Turn your results section into art: Supplementary Data

I’ll admit it’s not really poetry. I’d probably have called it microfiction, but for the presence of a few extra line returns. But the editor liked my entry into the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics Poetry Contest enough to give me a prize. OK, it’s not a cash prize, but I will get to read my poem in front of a crowd of boozing biochemists at the epic brain overload that is Experimental Biology 2012. Though I will have to get my skates on to make it to the brewery in time for the EB2012 TweetUp.

But the point of this post is not to gloat about my incredibly glamorous life, it’s to propose an entirely new genre of literature. Let me begin with my award-winning poem:

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Consistent with this, cell extracts from the iba57Δ strain showed virtually no aconitase activity (Fig. 2A).

In a well-lit, windowless cupboard alone
with a chirping machine,
a bucket of melting ice
and a persistent smell,
I danced.

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The title of my almost-poem is a direct quote from the results section of one of my academic papers: Mitochondrial Iba57p is required for Fe/S cluster formation on aconitase and activation of radical SAM enzymes. The sentence that I chose describes the conclusion of a painful series of experiments that were profoundly important to my ability to graduate with a PhD, but you would never know that from the paper. All you would know was that the iba57 mutant had no aconitase activity.

A proposal

There are all kinds of dry sentences with juicy back stories that are floating around in the journalsphere, sentences just waiting to be rescued from the po-face of academic prose. That is why I’m proposing a new genre called Supplementary Data that encourages scientists with a literary bent to link their research findings to more subjective accounts of the process of discovery. Some scientists already write amazing blog posts that function as a kind of supplementary data. For example, the Snake Escape post that I recommended in my ScienceSeeker picks this week recounts an escapade that I doubt was repeated in the scientific reports of the Eastern Indigo snake reintroduction. But aside from blog posts, I would like to see other kinds of supplementary data, both more abstract, more tangible and more fragmentary. I’m thinking poems, stories, maybe even images and videos.

A plea for help

I’ve posted some examples below just to show that I’m game, but what I’d really like is for more accomplished poets/writers/artists to try their hand and let me know about it. I’ll link to you here and through Twitter, or if you have nowhere to link to, I can post your work here. Let’s see what kind of awesomeness we can dig up.

1. Haiku about a moment of discovery (I’m no poet, but I’m a sucker for a haiku):

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That is, a large group of genes that were up-regulated in our experiments were down-regulated in the other acid treatments and vice versa.

Lined up head-to-head,

our data are not like yours.

Well, this is awkward.

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2. Microstory about a moment of discovery:

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These include a range of cell wall mannoproteins encoded by TIR1–4 and DAN1–4(36–38), which belong to a family of very serine-alanine-rich mannoproteins, with ∼25–30% of the aminoacyl residues being L-serine (supplementary Table S3).

The boss emerges wearing that look. “I’ve got it,” he says. Amongst the curled papers and post-its, his computer screen is filled with repeating patterns of letters:

 101  RLEPALKSLN GDASSSAAPS SSAAPTSSAA PSSSAAPTSS AASSSSEAKS
 151  SSAAPSSSEA KSSSAAPSSS EAKSSSAAPS SSEAKSSSAA PSSTEAKITS

Twenty kinds of amino acids can be encoded by these English letters, but the protein sequence is full of S’s, serines.

“This must be where all that serine is going,” he says.

It’s not often that confusing data suddenly makes sense, so I try to enjoy the moment a little and let the protein hiss its secrets at us, SSAAPSSSEAKS, SSAAPSSSEAKS, SSAAPSSSEAKS. The repetition isn’t for dramatic effect, it’s mechanical, the result of selection on a DNA replication error. It’s the mark of mistakes, made over and over again.

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Supplementary Data for this Post:

If you find yourself with a hankering for sciencey poems, you should definitely check out the other fab ASBMB contest entries, one of which even won first place. Also, nicest man in the world David Kroll wrote a surprise post about me and my poetry exploits at CENtral Science Blogs.


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4 thoughts on “Turn your results section into art: Supplementary Data

  1. Given the aesthetic you are looking for—the poetry of science, the joy of discovery, the germinal assemblage of models from elemental data points—I really suggest you look into the novels of Richard Powers, if you haven’t already. The Gold Bug Variations is practically seven hundred pages of this. Here’s a young scientist’s encounter with the double helix in the late 1950s:

    The spiral molecular staircase—two paired railings sinuously twisting around one another, eternally unmeeting snakes caught in a cadeceus—becomes in his fueled brain the stairs of Robeson’s spiritual: Jacob’s Ladder, the two-lane highway to higher kingdoms. Angels are caught descending and ascending in two solemn, frozen, opposing columns. In his soporific reverie, four kinds of angels twist along the golden stairs. Bright angels and dark, of both sexes. Four angel varieties freeze in two adjacent queues up and down the case, each stuck on a step that it shares with its exact counterpart. Every bright man opposite a dark woman. Every bright woman, a dark man. Fitful in his bunk, in the blackness, the unappeasable modelmaking urge. Four angel varieties to signify DNA’s four bases: thymine, cytosine, adenine, and guanine. Jacob’s helical staircase ladder conjured out of a single strand of nucleic acid.

    • I haven’t read Powers, but who doesn’t love a double-helix? I just googled The Gold Bug Variations and got this from the NYT review:

      “The Gold Bug Variations” has everything: Paracelcus, Schrodinger waves, Zeno, German, French, Latin, musicology, quantum mechanics, Flemish painting, staves of musical notation, poems written in computer language, Keynes, ozone depletion, Tesla coils, Yeats, Pythagoras, Poe.”

      Thanks a lot for the tip, I’m definitely intrigued.

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