How to Write a Scientific Paper – A Revisit of a Classic

Rd0EgO2As a mentor, the one thing I struggle the most with is communicating a good method for writing a scientific paper. It’s not that I don’t have one. It’s just that it’s completely contrary to the way we teach high school and college students to write. Many students write linearly – beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. Problem is, if you write a scientific paper that way, by the time you get to the end your story may have changed along the way. That’s very hard for a reader to follow.

So, a couple of years ago a senior colleague taught me how they story board their papers. They start in the middle of the papers at the results and write from the middle out. I’m working on a paper today and it made me a little wistful for my interactions with him. A loyal reader of the old blog was kind enough to send the post I wrote about his writing methods for re-posting here.

I still use the exactly same method, although I find that many people are reluctant to post their figures to the wall or a board and stare at them. Last night, Strange I stood in my office staring at a figure for about an hour. It made me realize that if someone needs an hour to understand what I’m getting at, it’s not a good figure. It doesn’t matter if I think it’s clear. It’s not if it takes someone that long to figure it out. Back to the drawing board.

So, without further adieu, here is a slightly edited version of the original post on the I-method of scientific paper writing…


  1. I try to remember the original question(s) (ie, hypotheses) that I started with and write them on my board.
  2. I make the figures or tables with the data that answer those questions. I take the figures and tables to the board under the question/hypothesis.
  3. I ask myself what follow-up questions I had, write those on the board, make the appropriate figures and tape them to the board.
  4. I tape the outcomes of my statistical analyses to the figures.
  5. I make people come and look at my board. When I get them there, I let them look at my figures a while and then I try to tell them the story of what I’ve done, using my figures and tables. I reorder the figures and tables based on their feedback and how I find myself telling the story. I write the questions they as on the figures and revise. I make people keep coming back to my board [now it’s a wall in my office] until they say, “Huh. That’s a pretty good story.” That’s the most crucial step of the process – getting your story in the right order so that it makes sense when you tell it.
  6. I write the results.
  7. I write the methods so that it parallels the order of the results.
  8. I ask myself if we have anything unexpected, how we’ve changed what we know, or what limitations we have. I write those on the figures and use that the write the discussion.
  9. I go back and write the introduction based on the story that came out of the results. I am a big believer in using the phrase “We hypothesized that..” so that there is no question about what we were trying to address or whether the experiments were appropriate. This hypothesis might be different than the one that drove the initial experiments because science is not always a linear process. Don’t be a slave to the original hypothesis if you learned things after the fact that made you change gears. That creates a tortuous paper that no one should subject a reviewer to. Also, include a general statement about the approach and if its more than 1.5 pages long, it’s too damned long.
  10. Add all the other stuff
  11. This is the second most critical step. I give that paper to anyone that will read it and provide feedback. I will give it to my neighbor’s dog to see if he craps on it. It is better to get criticism from the people you know than the people you don’t. Anyone who can be convinced to read it gets a copy. I also pay it forward. I will read anything anyone gives me.
  12. I submit it.


After reading this wisdom for the ages you might be thinking to yourself, “How is this any different than what we do at lab meeting? We show figures there all the time. Trust me, it is. At lab meeting you flip through figures that everyone squints at. You’re trying to listen and interpret the figure at the same time and you have someone’s voice to guide you.  There is something different about looking at a figure on paper, with time to look at it and meditate over it, without someone gabbing at you about what it is supposed to mean. You see things about formatting and presentation that you don’t see on a slide.


The Meal to End All Meals — Keto Gnocchi

The last 24 hours have been full of discussions about the ketogenic diet. I became interested in this way of eating when two things happened – I got divorced and gained about 30 pounds living as a single mother, eating scraps of macaroni and cheese from my kids’ plates and I battled shingles encephalitis and ended up with post-herpetic neuralgia in my face. Some days it felt like I was being branded with a hot poker along my left trigeminal dermatome.

A friend of ours is a big proponent of the ketogenic and we decided to give it a try in January.  I have had so much success, I am basically an evangelist. I lost 27 of the pounds I had gained and my neuralgia became manageable. I was generally able to stop the gabapentin I was taking for pain control. There is now a strong correlation between the times I have needed it since starting a ketogenic diet (keto) and the times I have eaten too many carbohydrates. As secondary effects, I don’t feel hungry during the day, feel extremely stable in my blood sugar, and have started doing more intermittent fasting. This is a great way of life for me.

I hear a lot of misconceptions about this diet. People who say they can’t do it because they can’t eat “no carbs” or can’t not have beer. I eat plenty of carbs (20-50g/day) and I drink beer. The amount of carbs and beer I consume is largely driven by how active I am, but I don’t feel deprived. The other thing I hear is people who have a hard time because they lust for their favorite food. I’m learning that, at least for me, there are certain components of my favorite foods that I love that will largely satisfy me. The texture of something or the spices. That’s what I long for. So, I have worked to try to recreate those experiences for myself and I end up largely satisfied.

Take gnocchi, for example. The things that are awesome about gnocchi are the lightness and chewiness. I have been looking for a gnocchi recipe that would deliver those components, sans the carbs. I found one that really delivered here.  The author states that the recipe is 4g of carbs per cup, but I would have died if I had eaten a cup.


The basic recipe is one package of shredded, low moisture mozzarella and three egg yolks. You put the mozzarella in a bowl and microwave for a minute until it begins to melt, and then slowly incorporate the egg yolks. The original poster is right that it takes some work, but it can be done with a kitchen spoon. Just requires patience until the egg yolks are fully worked into the cheese. Instead of garlic powder I added a small amount of salt and some onion flakes, but the next step is where seriously I deviated from the recipe.
I fouIMG_2904.JPGnd the dough very sticky to work with and, even after I greased my hands, it was still very sticky. I found some coconut flour in my pantry and sprinkled some over the dough in the bowl. That made it super easy to play with. I took it out in sections and rolled it into snakes. I then cut the snakes into pieces with scissors and shaped them into gnocchi shapes.  The white speckles in the pictures are bits of coconut flour. They didn’t give the gnocchi any coconut flavor. They just made the dough easy to handle.

I boiled some water and dropped them in, one at a time. I was shocked at how puffy they became.  Each piece nearly doubled in size and they seemed as though they would stick together in a gummy mess (photos here on teh Twitterz). I drained them and then quickly divided them on to some parchment. As they drained, they became nicely discrete gnocchi, committed to holding their structural integrity.

I did not sautee them in oil or butter, per the recipe. Instead, I made a quick sauce of 3 tablespoons of butter, a pound of langostino tails, five sliced cherry peppers from a jar, 3/4 of a bag of baby spinach, and a splash of cream and half tablespoon or cornstarch. After everything cooked down, I added the gnocchi and topped with parmigiana reggiano . Total, my entire meall came in at about 6g of carbohydrates and we ate it with a lovely salad and delicious pinot.IMG_2906

The keto gnocchi were amazing. Now, if you’re expecting them to taste exactly like potato gnocchi, you’ll be disappointed, but they have a delicious flavor in their own right and meet the requirements for gnocchi attributes – they are light and have a nice chew. They were also an awesome addition to the langostino sauce.

I think people fail or shy away from this way of eating because they are trying to maintain the ability to have food taste exactly as they expect it will taste. Instead, I have really enjoyed experiencing my favorite parts of food in a new context. We have played with spices and vegetables that we might never have eaten before. All in the name of #ketolife.



Reflections on The Four People That Help You Succeed

I had a meeting with a leadership coach I’ve been working with at my place of business this afternoon.  I’ve been really trying to build my own non-scientific, professional skills this year and in between meetings I was processing data and listening to some podcasts. One of the bits I listened to was from Chris Hogan. He usually speaks about retirement, but I think he really shines when he offers insights into leadership. The bit that caught my ear was him talking about the four people you need in your life in order to succeed.

Chris said that the four people everyone needs in their lives are the mentor, the coach, the cheerleader, and the friend. The mentor is the person living the life or career that you want. This person can give you personal-level insights, help you identify the tools you need to succeed, and support you with networking, etc. They are the person that that you want to emulate in order to reach your goals. The coach is the person who can help you learn the tools that you need to succeed. Maybe you need to become a better public speaker and you identify someone (even outside of your field) that is an awesome public speaker. They transfer skill-based wisdom. The cheerleader is your supporter and advocate, even when you’re down,  and the friend is the person that is your confidante.


Before this leadership meeting, I had taken a DISC assessment to determine my leadership style. The leadership coach asked me how I was going to use my results to be a better leader. I immediately thought of these four people and how I have frequently told people that they need a team of mentors. But, maybe it’s more than that. They don’t need a team of mentors – they need coaches, mentors, cheerleaders and friends. And they need to identify those people in order to be successful.

Maybe the best thing that we can do is to help the people that we lead learn to find those people.



Riding with the Brakes On…


When we went on RAGBRAI, I fully intended to update the blog daily.  I was also taking tons of pictures for all the social mediaz, but on Day 2, we lost our cell service. Spotty coverage coupled with the throngs of humanity overwhelming the towers meant that it was nearly impossible to even send a text message. Not only did I not update the blog, but I also didn’t get to talk to the I-tots, Little I and TD.  That was hard. But, the kids are home and I still have 5 days of bike riding excitement to share, smattered in the next few posts.***

Days 1-3 were pretty cool. On Day 2 we added the optional Karras Loop to our route in order to make our ride more than a century (100 miles).  It was hard and finishing it made me emotional, but I’m grateful we took on the challenge. On Day 3, I was pretty sore from hauling in order to complete the previous day’s loop in a reasonable amount of time, and it was very windy, but we still finished at a decent pace and with energy to spare.

Then, on Day 4 I felt like my legs were just out of power. It was hardtricepser to turn the pedals and I had to lower my gear. It also stormed. On Day 5 we rode with friends, including a friend who rides a heavy hybrid bike like I do. I felt like I was working really hard to keep up with everyone.  Day 6 started to get hilly and I felt like I struggled to turn my pedals on the hills, even in a low gear. Day 7 was exceptionally hilly and hard and, while I finished each day, I took note that I seemed to be working so much harder than everyone around me. The breaks between the rides were hilarious and the food was awesome, but the rides became more challenging each day. Others passed me, easily having conversations, but I felt like I was putting all of my focus on moving forward.

I told Strange that I felt like I was working so much harder and going so much slower, and thought maybe it was because my bike was so much heavier than the road bikes others were riding. He remarked that my bike was “crappy” and when I got indignant, he said that my rear wheel wobbles. When we go home, he turned my rear wheel and the brakes rubbed the wheel with every turn. I probably felt like I was working so much harder because I was working so much harder. It’s totally possible that I rode Days 4-7 with my brakes partially engaged.

I grew up in the suburbs of East Los Angeles, in the Inland Empire and there was not a lot of fitness bike riding in the ole “IE.” Many of the bikes looked more like this…

lowrider bike

And a lot less like this:

tour de france

I tooled around on a banana-seated beauty as a kid, but I only learned to ride a bike for sport a few years ago. I’m not bad, and I’ve now accumulated much of the requisite gear to look like the folks that I ride with, but the mechanics and culture still feel very foreign to me.  I try hard to fit,  but I still learn so much every time I ride with someone else. As each day passed and the rides got harder, I figured that it must be because I’m a novice, or because I wasn’t as strong as the other riders. It never occurred to me that there might be something wrong with my bike that was slowing me down.

I had a great time on the ride and the real highlight was meeting fellow Iowans as we rode across the state. People were so welcoming, opening their homes to us, and always made us feel like they were happy that 10,000+ people were descending on their town. I had so much fun talking to people and learning about the different towns. But, I am still kicking myself for not having more confidence in my own abilities and not realizing that the issue wasn’t my fitness, but the situation around me (aka, my back wheel).

***I’m not going to say that this post is a metaphor, but maybe it’s a metaphor. Maybe about feminism or diversity or something? Maybe that’s too deep for a Tuesday morning.


Updates from RAGBRAI, Day 1

Before I begin, I think the cell service here might be good enough to post a picture, so wanted to follow up on the hazing we received from our team last night…

It's been quite the conversation starter and all along the route people came and introduced themselves. This is definitely a social affair.

Starting from our first host family's home, I was warned by a team member about the sea of humanity we'd encounter. After the first mile I thought, "This isn't too horrible." Then we joined the actual ride and I found myself surrounded by more people than I've ever seen in my life. We quickly learned all the lingo. We knew the basics, "On your left, etc." but soon learned "Bike on, bike off, rumbles," and all the other ways you communicate in a sea of 10,000+ people.

We rode past Alton and another town whose name escapes me. After 20 miles we stopped for breakfast smoothies in Paulina. We biked another 14 miles or so and made it to Primghar, which may be one of the most hilarious places I've ever seen. The town is named by combining the first letters of the names of the founders. They all had mustaches, so we rode up to find them hosting the "Mustache Bash." We ate some pretty epic pie and I stood in line for a porta-potty.

A mile or so past Primghar, we found a rode side stand with coffee, cold watermelon and shade. We stopped there and learned that it was on the site of one of Iowa's largest inpatient mental health facilities. The Pride Group has 35 beds and suffers from lack of funding because of poor reimbursement. We also met a lady who lives in Northwestern Wisconsin. She works part time in an independent bookstore in Spooner and also rents out a yurt on her property in Hayward. She's done this ride 11 times.

Next, we stopped in Hartley where I had the best tasting dill pickle I've had in my entire life. It may have been the salt deficit, but it was outstanding. We also found ice cream sandwiches and laid in the park for a while. We were next to a fellow who professed to us that he was hurting from the ride when we asked if he was ok. I was glad that Strange and I had really trained because today wasn't as hard as some of our training rides.

We also ran in to the US Airfore team, who are beastly rider. They also have been stopping and helping every disabled rider on the side of the road. Every time I saw a disabled rider, there was a man or woman from the team already there helping. They're awesome.

The last 19 miles from Hartley to Spencer were the most challenging because we encountered a small headwind. I kept seeing signs that we were 10 miles away. Then after 20 min, I'd see another sign saying we were 20 miles away. Admittedly, I internally lost my chill a spell, but externally I tried to keep it together and finish strong.

Then Strange and I had a lemonade and passed out in the shade for a nap.

Probably the best part was sitting around in a circle with our team mates and chatting. I've met so many interesting people, and gotten to know others better. It's also been awesome to spend time with Strange, who rode the entire day at my right, or just behind me when it got tight. It's fun to do this together, and I'm grateful that we share these things instead of doing them apart.

Update from RAGBRAI, Day -1

Last night was my first night sleeping in a tent and I am going to call it 99% successful. I can neither confirm nor deny that I took an Ambien to help me sleep because the fire house was having a party and our neighbors were loud. I can confirm, however, that at about 1am I needed to pee and was sleepier than usual. I wobbled sleepily off into the woods to take care of business and then realized I didn't know which tent was mine. After some sleepy investigation, I found home.

Then at 5:30am, we got up, packed our gear and got breakfast from a local vendor. It's tricky to eat a low carb, ketogenic diet in this thing. Luckily, we found breakfast burritos and I ate the ham and eggs from the middle. This would be the first of three pork- based meals. Ham and eggs for breakfast, a leftover porkchop for a snack and pork ribs for lunch. For dinner, I went with a vegetarian option and got sweet corn ice cream. I'll blow through those carbs in the first 20 miles tomorrow.

After breakfast, we boarded the bus and began the trek from east to west. I really am awestruck by how beautiful the state is. Dare I call it bucolic. We met a guy who has done this ride 12 times and gave us the low down on all the best food. The bus company showed us the RAGBRAI documentary A Million Spokes. For the life of me, I can't figure out why they'd show us a movie about all the people who crash on RAGBRAI. Strange insists that it was about more than that, but that's all I remember.

We made it to the start town and it's incredible. It's really, truly lovely. Cell service isn't great to share pictures, but I will. People everywhere, a huge party and so much to eat and drink (although Strange and I are largely abstaining because I have a hard time drinking and riding). We saw our first passed out drunk guy. I hurt for him.

We also met up with our team and met the people we didn't know. They are solid, hilarious people and I'm looking forward to riding with them. They've taken to mentoring us and have already taught us the rites of initiation for people new to the tour..

It should look real good with a skirt when I go back to work. Pictures to follow when the service improves.

Update from RAGBRAI, Day -2

On Sunday my husband Strange and I will start the 400+ mile ride across Iowa. The first challenge was how to get to the start. We're fairly new to IA and don't think anyone loves us enough drive us all over the state. We found a charter through Brancel Tours that would take our bikes on a semi from the finish to the start, and us on a bus along with them. We loaded up this morning and started the trek to Lansing.

The plan is to camp in Lansing tonight and then ride the bus to Orange City in the morning, where the ride starts. The one hitch is that, growing up in the eastern greater Los Angeles area, I never camped. There's not great camping in Colton. I've never put up a tent and don't have all the wisdoms. Luckily, Strange has some glamping experience, so he's at least watched others put up his tent (I kid, I kid).

On the way here, we made an impromptu stop at a national park that we saw a sign for. It was a monument to local Indian effigy mounds. We stopped, visited the museum at the ranger station and learned a ton about our state.

We got here, got our bikes loaded on the semi, and found our spot among the tent city.

Our tent is up, we had an outstanding keto-friendly meal at a local bar and grill, and the mosquitos have found us. I feel like I'm having the full camping experience and totally loving it.

Lansing is a gorgeous town of about a thousand, seated in a picturesque location on the Mississippi River. We learned that it's called the "driftless area" because the glaciers didn't come through and flatten it. It's a hilly area and we'll be riding it next Saturday.

The fire station is hosting quite the party up the road and people are already making friends. On our way back from dinner in town, Strange and I walked past the police station and city hall. A car of people stopped at a group of police officers on the side of the road to ask for directions. As we walked around, they pulled away and nearly ran me over. One of the policemen laughed and said, "Well, whaddaya expect? They're from Vermont."

Well, wait until you hear where I'm from, buddy. But, I'm very quickly becoming an Iowan.

I'll try to update this humble blog each date, but more frequent pictures of this fair state and bike riding tomfoolery are available via Snapchat (@drisis, for the LOLZ).

“I Just Woke Up Little I With His Nunchuks…”

No one prepares you to have the following conversations with your children…

Me (to TD): Please go wake up your brother…

(Five minutes later)

TD: I just woke up Little I with his nunchuks. I thought they were a toy, but turns out they were real.
Me: Is he ok??
TD: Yeah, but he’s angry. I don’t think I’ll do that again.

End life lesson.


Bucket Lists and Bike Rides

Bucket_list_posterI racked my brain all weekend trying to remember the name of the movie where Morgan Freeman and that other guy (Jack Nicholson) make a bucket list of all the things they want to do before they die. Much to my chagrin, the google machine told me that it’s called “The Bucket List.”

Imagine that. “The Bucket List.”

I’ve always hated the idea of a bucket list. A list of things you have to do before your life ends. I’ve had a list of feats I’ve wanted to achieve or goals, but never anything that carried such weight or required reflecting on the end of my life with such finality. The things on my list have been more like challengescuss the whole time. Things I wanted to show myself that I’m tough enough to make it through. I’ve always been proud of survival and toughness. I’m not the best or the fastest, but I’ll finish. In the words of some stuff from my Facebook timeline, I won’t quit but I will cuss the whole time.

I really like to be challenged. The first robbichallenge was a 5K after Little I was born. I was 27 years old and had never been a runner.  The town we had moved to was full of fit and active people who ran in the evenings and on weekends and I was working with a bunch of athletes. The raced on weekends. I wanted to be able to say that I could finish a race. Around the time I started the last version of this blog, I started training for my first race. I trained so hard and finished the 5K. Then I ran a half marathon with Little I’s preschool teacher. And another. And another. When it seemed I had conquered the half marathon distance, I trained and ran a marathon. I don’t feel like I need to really *conquer* the marathon. Running it once was enough to say that I did it.

Around the time I was training for the marathon, I also bought a bike. The man I worked for rode his bike to work every day and I was looking for ways to get more activity into my day. I also didn’t like the realization that I couldn’t ride a bike. I got it into my head that if he could ride 8 miles to work each day, I could too. I went to a bike shop and bought a bike. I rode it around the block for a few days and then plotted out a route to work.

The first time I rode the 8 miles to work, it took me two hours. I arrived sweaty, sore, and so exhausted I could barely stand. I crawled into my office and my coworker asked me why I was so tired. I cried, “I thought I was in great shape, but I don’t think I can ride bikes. I can’t even make it up the hills!” She seemed confused too. The hills between my neighborhood and work were modest, at best, and I was in the thick of marathon training. I was in great shape. After a little patient probing from her, we soon discovered that I had been doing it all wrong. My only experience with cycling had been spin class where the instructor would say “We’re going uphill. Add a gear.” So, every time I approached a hill, I went up on my gears. I’m just glad we figured it out after my first ride. I don”t know that I’ve mastered gears, but at least I now move them in the right direction.

Once I had gained confidence in the ride to work, I needed to feel challenged again. I switched to padded shorts and bought bike shoes, cleats and pedals. The first time I used them, I tried to get on the bike while it wasn’t moving, broke the kickstand, and hit my head on the lawnmower in my garage.  Then I rode to the end of the street, rode into the stop sign when I couldn’t get my feet out, and fell over into some bushes.

Ebike shoesventually, I got the hang of the pedals and needed a new challenge. I had always wanted to do a century ride. After a hiatus while I moved to our new town, Strange and I got back to biking. The next logical challenge seemed like a century ride. Problem was, I was terribly out of shape, had gotten chubby in the post divorce period, and could barely finish the 8 miles I had been riding easily before the move. The year went by and I vowed to try again the following spring. This brings us to the present, where somehow Strange and I have modified our plan from a century ride to riding across the entire state.

We’ve trained the entire summer, harder than I’ve trained for anything before. We’ve lost about 60 pounds between us and have ridden 600 miles since May. Spending that much time on my bike, I’ve learned so much about him, our relationship, and how far I can push myself. Traveling as many miles as we did, I have learned so much about the places and people of my state and it’s captured my heart. I feel more connected to the community around me. Cyclists smile and wave as they pass each other on trails and roads and local businesses welcome our sweaty forms. I’m nervous about spending an entire week on my bike, but I feel like we took the preparation seriously. We’ll see next Sunday how prepared we really are.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to exploring my state and meeting more of the people whose university I serve.

That said, I recently find myself reflecting on challenges with the next half of my life  and my own mortality in mind. The president’s budget proposal, with a 20% cut to the NIH, really hit me hard. I’ve always looked at my career in a service-oriented way.  It’s the part that makes it enjoyable and sparks my creativity. I want to do work that improves the life of patients (more on that later), but this budget communicated, “We don’t really value that.” Or at least, a faction of the public doesn’t want to pay for it and the inflexibility of academia makes it difficult to do things any other way. It’s like being stuck between a rock that’s telling you that the path to success is paved in NIH dollars, and a hard place that’s telling you they don’t value the NIH enough to keep it funded. It’s left me wondering why we’re working so hard, cannibalizing each other in grant and and tenure and paper review, to serve a public that doesn’t want to be served in this way.  That doesn’t trust those darned elite scientists and professors. Will I look back at the end of my life and wonder why I spent it clinging to Rome while it burned?

Also, readers of this and the previous blog may remember posts about my mother and her early death. She died a few months before her 40th birthday and I have spent most of my adult life rationalizing that her death was not a fluke. It was the result of smoking, and drug abuse and poor nutrition. I am healthy and fit and, although I am about to be 38, I not doomed to her fate.  But, recent events in our family circle have shook that reality and reminded me that, even if I try to do everything right, illness can still strike young people. It’s put an urgency in my thinking that wasn’t there before. With 5Ks, half marathons, marathons and bike rides, am I really living a full life? Are these the challenges I should be taking on? Am I serving people in a way that they really want to be served and in a way that adds to their lives?

One more prattle before I wind this down for the night. I’ve been doing a lot of business, finance and leadership reading lately. Robert Kiyosaki writes in his book “10 Real-Life Lessons Every Entrepreneur Should Know About Building a Multimillion-Dollar Business” about the decade long processes his own business went through as it grew. He writes about the learning process, where he learned his business. He writes about the earning process, where the lessons he had learned from his mistakes started to pay off and he began to build a foundation of wealth. Then he talks about the giving back process. He says:

During this period of time, my focus shifted from making money to asking myself the question, “How can I serve more people?” Ironically, I have made more money focusing on serving more people rather than focusing on how to make more money. 

The idea that service comes from success resonated with me and I’m meditating on what it means to serve people. Does service require consent or at least a desire to be served? Does service require a person to realize they’ve benefited?  Is what I’m doing benefiting and serving the most people?

In the meantime, pass my my fiddle. And my bike.

rome burning