My daughter’s Bellaire High School history teacher told us once at an open house that she did not want her students to learn what happened, but instead to learn why it happened. I felt joyous, knowing my daughter was in good hands. I felt thankful this wonderful woman was teaching high school history.
Your laboratory notebook should also tell why things happened, not just what happened. It should also tell what you thought about what happened. It should not be a series of numbers, or photographs of gels, carefully labeled but uncommented. Your lab notebook should have some drama in it. It should show your thought process as you worked through a series of experiments. When you have a photo of a gel, you should say what you thought of it. Was the DNA of high enough quality that you could move on, or did you reattempt its extraction? What did you make of puzzling results? All of this should be in your laboratory notebook. For only if it is can we usefully look back at it long after you have left the lab. In fact, it will make a lot more sense to you also, when you look back.
It is also important to keep a log as you are in the analysis and writing stage of a project. I keep such logs in a word file as I work through data. What did I do? Why did I decide there were problems with a set of data? What are the degrees of freedom? Are the data normally distributed? Why did I do this analysis and not that analysis? What links this study with that? When did a new insight arise? Just keep a file open to put your comments in as you work through analyzing and writing the paper. It will make subsequent drafts much easier. All too often those drafts might be years later.
Mentors can help their students by looking at their lab notebooks and notes. They should tell a story. They should be tales of success and failure, repeated attempts for success that finally work. What the key change was should be clear. They should even be fun to read.
written at the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat