Tutorial 38: little projects as footsteps toward understanding

January 11, 2021

This is a very belated follow-up to “Tutorial 12: How to find problems to work on“, and it’s about how to turn Step 2, “Learn lots of stuff”, into concrete progress. I’m putting it here, now, because I frequently get asked by students about how to get started in research, and I’ve been sending them the same advice for a while. As with Tutorial 25, from now on I can direct the curious to this post, and spend more time talking with them about what they’re interested in, and less time yakking about nuts and bolts. But I hope the rest of you find this useful, too.

Assuming, per Tutorial 12, that you’ve picked something to investigate–or maybe you’re trying to pick among things to investigate–what next? You need a tractable way to get started, to organize the things you’re learning, and to create a little structure for yourself. My recommendation: do a little project, with the emphasis on little. Anyone can do this, in any area of human activity. Maybe your project will be creating a sculpture, shooting and editing a video, learning–or creating–a piece of music, or fixing a lawn mower engine. My central interest is how much we still have to discover about the natural world, so from here on I’m going to be writing as a researcher addressing other researchers, or aspiring researchers.

Arteries of the anterior leg, from Gray’s Anatomy (1918: fig. 553). Freely available courtesy of Bartleby.com.

I’ll start with a couple of examples, both from my own not-too-distant history. A few years ago I got to help some of my colleagues from the College of Podiatric Medicine with a research project on the perforating branch of the peroneal artery (Penera et al. 2014). I knew that vessel from textbooks and atlases and from having dissected a few out, but I had never read any of the primary (journal) literature on it. As the designated anatomist on the project, I needed to write up the anatomical background. So I hit the journals, tracked down what looked like the most useful papers, and wrote a little 2-page summary. We didn’t use all of it in the paper, and we didn’t use it all in one piece. Some sentences went into the Introduction, others into the Discussion, and still others got dropped entirely or cut way down. But it was still a tremendously useful exercise, and in cases like this, it’s really nice to have more written down than you actually need. Here’s that little writeup, in case you want to see what it looks like:

Wedel 2013 anatomy of the perforating branch of the peroneal artery

Pigeon spinal cord cross-section, from Necker (2006: fig. 4).

More recently, when I started working with Jessie Atterholt on weird neural canal stuff in dinosaurs, I realized that I needed to know more about glycogen bodies in birds, and about bird spinal cords generally. I expected that to be quick and easy: read a couple of papers, jot down the important bits, boom, done. Then I learned about lumbosacral canals, lobes of Lachi, the ‘ventral eminences’ of the spinal cord in ostriches, and more, a whole gnarly mess of complex anatomy that was completely new to me. I spent about a week just grokking all the weird crap that birds have going on in their neural canals, and realized that I needed to crystallize my understanding while I had the whole structure in my head. Otherwise I’d come back in a few months and have to learn it all over again. Because it was inherently visual material, this time I made a slide deck rather than a block of text, something I could use to get my coauthors up to speed on all this weirdness, as well as a reminder for my future self. Here’s that original slide deck:

Wedel 2018 Avian lumbosacral spinal cord specializations

If you’re already active in research, you may be thinking, “Yeah, duh, of course you write stuff down as you get a handle on it. That’s just learning.” And I agree. But although this may seem basic, it isn’t necessarily obvious to people who are just starting out. And even to the established, it may not be obvious that doing little projects like this is a good model for making progress generally. Each one is a piton driven into the mountainside that I’m trying to climb: useful for me, and assuming I get them out into the world, useful for anyone I’d like to come with me (which, for an educator and a scientist, means everyone).

A view down the top of the vertebral column in the mounted skeleton of Apatosaurus louisae, CM 3018, showing the trough between the bifurcated neural spines.

If you’re not active in research, the idea of writing little term papers may sound like purgatory. But writing about something that you love, that fascinates you, is a very different proposition from writing about dead royalty or symbolism because you have to for a class.* I do these little projects for myself, to satisfy my curiosity, and it doesn’t feel like work. More like advanced play. When I’m really in the thick of learning a new thing–and not, say, hesitating on the edge before I plunge in–I am so happy that I tend to literally bounce around like a little kid, and the only thing that keeps me sitting still is the lure of learning the next thing. That I earn career beans for doing this still seems somewhat miraculous, like getting paid to eat ice cream.

* YMMV, history buffs and humanities folks. If dead royalty and symbolism rock your world but arteries and vertebrae leave you cold, follow your star, and may a thousand gardens grow.

Doing little projects is such a convenient and powerful way to make concrete progress that it has become my dominant mode. As with the piece that I wrote about the perforating branch of the peroneal artery, the products rarely get used wholesale in whatever conference presentation or research paper I end up putting together, but they’re never completely useless. First, there is the benefit to my understanding that I get from assembling them. Second, they’re useful for introducing other people to the sometimes-obscure stuff I work on, and nothing makes you really grapple with a problem like having to explain it to others. And third, these little writeups and slideshows become the Lego bricks from which I assemble future talks and papers. The bird neural canal slide deck became a decent chunk of our presentation on the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus at the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress (Wedel et al. 2018)–and it’s about to become something even better.

The operative word at the start of the last paragraph is ‘concrete’. I don’t think this was always the case, but now that I’m in my mid-40s ‘what I know’ is basically equivalent to ‘what I remember’, which is basically equivalent to ‘what I’ve written down’. (And sometimes not even then–Mike and I both run across old posts here on SV-POW! that we’ve forgotten all about, which is a bit scary, given how often we put novel observations and ideas into blog posts.) Anyway, this is why I like the expression ‘crystallize my understanding’: the towers of comprehension that I build in my head are sand castles, and if I don’t find a way to freeze them in place, they will be washed away by time and my increasingly unreliable cerebral machinery.

Really nice Stegosaurus plate on display at Dinosaur National Monument.

Also, if I divide my life into the things I could do and the things I have done, only the things in the latter category are useful. So if you are wondering if it’s worthwhile to write a page to your future self about valves in the cerebral arteries of rats, or all of the dinosaurs from islands smaller than Great Britain, or whatever strange thing has captured your attention, I say yes, go for it. Don’t worry about finding something novel to say; at the early stages you’re just trying to educate yourself (also, talks and papers need intro and background material, so you can still get credit for your efforts). I’ll bet that if you set yourself the goal of creating a few of these–say, one per year, or one per semester–you’ll find ways to leverage them once you’ve created them. If all else fails, start a blog. That might sound flip, but I don’t mean for it to. I got my gig writing for Sky & Telescope because I’d been posting little observing projects for the readers of my stargazing blog.

A final benefit of doing these little projects: they’re fast and cheap, like NASA’s Discovery missions. So they’re a good way to dip your toes into a new area before you commit to something more involved. The more things you try, the more chances you have to discover whatever it is that’s going to make you feel buoyantly happy.

You may have noticed that all of my examples in this post involved library research. That’s because I’m particularly interested in using little projects to get started in new lines of inquiry, and whenever you are starting out in a new area, you have to learn where the cutting edge is before you can move it forward (Tutorial 12 again). Also, as a practical consideration, most of us are stuck with library research right now because of the pandemic. Obviously this library research is no substitute for time in the lab or the field, but even cutters and diggers need to do their homework, and these little projects are the best way that I’ve found of doing that.

P.S. If you are a student, read this and do likewise. And, heck, everyone else who writes should do that, too. It is by far the advice I give most often as a journal editor and student advisor.

P.P.S. As long as you’re reading Paul Graham, read this piece, too–this whole post was inspired by the bit near the end about doing projects.

References

3 Responses to “Tutorial 38: little projects as footsteps toward understanding”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    “if you are wondering if it’s worthwhile to write a page to your future self about valves in the cerebral arteries of rats, or all of the dinosaurs from islands smaller than Great Britain, or whatever strange thing has captured your attention, I say yes, go for it. Don’t worry about finding something novel to say; at the early stages you’re just trying to educate yourself.”

    True, but it’s even better than that. More often than not, in the process of assembling everything that’s known about your topic, you’ll find gaps that leave you scratching your head and wondering why no-one seems to have addressed them. Guess what? You’ve found a potential research project.


  2. Thanks for this. This may be the last bit of motivation I need to get my butt into gear and start moving on some of those “someday” projects I’ve been accumulating.

  3. dale mcinnes Says:

    I did find a problem to work on back in the early 60s. Got serious about it in late 70s. Have made tremendous progress on it since. Enough to open a whole new subdivision in palaeontology. I always get this “Well, if it was possible, don’t you think someone would have done it by now?” I don’t think people realize that some problems in palaeontology require a micro-step by micro-step approach. But who wants to attempt such an approach that would take over 40 years? I really enjoy doing the grunt work (putting together a myriad of blueprints, checking them out with accountants, architects, construction companies and creating composite materials to replace materials still used today). That said, I am completely alone in this area. Yet what keeps me going is that what I’m working on is absolutely essential in ALL sciences and in rare supply. It would change every science known. Yet, it has absolutely nothing to do with science. It is just a tremendously powerful key that is unknown in any science. It seems overly simple to me now, but I’ve racked my brains over it for 42 years. A PhD would never allow me to open that door. I am now a writer and artist and making headway (finally). So one piton at a time to get to the summit. Most look at those summits and think (correctly), “that’ll take a lifetime to reach! Ain’t going there!” So it eventually appears that the climb is impossible. Call it linear thinking. But the calling is there for someone. I take courage in looking at how long it took for palaeo-ichnology to receive full expression in this science. That took centuries. So 40 years is a small price if it can revolutionize all sciences. I light the fuze under this behemoth this year. I’ll either launch or scorch myself to a cinder.

    Sent from my iPhone


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