Research Blog

What Science Can Learn from Fiction: Utilizing the Power of Narrative Structures to Teach Science

Science has long been used to inspire the fictional media (i.e., media that depicts concepts or events that are unlike reality) (Hopkins & Weisberg, 2017) that many of us love. Whether it is comic books about superheroes who gain powers after being hit by lightning, or children’s television shows in which house cats secretly go on adventures in the wild outdoors, science is all around us, including in the media we consume. While engaging with fictional media may be entertaining, the same cannot always be said about engaging with science. Developing the same scientific knowledge media content creators use to develop fictional media is not always intuitive, let alone easy to learn. However, does this have to be the case?

Since science is present in the fictional media, can fictional media be used to learn science? Some argue that fictional media is an undervalued resource for learning science. Others argue that fictional sources may present misinformation which may confuse the lay learner, resulting in misunderstanding scientific concepts. I argue for a middle ground: if fictional media makes it is easier for students to process science information by using a narrative structure (i.e. explaining events based on how one event relates to another), then implementing a narrative structure in delivering scientific information to students maybe an effective tool for science education.

The Use of Fictional Media in Learning Settings, from Childhood to Adolescence

Children’s educational content often contains fictional elements (Goldstein & Alperson, 2019). For example, Sesame Street, an internationally renowned children’s educational television show, features a variety of different puppets and non-realistic animals (e.g., Big Bird). Children all over the world have learned a variety of skills from Sesame Street, including basic literacy skills (i.e., knowing letters and numbers), scientific thinking skills, and even prosocial thinking skills (Mares & Pan, 2013). Television media has also often been used to provide children with information about concepts and ideas they may not have exposure to on a daily basis, like about the cultures and traditions of others (Bonus & Mares, 2019). Additionally, there is evidence that engaging with educational media while young may be related to future educational success:  Anderson et al.  (2001) found that watching Sesame Street while young was positively related with high school science grades. In summary, young children do learn from the fictional media that they engage with, and this education may be related to success in future scientific education.

            As children grow older, their ability to judge distinguish between fact and fiction also improves (Mares & Sivakumar, 2014). However, even older children and adults may continue to learn from fictional sources: high school and college students report that fictional sources based on science can make science more engaging. Dubeck, Bruce, Schmuckler, Moshier, and Boss (1990) reported that when secondary school science teachers showed science-fiction films in their classes, students were more engaged in class: they were “quicker to try” the kinds of math and science problems discussed in the films, and they also tried to identify the scientific concepts that were discussed in the films as they watched (p. 317).  Overall, teachers who participated in this study reported that using science fiction films in their classes improved students’ attitudes towards science and also improved their scientific knowledge (Dubeck et al., 1990).

It’s possible that visual quality of fictional movies and television shows may help students think about and understand the material they are learning by making it easier to process. It may be that it is possible to learn from fictional media, and the learning process may be more engaging and enjoyable than more traditional methods, such as taking lecture notes and reading textbooks. 

Before rushing to the store to buy all the sci-fi films we can find, we need to consider some of the drawbacks

Fictional media is certainly engaging, but the reason that we address it as fictional media is because it is, by definition unreal, or inaccurate. For example, a pressing issue is the distortion of true scientific information that these films present for the sake of entertainment. One example of this is the case of the Magic School bus: a five year old, who has not been in a science class yet, does not necessarily know that their future science teacher will not put them in a school bus that can change sizes, sneak into someone’s body, so that the class learn about human anatomy.

Of course, as soon as this child enters a science classroom they will learn quickly that this is not how scientific education works. A more serious example is the 2009 film 2012, which, despite including many fictional elements (e.g., the name of the U.S. president in the film was Thomas Wilson), scared many people into believing that the world really would end in 2012, as the Mayan calendar predicted. The film depicted multiple natural disasters, such as earthquakes, the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, and megatsunamis causing cities to collapse, and entire continents to sink below sea level all in the span of a few days.

When I was sixth grade, despite having two parents who are scientists and who assured me that 2012 was not going to be the end of the world, I was still scared by all the panic that this movie created. My parents reassured me that in fact, after December 31st 2011, I would still wake up and be alive in 2012. And I’m sure that this is also true for other children who were also scared by this movie.

Looking back on this event about a decade later, I wonder about the impact this movie left: was scaring people a good thing, because it portrayed climate change as a serious issue? Or, did the fact that the world did not end in 2012 make climate change seem like a less serious issue? Parents may have reassured their kids that “nothing bad would happen” and that climate change and natural disasters would not end the world.  While it may be true that the world will not suddenly end because of natural disasters, climate change and natural disasters are both serious issues that everyone should be aware of and no one should take lightly.

Due to the issue of distortion of information, among other possible problems I have not considered here, it is questionable fictional media serves as an educational media for every person that engages with it. For example, it is possible that a younger student, who may not be as familiar with physics concepts as a high school student, may not be able to use this movie as an educational resource: for her, watching Interstellar may only be a form of entertainment.  Further, the evidence gathered by Dubeck et al. (1990) do not tell us about how students who gathered scientific information from sources like Interstellar would perform on tests of knowledge compared to students who may have studied these same concepts in textbooks or through some other form of educational media.

To become experts on various scientific topics, instructors are expected to learn by studying from textbooks and articles written by experts in their fields, not from videos, movies and storybooks. So, why should we not expect students, future experts in various scientific fields and the instructors of future students, to learn the same way their instructors did? This change in learning methods may in part be due to the continued evolution of technology; it is possible that students today have more access to educational fictional media than their instructors did as students.

Thus, current-day students utilize fictional media as a resource more than their instructors ever did. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that fictional media and scientific media are written and formatted differently, and they contain different amounts of science information, because they are meant to be used differently and by different audiences: the first might be better-suited for enjoyment by the lay person, with some learning components, while the second is designed purely to educate.

Combining Forces: using a narrative approach to teaching science

While it is certainly important to provide students, our future scientists, with high quality scientific education, it is also important to educate strategically by employing methods to encourage students to engage with science. Because fictional media often employs a narrative structure to guide its audience through the story, employing a narrative structure to  teach scientific information may be strategy for science and fiction to combine forces.

Why would using a narrative structure make scientific info easier to process?

One reason why the narrative structure of fiction makes information easier to process may be that narratives encourage relational processing (i.e., connecting pieces of information to construct a framework of understanding about a specific topic) (Fazio et al., 2015). In Fazio, Dolan and Marsh’s (2015) study on misinformation, in which college students read either lists or stories containing false information, students were more likely to learn false information from lists rather than stories.

One interpretation of this result is that narrative structure employed by stories may make information easier to process: as students observe narratives unfold, they see how one event in the story influences the proceeding one. Thus, readers may find it easier to learn information from stories because preceding give context as to why future events occur. Further, , the authors found that differences between the fictional “world” result in participants feeling “transported”, or unable to access real information (Fazio et al., 2015). This indicates that participants were still able to distinguish between true and false information in the story. This may be because many stories that individuals are commonly exposed to contain some information that is not true of the real world. Thus, false information presented in stories may be seen as true only in the context of the story, but not in real life.

My own experience learning biology as a college student has informed my own understanding of why learning science through relational processing is effective. Rather than having our class memorize bulleted lists of facts about why and how certain biological processes occur (e.g.,  photosynthesis), our instructor trained us to draw flow diagrams of these processes (i.e., illustrate by using arrows how and why one biological component or process affects another). On tests, we would be asked to apply our knowledge of these processes to problems (e.g., a broken protein in the plant is keeping it from photosynthesizing properly: describe what might be wrong with this protein and why might the plant not be able to photosynthesize?). Because flow diagrams taught us to learn about biological components and processes as they related to one another, it became easier to recall and understand the information that was going on in class and use it to solve novel biological problems on tests. I still use this technique today, in our graduate biopsychology class, and it continues to help me understand how various biological processes are related to one another and why they occur.

Concluding thoughts

Through my experiences in learning science, I’ve learned that one of the easiest methods to truly learn a scientific concept is to create a story around it. Narrative structures encourage readers and listeners to think about how different aspects of a single concept are related. This is what makes some of our favorite stories, like Harry Potter, so memorable, and I believe that narrative structures may increase students’ abilities to learn science as well.

 Young children are encouraged to start learn information through narratives starting from when they are first exposed to educational media,  which is often includes fictional worlds with talking animals and characters with powers; things no child would see on an “regular Tuesday” (Goldstein & Alperson, 2019, p.4). If our youngest learners engage with media that often uses narrative structures, than continuing to use narrative structures in media for older children and even adults may not only make the media more engaging, but also make it a better teacher of science.  

In summary, fictional media may not be a hinderance to spreading scientific knowledge, but in fact a highly effective model for how information can be presented in an engaging way: in other words, making science more enjoyable and easier to understand, for children and adult populations alike, could be as simple as giving a narrative from the science itself.

References

Anderson, D. R., Huston, A. C., Schmitt, K. L., Linebarger, D. L., Wright, J. C., & Larson, R. (2001). Early Childhood Television Viewing and Adolescent Behavior: The Recontact Study. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 66(1), i–154. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Bonus, J. A., & Mares, M.-L. (2019). Learned and Remembered But Rejected: Preschoolers’ Reality Judgments and Transfer From Sesame Street. Communication Research, 46(3), 375–400. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650215609980

Fazio, L. K., Dolan, P. O., & Marsh, E. J. (2015). Learning misinformation from fictional sources: Understanding the contributions of transportation and item-specific processing. Memory, 23(2), 167–177. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2013.877146

Goldstein, T. R., & Alperson, K. (2019). Dancing bears and talking toasters: A content analysis of supernatural elements in children’s media. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000222

Hopkins, E. J., & Weisberg, D. S. (2017). The youngest readers’ dilemma: A review of children’s learning from fictional sources. Developmental Review, 43, 48–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.11.001

Mares, M.-L., & Pan, Z. (2013). Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34(3), 140–151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2013.01.001

Mares, M.-L., & Sivakumar, G. (2014). “Vámonos means go, but that’s made up for the show”: Reality confusions and learning from educational TV. Developmental Psychology, 50(11), 2498–2511. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038041

How to sell your imperfections

Tips and Tricks to Truly Sell Every Part of You

One of the most important skills I learned during my undergraduate years at the University of Washington is how to sell my imperfections. One of the experiences through which I learned was as writing tutor at the Odegaard Writing and Research Center at UW, where I helped many students improve personal statements for a variety of undergraduate and graduate programs, internships, scholarships and more; I worked with so many students who I could tell were extremely talented and bright individuals, but who felt held back by one small thing: a bad grade, a difficult period of their lives, or something else. I remember working with one student who was making a career switch from a STEM field to Business. Because she had spent so much time in STEM, she seemed very unconfident about her ability to get into business school. She repeatedly told me that all of her talents were useless to her new field!

It took us a while and I could tell that for a while she was frustrated, but I think we finally got to the point when she realized that this was not necessarily the case. We talked about how being different is not necessarily a bad thing; it only seems that way if that is how you market your skills, to yourself and to others. If you keep telling yourself that you aren’t good at something, you’ll never be able to develop that skill or even find the motivation to try and do so. On a similar note, you’ll never give others the ability to have faith in you that you’ll learn, or even that you’ll be able to use your different skill set to contribute meaningfully to your new work environment.

In other words, having imperfections or lacking certain skills can absolutely be an okay thing if you show a willingness and eagerness to learn and improve. Learning how to talk about this eagerness is what I’ll call “positive marketing” for the rest of this post.

Another way that I realized the importance of positive marketing was after I lost out on a scholarship opportunity I applied for last summer. It was the first big funding opportunity that I applied for. I worked on this application for about a month, and even made a point to show my application to co-workers at the writing center, guidance counselors in our University’s scholarship center, and my research mentors. One aspect of my essay was talking about what I planned to do with my degree, and at that time I was planning on taking two years to gain more research experience and figure out what I wanted to do for graduate school before proceeding. But in my essay, I called it a “year off” of school. One of my mentors pointed out the negative connotations to “year off”, because it sounds like I’d be taking a year to do nothing when this was not at all my plan. Why didn’t I instead say that I was “using the next two years after a graduated to advance my research skills in developmental psychology so that I’d be prepared to successfully apply to a PhD program in this field”? That phrasing wasn’t even something that popped into my head at the time, but it was what I planned to do.

Something that I’ve realized is that people, including me, often like to sell themselves short, and for me this was an extremely difficult habit to break. I remember that in this very same application, I wrote that I wanted to be a lecturer in a university and do research when there is a higher title for this job: professor. This was what I actually wanted to do, but I was too embarrassed to say it at the time, and looking back on it now, I know it sounds silly.

Now, every time I write personal statements like that, I make a purposeful effort to go back through my writing after I’m done to run through my work and make sure that I’m always talking myself up. When I first started doing this, I felt really self-concious, like I was constantly bragging, but once I got into a habit of doing this, I realized that I was just saying exactly what I wanted for myself and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And this simple addition to my writing routine not only changed how confident I sounded in my writing, but it changed how confident I felt about myself and my abilities.

This, along with some other lifestyle changes I made, really helped me see myself as a work in progress rather than a finshed product and that really helped find ways to positively market every part of me, including the bits I’m still working.

That is what I want for every person who reads this post: having things you still need to work on does not make you worthless.

Here are a few ways I’ve thought of to positively market things that you’re working on. These are some really useful self-promotion techniques. Can you think of other ways?

How to Set Goals and Achieve Them

Blogger and researcher provides tips and tricks on setting achievable goals

A guide to Goal-Setting and Process-journaling

Everyone knows what it’s like to work towards something but get stuck in the process, and not know how to move forward.

You aren’t alone, trust me! One of the most critical aspects of starting to work towards something is realizing that you need to take it one step at a time: instead of trying to do “whatever it takes” to work towards a big goal, make each “step” of your process a smaller, achievable goal. These smaller goals are just as critical to your process as getting to that one big goal, and achieving each of these goals is just as worthy of celebration!

How do you do this?

Let’s start with a goal-setting example:

Before you buy the car, you need to make sure you have money saved up for the car, and you have money to make insurance payments. You need to figure out which insurance to go with. You need to figure out what kind of car you want to buy and make sure you get the best deal on it. In other words, your big goal might be buying a car, but in reality this big goal is made up of a list of smaller goals that you need to achieve to get there. These are the things you need to tackle first.

Strategizing-

How are you going to achieve each on of your smaller goals? Here are the 4 main steps I would recommend:

  1. Make a list of your goals and write it down
  2. For each of your goals, list what steps you’re going to need to take to achieve this goal.
  3. For each of your goals, name how you’re going to measure your progress
  4. For each goal, give yourself a deadline(s)
With the car Example:
GoalStepsMeasureDeadline
Saving up $20,000 to buy car -Save X Amount from monthly paycheckEvery month, Savings for car should grow by X amount07/31/2020 (1 year)
Save up for insurance (budget: 500/6 months)-Save Y Amount from monthly paycheck
-Look into A, B, C insurances; get advice from financial expert
-Every month, insurance savings should increase by Y, and every 6 mo, $500 should be ready to pay for insurance07/31/2020 (1 year)
Find car-Do research through consumer reports
-Ask friends for recommendations
-Find the best deal
-negotiate price
-Every week, spend up to 2 hrs doing research (~30 mins every day)
-Enter findings into process journal
07/31/2020 (1 year)

Now, not only do you know how you’re going to achieve each one of these smaller goals, but you also know how you are going to achieve your larger goal of buying a car! If you follow each one of these steps, you’re going to get to your big goal!

This smart goal setting strategy can be used to successfully achieve goals you might set for multiple aspects of your life! Whether you’re setting personal goals or even larger career goals, it’s always good to have a plan of smaller, achievable steps.

What happens if things go wrong?

There is always a possibility that your something in your plan will go wrong. In fact, just be prepared for it! But if and when something does go wrong, there is no need to get stressed out. The best part about working towards smaller goals is that you can adjust smaller steps instead of having to adjust the larger goal. For example, say you’re saving up to buy a car, and you find the car you really want, but it’s not available at any of the dealerships near you. What do you do? Do you give up on the car that you’ve wanted for so long, or is there a possibility that you can work something out with the dealership or with the help of friends?

You can work these things out! Part of setting achievable goals is knowing how to be flexible about them too. You might have to adjust your goals, and you may not get somewhere as quickly as you want to, and that’s okay. It’s also about the lessons that you learn along the way.

This brings me to my next tool-

Process Journaling

If you’ve read some of my other posts, like the one about applying to Grad school, I talk about process journaling soo much, and it’s because constantly writing things down has really helped me with some of the anxiety I have about various aspects of my life. It gives me a way to clear my mind while also allowing me to document my thoughts.

Your process journal is a great way to document your progress and your reflections and thoughts as you make your way towards a goal!

The last and probably the most important tool: having a positive attitude. As cliche as this sounds, it really is possible to accomplish almost everything if you’re in the right mindset, and making a plan by breaking every goal down into smaller steps really helps with that too.

Here are some resources to help you get started with goal-setting:

free! process journaling + goal-setting worksheet and template

You can download this google doc to your computer. Even though these have helped me with goal-setting and accomplishing my goals, remember that what works for you might be different! So feel free to customize these however you like!

And if you have any suggestions for me feel free to let me know in the comments 🙂

For more tips on tricks for success, check out my other blog posts:

  • What Science Can Learn from Fiction: Utilizing the Power of Narrative Structures to Teach Science

    November 14, 2019 by

    Some argue that fictional media is an undervalued resource for learning science. Others argue that fictional sources may present misinformation which may confuse the lay learner, resulting in misunderstanding scientific concepts. I argue for a middle ground: if fictional media makes it is easier for students to process science information by using a narrative structure (i.e. explaining events based on how one event relates to another), then implementing a narrative structure in delivering scientific information to students maybe an effective tool for science education.

  • How to sell your imperfections

    August 14, 2019 by

    Now, every time I write personal statements like that, I make a purposeful effort to go back through my writing after I’m done to run through my work and make sure that I’m always talking myself up. When I first started doing this, I felt really self-concious, like I was constantly bragging, but once I got into a habit of doing this, I realized that I was just saying exactly what I wanted for myself and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And this simple addition to my writing routine not only changed how confident I sounded in my writing, but it changed how confident I felt about myself and my abilities.

  • How to Set Goals and Achieve Them

    August 1, 2019 by

    Before you buy the car, you need to make sure you have money saved up for the car, and you have money to make insurance payments. You need to figure out which insurance to go with. You need to figure out what kind of car you want to buy and make sure you get the best deal on it. In other words, your big goal might be buying a car, but in reality this big goal is made up of a list of smaller goals that you need to achieve to get there. These are the things you need to tackle first.

  • Applying to Grad School

    July 22, 2019 by

    For those who have not applied to graduate school yet but are thinking about doing so in the next couple of years, here are a few tips and tricks that really worked for me.

  • 7 Steps Toward Better Research Writing

    July 16, 2019 by

    Although I love to write, I know that it can be an overwhelming process-even this is an understatement. Writing is a universal form of communication, and maybe even the most important form of communication. We hear stories and learn history from the writing that is left behind by past generations, and writing is one of… Read more

  • All about APS

    June 3, 2019 by

    Last week, I participated in my first ever big conference at #aps19 in Washington DC! This was an AMAZING first big-conference experience

  • ‘Scientific Collaboration Means Collective Celebration’: My First Experience Planning and Presenting at a Research Conference

    March 6, 2019 by

    The first annual Northwest Social Cognitive Development Conference (NSCDC) was my first ever research conference, and the first time I was able to assist in organizing a research conference. The purpose of this conference was to gather researchers from all across the Cascadia Corridor to discuss and present on current topics in developmental science, specifically pertaining to social and cognitive development. I did a poster presentation about my current project on infants’ prosocial expectations. Aside from being my first presentation opportunity, I also had the chance to network with many talented researchers and professionals in the field, and learn from their work and experiences in academia.

  • “I’m stuck!”: How to get around writer’s block

    February 14, 2019 by

    Not feeling confident is a struggle I’ve faced many times, and one that I’ve seen other students face many times through my work as a writing tutor. Lacking confidence in writing is one of the biggest roadblocks to producing excellent writing. Luckily, it is a roadblock that can be worked around with a little bit of patience, self-love, and creativity.

View all posts

Applying to Grad School

Studying for the GRE, and other Tips and Tricks

Anyone who has applied to graduate schools in the U.S. knows that one of the most overwhelming parts of the process is taking the GRE. This was the aspect of my graduate school application process that I was least looking forward to, thinking back to how difficult it had been for me to study for the SAT in high school.

Since I wasn’t planning on applying to graduate schools at the beginning of my senior year of college in September, I also knew that I was a little behind schedule. I had about two months to prepare for this on top of completing school and work, so I knew I needed to work efficiently. About one year later, I can proudly say that I quite successfully completed the GRE and my applications for graduate school- I’m very proud and excited for my road ahead!

For those who have not applied to graduate school yet but are thinking about doing so in the next couple of years, here are a few tips and tricks that really worked for me.


part 1: Planning your application process (Starting a process journal)

So, you’ve decided to apply to graduate school. What do you do next? Each person’s process can be a little different, but I think a good first step for everyone can be starting to document (i.e.) what you hope to get out of this exciting next step in your journey. Going to grad school is exciting, but can often be expensive, so before you start hammering out those application essays, you yourself need to be sure of what you plan to do with your next step.

process Journaling

I began documenting my goals and aspirations for grad school (and beyond) by starting a process journal. This process journal was nothing fancy- it was basically a running google doc that wrote everything in- my goals, where I wanted to apply, what I needed to do to get into each school, what I need to do to study for the GRE, any short reflections any time that I felt extra overwhelmed. You can think of this process journal as kind of like Dumbledore’s pensieve- a place to store all of your thoughts and worries related to grad school when you know you shouldn’t be thinking about them

This is just for you- you don’t need to show it to anyone, you don’t have to write a certain amount or every day, you don’t have to keep it organized if that doesn’t work for you. Regardless, I really believe that having this really helped me feel less overwhelmed when I had to apply to grad schools, and kept me from stressing out about it when I had other stuff to worry about.

part II: Studying for the GRE

1. Reading/Verbal


The main thing that you’ll need to do to practice for this section is up your vocabulary. There is an app called Magoosh that you can get, and you basically go through various”levels” of vocabulary like a game. The best way to study vocabulary I would say is to just do it in passing- when you’re on the bus, on a break, when you’re bored, instead of playing Candy Crush, just go through the vocab. If you have friends nearby, quiz them! I would not recommend blocking out hour-long periods to try to memorize vocabulary words because the likeliness is that after that hour, you’ll forget! Regardless, studying your vocab on the go is a great way to knock out some GRE vocabulary practice questions in an efficient way

2. Math

Practice this by type, and focus on the type that you have the hardest time with. Go through two practice set of problems, then identify if there are specific types of problems you consistently get wrong (e.g., statistics, or geometry, etc). Go through problem sets of specifically these problems.

As you are doing practice tests, it’s also helpful to figure out which problems you can complete the fastest and which take you longer. You can use this to strategize how you plan to go through the test.

3. Writing

Tips for the Issue Essay 

Tips for argument essay

In terms of practicing for the writing section, there are two main things I’d recommend: 

1) Once you’ve read through these tips, create a general purpose outline for each type of essay. 

2) If you’re in a time crunch, practice one type of essay every other day- you have one hour exactly to finish the writing section, so 1 essay = 30 minutes.

Spend Monday on the Issue Essay, Tuesday on the Argument essay, Wednesday on Issue again, etc. Practice finishing writing these essays in 30 minutes.

Then, take a break (go to class, do something else, etc). Come back to it later in the day, and spend 15-30 minutes reflecting on what you wrote and how to improve– this part is the most important! You can find examples online (see links above) of essays that scored a 6. The point of this practice is to figure out what you can improve on, so when you compare your own work to those essays, keep track of things you want to improve on the next time you practice.

Through this practice, you’ll also get better at using your outline and then when it comes to taking the test, it’s just a matter of plugging in your points and getting that essay written!

4. utilize FREE PRACTICE TESTS

Free Practice Tests are available to you through Kaplan and Princeton Review. I believe Princeton Review’s practice test also allows you to recieve a grade on your essays so you can see how you do. Take advantage of these! I tried to do about one practice test every weekend, BUT, it is important that more than anything these practice tests are just to get you into the mode of test-taking. So with that in mind, if you haven’t had any time to study during the week, I would not take a practice test that following weekend but instead spend time catching up on studying. 

Asking for letters of recommendation

You’ll want to ask for these at least a couple months before you plan to turn in your applications, and you’ll want to have the following materials ready before you ask for recommendation letters (these are things your recommenders will definitely ask for):

  • A draft (or at least an outline) of your application essay and any scholarship essays you plan to submit
  • Your most up-to-date CV or Resume
  • Instructions from each school about what recommenders should include in their letters.

It is really important that you give each of your recommenders at least a month or two to complete your letter. It may also be a good idea to send a friendly reminder to them one week and one day before your letter is due- at least one of my recommenders asked me to do this.

Stressed about getting that application essay all done before submitting your application?

Here is where the process journal comes in handy once again- if you already have your goals and aspirations bullet-pointed somewhere, you can start by copying and pasting these into a word-doc, and elaborating a little bit on each one. Most importantly, the outline or draft that you send to your recommender needs demonstrate why you’re applying to any particular grad program, what has prepared you for this, and what you hope to get out of the program. It does not need to be perfect draft by any means (but be sure to spell-check before you send it off!)

And, remember to send your recommenders a thank-you once they’ve submitted your letter


These are just some of the things that I did while I was applying to grad school that helped me to be successful, but it’s important to remember that this process looks different for everyone. Most importantly, remember that you can do it! It’s easy to get overwhelmed in this process, but try to keep your focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, because you will get there, and it’s going to be awesome.


See what else I’ve been up to

7 Steps Toward Better Research Writing

Although I love to write, I know that it can be an overwhelming process-even this is an understatement. Writing is a universal form of communication, and maybe even the most important form of communication. We hear stories and learn history from the writing that is left behind by past generations, and writing is one of the most common ways by which people voice their own thoughts, whether this is on Twitter or in a book. All kinds of information is communicated across various audiences through writing: healthcare information, financial information; written accounts of incidents through the forms of hand-written letters and emails, memories that are captured and stored in diaries just to name a few. Unlike spoken word, writing stays, often forever. For scientists and scholars, writing is the mechanism by which we pass the information we discover to the public sector, and thus, the quality of the writing that is produced is highly significant. 

Even though I’ve always considered writing one of my strongest skills, learning to write research papers was still extremely difficult at first. In the language arts classes I’d taken in high school and college, I’d learned to write artistically, but I never realized how different this style of writing is from scientific writing. 

Some say that scientific writing is dry, but I disagree: even though scientists don’t get creative with metaphors and other kinds of symbolism, innovation, another kind of creativity, is an integral part of science and therefore coming up with explanations for new scientific ideas and discoveries. Still, it takes a lot of practice to do this kind of writing well. Reflecting back on my own experiences writing scientific papers, I came up with a list of 7 steps that I believe lead to excellent research essays. 

Step 1: Read, Read and then read some more

You shouldn’t even think about putting pen to paper before you have thoroughly explored the literature about your topic of writing- I can’t stress this enough. I know how tempting it can be to immediately jump into it, but I’ve also faced the consequences of starting to write about something when you aren’t completely sure what you’re writing about. It ends up taking longer to write your paper because you aren’t sure yet what you want to say, and you don’t know what information you’re missing. Before you start your own writing, you should make sure you understand what the writing in your field looks like, and topics have already been covered by others. This will only help you to formulate your own questions, and know what resources are available to you. 

Reading papers is probably the slowest part of the process, but it is worth it to spend lots of energy doing this, especially towards the beginning. As you read, take good notes and make sure you really understand what ideas the authors are exploring and what conclusions they are drawing in their papers. You can use this note-taking template if you find it useful. You should also consider using programs like Mendeley and Zotero or Paperpile to help keep track of all the papers you read. 

Having a good understanding of the literature that you’re exploring before you start your own writing will only save you time later on: you’ll have a clearer idea about what you want to say in your own paper. 

Step 2: Read your Mentors’ work

When you read through writing, you might find yourself thinking about the ways in which you might add to or edit this work. Maybe there is another question or topic that you would address, or maybe there is a sentence you might re-word. You should assume that those reading your work do this, too. 

If you know that you’ll be asking a supervisor or mentor for critical feedback, it’s a good idea to go through their work and understand what their writing style looks like before you give them your paper to look over. If you’re a new writer, do this before you even start writing! You should expect that the feedback you receive will be based on the writing style of the person who is giving you feedback, and this way, you will have an idea of what they might expect to see in your paper. 

Getting your work published is hard, so this also helps in giving you an idea of what excellent, publishable writing looks like. 

Step 3: Create a working outline of each section of your paper

Once you have an idea of what you’re expected to have in your paper, you’ll be ready to start writing (YAY!). I sincerely believe that the most important step in actually writing essays is the outline. In fact, this step has become so critical in my process of essay-writing that I never write an essay without doing this first. 

You outline doesn’t need to be pretty or fancy or include latin numerals- you should do what works best for you. Sometimes it’s easiest to start out with a simple checklist, or a list of questions that you need to answer in your essay. This list is much easier to make after you’ve followed steps 1 and 2, and you have a good idea what you’re writing about. 

Step 4: Write from the inside → out

I worked as a Tutor at the University of Washington Seattle’s writing center for 3 out of 4 years of my undergraduate, and during my time tutoring there, this was my #1 tip to other students. 

The introduction and conclusion sections of any writing are always the hardest to write. You want them to sound well-written, and often what people do is spend lots of time and energy writing these sections, which leaves them with limited time to write the “meat” of their essay- the body paragraphs. Instead, try working in the reverse order. After you’ve completed your outline, start by writing the body paragraphs, and go paragraph by paragraph. As you write, you might find yourself coming up with new questions within each paragraph that you think are important to address. Chunking out your writing in this way also helps to make sure that you only need to focus on one thing at a time. 

In your introduction section, you’ll want to give a thorough overview of everything you’ve written about in your essay, and along the same lines, your conclusions should conclude on everything you’ve written about in your essay. Because you now have your body paragraphs all written out, you can save yourself from (a) writing introduction and conclusion sections where it feels like something is missing, and from (b) re-writing these sections over and over again after you’ve added new ideas to your essay, and (c) not having enough time to write the body paragraphs of your essay. 

Step 5: Write a little bit everyday

Every writer has their own process, and some of us have better concentration abilities than others. Because I easily get distracted and, when there is a lot going on, cannot concentrate for long periods of time, I’ve found it useful to spend a little bit of time writing every day rather than reserving a chunks of time to write a few times a week. 

When I was finishing off my honor’s thesis towards the end of my undergraduate at UW, I had limited time because there were lots of other things I needed to focus my energy on, too: getting ready for final exams, graduation, research presentations at a couple of different conferences, finishing research projects, going to class, two different jobs, and making time for family and friends. All the while, I had to maintain a relatively flexible schedule. I found it easier to just make it a part of my routine to find a little bit of time to write every day, and I used a checklist to keep track of what I needed to work on each day. This way, I got my work done without driving myself crazy or missing lots of writing time at once, and writing was also a less overwhelming process for me. 

Another reason why writing a little everyday is a useful practice is something that one of my mentors pointed out to me: writers who do this rather than working for longer chunks of time a couple times a week often produce more writing. My opinion is that this is a good thing- producing more writing means producing more ideas, and more material to work with. 

 Step 6: Get feedback early and often

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I started writing research papers was trying to get feedback after I had already written a significant amount of my paper. When I asked for and received feedback, it became really confusing to try and figure out how to take what I’d already written and shape it in the way that my mentors advised me to write it. Because I’d requested feedback so much later than I should have and it wasn’t shaping up to be what I wanted it to be, I had to discard what I had and start all over. 

I hated that I’d used so much time to write something that I didn’t even end up using, but at least this taught me how to write more efficiently. Seeking feedback from early on- right from the outlining stage- allowed me to ensure that I was able to incorporate my mentors’ feedback from early on, and I ended up writing a much stronger paper. 

Step 7: Writing about your writing: documenting your writing process. 

One of the best resources that I’ve created for myself is writing process journal; basically, it’s a running Google Doc where I wrote down all of my thoughts during the process of writing my thesis. If I ever felt anxious or stressed out about anything, I wrote it down here; if I got any feedback, I copied it into this google doc. If I was having trouble wording figuring out how to say something, I wrote down my thoughts here first. 

Keeping a process journal allowed me to have a focused space where I could process all of the thoughts I had related to my research and writing my paper. It also allowed writing and editing my paper to be a less overwhelming process: it is less stressful to see a condensed list of the changes that you need to make rather than a bunch of feedback spread out in different places over the span of 20+ pages. Plus, having documentation of my writing/thinking process also allows me to keep track of what I learned through this writing experience, so I can keep improving. 

Summary 

Learning to write scientifically doesn’t have to be a difficult process, and these are just a few steps you can take to make things easier for yourself. In the end, learning to write well also takes a lot of practice. Even though it might seem hard right now, keep going and you’ll keep getting better. 

Resources

Check out this handy checklist of all of this info, summarized

Coming soon! My favorite citation makers and how to use them

All about APS

On the morning of Wednesday, May 22nd, I got up at  3:30 AM to go on one of my most exciting career-related adventures yet! The Association for Psychological Science Convention. This was the first big psychology conference that I had the opportunity to participate in.

A short summary of my experience? I had a blast!

A slightly more detailed one? I learned so much, and I’m excited for what lies ahead of me as I advance in this field.

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The Grey Matters: How Adversity May Impact Children’s Creative Growth and Development

Alex, a six-year-old child, and her six other friends are trying to divide 11 cookies evenly amongst themselves.

At first, this is a difficult problem to solve: who gets one cookie and who gets two? The children discuss different strategies of dividing the cookies, including each taking one, and leaving four in the jar for their other friend who is at home sick, or cutting up the remaining four cookies in halves so they each get one and one-half of a cookie. They finally agree that 4 of them will get one cookie, 3 of them will get two, and who gets two cookies will be decided by playing rock-paper-scissors.- The extra will be left for their sick friend for when she comes back to play group. Next time, those who only got one cookie would be the ones who get two cookies. An adult might have suggested that the children each take a cookie, and leave the remaining four cookies for another day, or, that they each take one and one-half of a cookie. But what fun would this be when, through creative thinking and problem-solving, some of them could enjoy two cookies instead of just one?

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‘Scientific Collaboration Means Collective Celebration’: My First Experience Planning and Presenting at a Research Conference

The first annual Northwest Social Cognitive Development Conference (NSCDC) was my first ever research conference, and the first time I was able to assist in organizing a research conference. The purpose of this conference was to gather researchers from all across the Cascadia Corridor to discuss and present on current topics in developmental science, specifically pertaining to social and cognitive development. I did a poster presentation about my current project on infants’ prosocial expectations. Aside from being my first presentation opportunity, I also had the chance to network with many talented researchers and professionals in the field, and learn from their work and experiences in academia.

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Turning a new leaf: what it’s been like moving away from home for graduate school

Normally, this is the type of thing that I would post about on my personal blog (which I’ll link here for you to peruse if you want to), but I realized that this particular post, despite how personal this is to me, belongs here. I want this blog to reflect my journey, how I’ve made realizations about my research and the things I’m interested in, etc, etc, but part of this journey is also my personal choice to go down this path. Not every part of that path is going to be an easy step to take.

About six months ago, I made the decision to move from the West Coast to the East Coast for graduate school. Two months after that, I graduated from the University of Washington; 2 months after that, I moved to the Philadelphia area, and 2 months after that- here I am, typing up this post. I was really really excited for my first big move- also really nervous. When I’m around new people and unfamiliar places, I tend to close up, and in the past I’ve had a hard time making friends and really immersing my self in things because of that, and I didn’t want to repeat that mistake. But (believe it or not), the East Coast, or at least Philadelphia, not only presented a new place, but also a different culture, some parts of which were not easy to get used to.

The first month of my being here was not easy. I was homesick a lot, and it was really annoying that I didn’t know where to go to get what I needed. I felt like I was wasting lots of time just wandering around. I also ended up spending more money than I intended when I first got here (shocker), and that really made me feel powerless for a while. I kept telling myself that these little things- though they often felt big- weren’t bad things- they were lessons, and opportunities for me to be more creative. But they didn’t often feel like that. For a long time, it felt like things just sucked, and that’s not the story that I wanted to tell friends and family back home, all of whom had been so supportive of my move here, and who I didn’t want to disappoint by having a negative perspective of all of the changes that happened.

A view of Philly from the rooftop Garden, Cira Green. This park is completely FREE and it’s beautiful!

I think things finally started feeling better for me when went on my first trip to Wawa. For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, Wawa is a convenience store, but it’s not like 7-11. It’s amazing, and if you’re ever in Philly or surrounding parts, you have to go! When a good friend of mine (hi Maria!) heard that I’d never been there, she offered to take me. I was expecting a fancier 7-11, but what I found was sooo much better! In fact, me and our other friend (hi Ravneet!) who joined us on this little adventure loved it so much, we decided to make it a weekly thing. Now we go once a week after class.

Things also started to feel better after I went to the Museum for the first time with my lab. We’re running a really cool study at the Academy of Natural Sciences right now which looks at how children explore science exhibits. Watching kids realize how amazing it feels to learn science made me feel like everything that had been difficult for me during the last couple months was worth it, because I’m in the right place for me right now.

Taken at Love Park

I think the biggest realization that I had was that there are little things that can really add up and make your life hard after you move, even if you stand by your decision. These ‘things’ can be different for everyone. But, there are also lots of little things that can make the entire experience amazing, and it’s those things that you have to be on the lookout for, even when life is hard.

Taken from at the top of the Rocky steps

“I’m stuck!”: How to get around writer’s block

Think back to the biggest, most important project or assignment that you’ve ever worked on. You’re sitting down at your desk, your laptop in front of you. You take a deep breath, put your hands on the keyboard, and start to write. But as soon as you get those first first four letters out, you pause, then –

backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace.

It just wasn’t good enough. You take a deep breath, and you start again. You get out words one, two, three, four and five and then

backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace, backspace.

It just wasn’t good enough…again. You start wondering if you’re ever going to get this done. You watch the clock, precious seconds go by as you rack your brain, trying to find the words you want to say. You start wondering- ‘will I get this done?

Does this sound familiar?

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