past to designate taxonomic group, and unlike many other characters that are actually examples of convergent evolution, is comparatively reliable).

S. farnsworthianus with its first true leaves

This one is particularly interesting because of the dramatic morphological changes its leaves undergo as they get older. As you can see in the images, the first leaves are highly lobed, while the older leaves are entire (“entire” refers to leaves with smooth margins, or edges) and have an almost waxy look. They also turn this beautiful lavender color–usually mustards are purple when they’re stressed, but these ones are supposed to look this way.

Recommended article from Botanical Accuracy

This week in speedy plant-related posts, a break from pictures. Instead, I want to recommend a great read from Botanical Accuracy called “Dear New York Times, when will you start to care about taxonomic accuracy?”  about the totally horrendous disregard by the NYT for proper naming of species. A brief excerpt:

I think that the sloppiness shown in The New York Times when it comes to morphology and species taxonomy would never be accepted when it comes to historical facts and names related to people.  For scientific facts this doesn’t seem to matter to the editors, since fact-checking is lacking and pointed out errors persist and are not even corrected.

It’s great that the author also points out consequences to misnaming and misidentification, such as showing toxic plant pictures under the name of edible ones. This is one of those pieces of scientific advocacy that rarely comes up but is truly important when it comes to proper science communication and outreach.

Jewelflowers in bloom

I’m trying to concentrate on my studying as much as possible of late, but I couldn’t resist sharing these two beauties that are blooming in my mustard collection.


This first one is Streptanthus albidus sub. albidus. It’s federally endangered and known only from a few occurrences in Santa Clara County. Commonly, it is known as the Metcalf Canyon jewelflower. Much like many plant species, there is a currently a war waging over the proper classification–it also goes by the taxonomic identity Streptanthus glandulosus sub. albidus. It is found on harsh serpentine soils that other plants are unable to exist on.


This second species is Streptanthus insignis, also known as the plumed jewelflower. The top flower, which is showier than the other flowers and often sterile, is where it gets its name. It makes its home primarily on serpentine soils in San Benito county.

Firsts, and the end of firsts

Learning how much of science is about labeling
Learning how much of science is about labeling

This week, I’m saying goodbye to my first crop of students (pun 1000% intended) that are mine and mine alone. I got them through the Science Internship Program at UCSC, run by Raja GuhaThakarta, Nina Arnberg, and Sue Grasso. Both that team and my students have been fantastic. It’s been a wild ride and a great learning experience for me, and I hope they would say the same.

It’s also week tinged with bitter sweetness. I’m constructing a bigger team of more high school and undergrad students now, and it’s thanks to my SIP interns that I feel I can take this on. But as much as I’m excited to send them off to do great things with their new knowledge, I’ll miss them terribly.

Interns afield, far, far away
Interns afield, far, far away

To mark the end of this first adventure, here are some of the things we learned:

1. Write a little bit every day. Write what you’re thinking about. Write questions. Then share it with each other. One of the things that worked the best with these students was having them cultivate good reflection habits. It definitely made me step up my game to set a good example!

2. Nothing in science takes the amount of time you think it will. Our plants grew too fast. Data collection took too long. But if you’re willing to put in the work, it will turn out in the end.

3. Check your data entry several times, then have someone else check again. My undergrad PI told stories about old-guard scientists who made their students enter the same data three times. Especially with multiple people working in the same datasheet, this becomes an imperative.

4. The things you find interesting may surprise you. Neither of my students had ever thought deeply about plants (much like my high school self). However,  they are now both excited by the big wins like our data supporting our hypotheses, and by the little things, like getting new species to grow.

Loving the little things in the scientific process

Some (many) times in science, experiments move slowly. You have to wait for your organisms to grow. You have to collect a year’s worth of data before it’s useful to analyze. I’ve told my students over and over this summer that they have to learn to be excited by small victories, or the vacuum of having no achievable short-term goals will asphyxiate their will to go on.

So we love the little things, like multicolored labeling tape and completing a new protocol successfully and a breezy day in the field.

They look like space meals.
They look like space meals.

That in mind, here are some of this week’s celebrations:

After an extensive permitting and application process, we’ve received 50 new mustard accessions from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom! (Shout-out to Janet Terry, the seed curator, for putting up with my complete lack of knowledge on how to import seeds.) We’re still waiting on another 50, but they should be coming soon. At that point, it will be back to the cycle of planting seeds, praying to quantum probabilities for high germination rates, and panicking when there are more plants than we know what to do with.

Caulanthus flavescens
Caulanthus flavescens

The annuals that were sown in early June are starting to flower. They’re pretty, but also a reminder that organisms move inexorably forward through their life histories towards reproduction and death, and we have to collect as much data as we can while we can. In a sense, this is good–it’s another way we can remind ourselves of our larger goals, and that there is an end, even if it isn’t always in sight.