The spectrum of notebook keeping in science and in life – Part I

I have recently read a great blog post on the evolution of notebook keeping, and how notebooks provide a tried and true method of keeping track of our lives in spite of explosion of their technological counterparts.

This series of articles triggered a flurry of thoughts on how I have interacted with notebook keeping in my own life. As a child, I have made multiple attempts of keeping a diary, which as I found out much later, was being secretly scanned by my grandmother. She cared so much about me, that she would leaf through it to make sure that I did not have anything particularly troubling in my life. As time went on, diary keeping fell off my radar. Other things came up to replace it.

In college, I obsessively kept a weekly organizer to keep my life under control and stay sane. I am a big fan of simplifying all rote tasks in my life, so when electronic calendars became available, I quickly jumped at the chance, keeping track of everything I could, first on a small PDA, then on my Google calendar, and finally migrating to Outlook. Even before reading the books “168 Hours” and “Getting Things Done”, I obsessively broke down every day on my calendar into 30-60 minute chunks, planning out when and how I was going to fit all of my to do lists.  It gave me a sense of being organized and making the best use of my time.

With the appearance of iPhones and a multitude of life tracking apps, I began to obsessively track my food, water, steps, sleep, tasks, time management, quality time, and life goals, just to name a few.  I try to record everything I can to have an accurate assessment of my quality of life and what areas I can improve upon.

And yet, as a scientist, I have very little desire or motivation to keep a lab notebook. Sure, this may make some people’s hair stand up. Notebook keeping is considered to be an essential and integral part of the scientific process; a way or recording exactly what has been done, how it was done, and the following outcome. It is used to make sure that scientific results can be tracked, reproduced and referenced by people who may want to follow up on your projects. Moreover, it can play an essential role in securing intellectual property (IP).

But deep down, most scientists don’t care as much about scribbling in their notebooks, as they do about performing the actual experiments. Notebook keeping often gets pushed down to the bottom of the ever growing to do list, leading to long catch up sessions of what some people now sarcastically refer to as “scrapbooking”. The process becomes even more cumbersome, collecting odds and ends of all experiments and finding a way to reference large data files. Add a few standard operating procedures (SOPs) on top of that, and the lab notebook will be the last thing you want to pick up. Yet it is a necessary evil.

Aside from the tediousness of the process itself, lab notebook keeping is also a dry, ungratifying process. In following the SOPs, you are expected to only record solid data and factual statements that could be used in court if necessary. I was surprised to hear from a colleague that in industry, scientists are actually strongly discouraged from writing any personal interpretations in their notebooks, as these may lead to more disputes.

But the scientific process is as much about thinking, hypothesizing and interpreting as it is about recording. Almost a year ago, I saw an article posted on LinkedIn by Beth Schachter, PhD (who teaches scientific writing), on how lab notebooks can be used as repositories of just facts, OR as a rich source for feeding the creative thinking process. Here is an excerpt from her article:

“When I think of my lab notebooks, I typically see repositories for my protocols, detailed experimental designs and plans, and all the new raw data that morph into results. That’s the way I kept my lab notebooks during the two decades or so that I spent as an experimental scientist. Rarely did I scribble into my notebook any of my ideas, questions, future strategies and tactics or random associated thoughts. Instead, I saved the latter for my manuscripts and grant proposals.

I know that researchers of an earlier era wrote more notes and commentaries in their notebooks. But, I don’t recall being trained or even encouraged to do that.

I realize now that I missed a terrific opportunity for creative thought by limiting the entries in my lab notebook to just the facts. In truth, only after I ceased doing and directing research, and began writing about it, did I learn that writing can be a creative process. Writers know that, but I wonder if most scientists do.”

In the beginning of this year, I found myself struggling with holding multiple pieces of information about my project in my head. I began to draw diagrams and jot down thoughts on potential connections between findings in a separate journal. I tried to distill my copious note taking at meetings to the essence of the take home messages. It allowed me more freedom to brainstorm and free associate between what appeared to be separate, random findings. Finally, it allowed me to come up with my own version of what one of my colleagues likes to refer to as The Theory of Everything (TOE). In turn, that allowed me to communicate my working hypothesis to my colleagues better, proving the usefulness of a more creative approach to notebook keeping.

Interestingly, when at the end of my postdoctoral training I took a mini business course on innovation at Mount Sinai (called Q.E.D – quod erat demonstrandum, meaning “which is what had to be shown”), notebook keeping came up again. The course was taught by Geoff Smith, who works in venture capital. It was designed to give PhD students and postdocs a little taste of life outside the ivory tower – what we referred to as a  “micro MBA”. In the first half of the course, we were taught how to identify a need and begin looking for potential solutions to address that need. While business-speak seemed very foreign to most of us, Geoff did a great job at drawing parallels between science and entrepreneurship. Identifying problems, making observations and coming up with solutions was what we did everyday in the lab. And notebook keeping/idea tracking was emphasized as one of the most essential ingredients of this process outside of the lab as well.

And finally, a few months ago, as I began to explore the idea of making scientifically inspired artwork, it turned out that exactly the same principles apply to the world of art – which some might think is driven by a different brain hemisphere.  Walking through Barnes and Noble, a small book caught my attention- “How to sell your art online” by Cory Huff.  In it, the author emphasizes the importance of recording the artistic process as it happens, focusing not so much on techniques as the emotions the art triggers.  Building a story around your art pulls on the senses and forms a much deeper connection than filling a lab notebook with protocols and numbers.  It allows the artist to put themselves into their art and give others a peek inside their inner world of creativity.

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Surprisingly, notebook keeping turned out to be a very rich topic and I will have to revisit it in another post.

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