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The Dynamic Nature of a Proposal

Sometimes a large divide forms between a well-crafted research proposal and actually collecting data. That divide is called reality.

I truly did intend to do exactly what I wrote into my proposal last September. But in the year between clicking submit and now, a few things happened.

My original plan involved developing gas-tight chambers to enclose the roots of potted plants. After realizing how underqualified I was to build anything that would be pressurized, I worked with the Science Support Center at PSU, who have been extremely helpful, but the chambers were not ready in time to run preliminary experiments and make sure it all worked before carting gas tanks to the field (which sounds miserable now).

Also in that year, science continued. As I collected data, I learned new information and formed new questions—or in some cases, the same questions evolved into more mature perspectives.

All of this together, combined with a rapid change of travel plans for my advisor, who was suddenly not able to accompany me, two weeks before leaving I found myself picking his brain and writing out a revised research plan on scratch paper. I created piles of test tubes, pipette tips and petri dishes for him to look over in order to be sure I was packing the right supplies—and I had him show me techniques days before I left so I would know what the heck I was doing.

Finally in the field, looking out at the forest before me that held the answers to my sketched out research questions, I sat down and wrote a full proposal.

As a scientist, I consider myself a writer. Most days this means sitting down at my computer and wrestling with the abstract, complicated concepts and the correct tense. Most of the time, although I still enjoy it, writing feels hard.

But every now and then, writing out a research plan generates a vibrating excitement.

When this happens, I have to race to keep up with the idea that is trying to make it to the page if I can type fast enough. This time I was frantically trying to keep up with my new, realistic version of my field experiments. As the words swirled around in my head before landing on the keyboard, I began to envision how doing those experiments might really describe something interesting: a new phenomenon about how nature works.

Once I stopped typing, with my new research plan before me, I realized it still addressed the key questions from my original proposal, but in a more simplified, field appropriate manner, requiring equipment that actually fits in my suitcase (no gas tanks- what was I thinking?!). In fact, after my keyboard dust settled, I realized this “new” plan allowed me to ask a few questions that are more sophisticated than my original version, taking advantage of the strengths of this being a field experiment, (i.e. focusing on the natural community of insects) and fighting less against challenges like maintaining fancy equipment in the pouring rain.

In the end, this plan works even better to understand my question: how do symbiotic bacteria fixing nitrogen affect plant chemical traits in a way that changes their ecological interactions with the native insect communities in nature?

Now about those plants in nature… the next step is to find them.

-Adrienne L. Godschalx, October 28, 2015

#writing #science #sciencewriting #grantproposals #fieldwork #CostaRica #chemicalecology #biology

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