How What You Learned in Expos Applies to Science Writing

by Ariel Vilidnitsky

For STEM concentrators, writing assignments in non-science courses may sometimes feel a bit removed from the academic work you’re asked to do in your science courses. But while it may not seem like it at first, many of the skills you develop in learning to write, say, a literary analysis or a lens paper actually translate very usefully to science writing. The subject of your writing might be very different, but the strategies for analytical writing are very similar.

You’ll likely remember from your Expos class that the first step to developing a strong argument for your essay is to ask the right analytical question. The same is also true for science writing. In some cases, the analytical question may be given to you in the prompt for the assignment. For instance, your instructor may ask you to intervene in a specific scientific debate by analyzing research papers from both sides and deciding which theory, if either, is more compelling. For other assignments, such as a grant proposal, you will need to develop your own research question that addresses some knowledge gap in the field.

Just as you would in a non-science paper, you will introduce your research question in the introduction of the essay. To better illustrate this similarity, consider the two excerpts from introductory paragraphs given below, one from an Expos paper about a film and the other from a grant proposal for a neuroscience course.

This is an image of text from two separate papers to compare their similarities. The first sections of text is highlighted in pink and compares two hooks at beginning of papers. The first hook is from an Expos paper: "The 2012 film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower is perhaps best known for its tunnel scene." The second is hook from science paper: "In mammals, a mother's behavior and environment during pregnancy can have profound effects on her offspring's development."

After the hooks, the image shows two background information sections side by side highlighted in yellow. The first is from the Expos paper: "In this scene, Emma Watson's character Sam stands up in the truck bed of her stepbrother's car as he drives through a tunnel. Sam strikes a power pose--her arms out and the wind in her hair--while the song "Heroes" by David Bowie plays from the car radio. The film adaptation of this scene shares many similarities with the original scence of the novel, but one notable difference is the song choice. In the novel, it is Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide that plays on the radio, not "Heroes."

The second paper's background information reads like this: "In mice specifically, a mother's diet during pregnancy has been shown to influence her offspring's sensitivity to certain odors. This type of in utero learning has been associated with changes to the olfactory system of the developing mouse fetus, such as increases in the size of the olfactory bulb. Receptors for ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and has been implicated in obesity, are expressed in neurons of the olfactory bulb."

Finally, the image show the analytical questions from the two papers for comparison. The first question, from the Expos paper, reads as follows: "This change in soundtrack raises the question, how does each song contribute to the development of characters and themes in the novel and film."

The second analytical question, from the science paper, reads as follows: "In adult mice, ghrelin is known to modulate olfactory sensitivity to conditioned odors by acting on the olfactory bulb neurons; ghrelin's effects on in utero odor learning, however, have not been previously studied."

The analogous portions of the two introductions have been highlighted in different colors. The essay’s hook is in purple, the background information is in yellow, and the analytical question—or knowledge gap—is bolded. We can see that, though each essay focuses on a very different topic, the purpose and organization of the introductions remain the same.

Whether you are writing a humanities paper, a social sciences paper, or a science paper, the last part of your introduction will be the thesis, which is essentially your answer to the analytical question. The thesis for a science paper may look a bit different because sometimes in a science paper you’re not yet ready to answer the question when you write the paper. For instance, in the grant proposal example above, the writer does not yet know what ghrelin’s effects on in utero learning are; they are writing the grant so they can get the funding necessary to figure it out! This does not mean that the writer does not need a thesis. Instead, they should end their introduction with a claim about the purpose of their research and the primary method they will use to answer their question. Below is one potential claim:

Using wildtype and ghrelin-knockout mice, I will explore the effects of exposure to methyl salicylate (mint) during pregnancy on mint odor sensitivity in offspring.

In contrast, in a debate-style science essay, your thesis might look more similar to the thesis in a humanities or social science paper. It will state which theory in the field, if either, is more compelling or perhaps argue that two seemingly contradictory scientific theories can coexist. Regardless of which type of claim you make, however, all science writing should also be sure to address the implications, or stakes, of the research topic, just as you learned in Expos. In the ghrelin example above, the writer might end their introduction by stating that determining ghrelin’s role in in utero learning is important for understanding potential prenatal risk factors for obesity.

We’ve focused a lot on the introduction, but actually, much of the remaining organization of a science paper will closely parallel what you learned in Expos, too. For example, each body paragraph should have three main components to it: a topic sentence that states the main idea of the paragraph, evidence to support the topic sentence’s claim, and analysis of the evidence. For analysis, you might consider the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques used, additional interpretations of data, potential experimental confounds and how well they were controlled, and/or how the results relate to other similar research in the field. Between each body paragraph, it is also important to incorporate transitions. In science writing, you might use phrases such as, “To determine the cause of [result from previous paragraph]…” as a way of linking two paragraphs.

Ultimately, an important part of being a scientist is not just understanding key theories in your field, but also being able to communicate these theories—and the ongoing research surrounding them—to an audience. The audience for a science paper may be different from the audience for your Expos papers, but you can draw on what you learned in Expos about sharing your ideas with an audience and explaining why those ideas matter.

Three Types of Science Writing Assignments: An Overview

by Ariel Vilidnitsky

Science writing. That term may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but I promise it’s not! An important part of being a scientist is not just understanding key theories in your field, but also being able to communicate these theories—and the ongoing research surrounding them—to an audience. Science professors, for instance, do this all the time when they publish their research in peer-reviewed journals.

At the undergraduate level, there tend to be three main categories of science writing: the grant proposal, the scientific debate paper, and the research report. The purpose of each of these writing assignments, as shown in the table below, is somewhat distinct. Just like with Expos papers, however, all three of these science writing assignments require you to analyze primary sources to make a claim of your own about some kind of knowledge gap in your field.

Grant ProposalA description of a series of experiments—ones you will actually perform or not—that will help you answer some question in your field that previous research has yet to fully address.Fictitious grant proposals—ones in which you don’t actually end up performing the experiments—are common final paper prompts for science classes, especially if the focus of the class is on reading research papers.   The HCRP funding application requires you to write a grant proposal for research you will actually carry out, as do many post-grad fellowships.  
Scientific DebateA paper in which you argue your opinion about an ongoing debate in the scientific literature. Writing this type of paper requires considering the strengths and weaknesses of the research carried out by scientists from both sides of the debate. You might also consider how two opposing theories could coexist.  Prion or virus: Which is the true causative agent of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies?  A recent paper suggests that the universe may not expand in an isotropic manner, as was previously believed. Do you agree with the conclusions presented in this paper? Is there a way to reconcile these new findings with the previous hypothesis?  
Research ReportA paper in which you present your original data, draw conclusions from your research, and convey the implications of your findings.   Many statistics classes have final projects that require writing a report, either about a survey you conducted yourself or on external data that you analyzed in a new way.   Research funding programs often require a final report about the research that the funding allowed you to conduct.   Senior theses are basically just long research reports.