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This one weird trick will improve your science

Science is all about remembering things. This is something we maybe wish wasn’t true, and certainly we can and should look things up all the time. (Please don’t check my Chrome history for how many times a day I use NEB BioCalculator to avoid calculating dilutions by hand, sorry ninth grade science teacher.) But having memory access to lots of facts can make us better scientists. What’s the correct scientific technique to use to answer a question in my project? Who wrote that cool paper on a subject related to mine that came out last year? Where do we store that reagent that we only use once a year? You could definitely figure out any of these things if you forget- but remembering makes writing, thinking, and experimenting flow more easily.

 

BUT WAIT, you say, I can remember every episode of Arrested Development but definitely not that paper I read last week (ok, I skimmed it, I had a lot of experiments). Never fear, I have found a solution!

 

Flashcards. Not very glamorous, I guess. But this is my new FAVORITE SCIENCE THING, which has really helped my transition into a new field as a postdoc.

 

Steps:

  1. Get flashcards. NOT PAPER CARDS, come on, my handwriting is horrible. There are several free flash card apps available; the one I use is called Anki.
  2. When you read a paper, or a science news story, jot down the most important finding or two, and maybe the title and authors on a flashcard.
  3. Review some cards every day.

 

Seriously, I review for about half an hour daily- totally worth it. First, I remember papers I read now! Second, even if I don’t remember all the details, the electronic cards are a super convenient way to look things up. For example, lots of times I think “Oh, I know I read a paper last week that had something to do with ketone bodies- what did it say exactly?” Just search “ketone bodies” in your card deck! The third, most surprising benefit is it’s a pretty easy way to make connections and think about science more broadly. Day to day, I tend to have my nose to the grindstone of, what’s the next experiment, how are my mice doing, WHY DOES IT TAKE TWO MONTHS TO SHIP ETHANOL WHY? Flipping through my flashcards reminds me about seminal findings and open questions in my field, and sometimes connections between my day-to-day work and old papers will jump out at me.

 

Whenever I read posts discussing how to be a scientist, basically I’m looking for one type of thing- how to be a more effective (or supportive, or brilliant) scientist without doing that much extra work. (I mean let’s face it, if you tell me I could be a better scientist if I just worked 80 hours a week, I’ll be like IT’S NEVER HAPPENING ALSO I DON’T EVEN LIKE WORK THAT MUCH I’M GOING TO WATCH NETFLIX RIGHT NOW.) So this post is the closest I can come to that internet-science-advice-post ideal. FLASHCARDS. DO IT.

 

 

Featured image: Japanese Flashcards by Conrad Lawson, CC BY 2.0

Discussion
  1. Hi Caroline,

    Love the idea. I had a question. I just downloaded Anki and am trying to figure out the best way to do this. Do you use the ‘Basic’ type of card? And if so, how do you use it? Like the paper name in the front and the key ideas on the back?
    Sorry if this is a dumb question. I have never really worked with flashcards!

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