Original Research That's Fit to Print

Validating Good Science

Validating Good Science

The arts and sciences have more in common than the conjunction that joins them. Novelist John Updike habitually blocked out three hours each day, five days a week, to write. The great Flannery O'Connor wrote three hours a day as well. Keith Crandall, a biology professor at BYU, is just as focused on his writing, averaging 10 to 20 publications a year (see All That and Writing Too). Crandall, like other successful life sciences professors, carves out time in his busy schedule to write. "The best people we have in the College of Life Sciences are those who religiously make time on their calendar to write," explains Associate Dean Alan Harker. "They block out time where no one is going to disturb them, and they sit down and write every single day. Getting your research published takes that kind of effort."

Publishing is the last step in a process that begins in the research lab or in the field. Before they can write anything, professors like Crandall must first do original research worthy of publication in a peer reviewed journal. "If we're not publishing then what we're doing in our labs may be interesting to us but it doesn't have the cachet of having passed muster with our peers" Harker points out "It really becomes almost a hobby."

Thus, the discipline to do original research and write up the results is essential to a professor's success, essential because they have so many demands on their time. Consider this: For every hour they spend in class, faculty spend two to three hours in preparation, making sure that they are up to date and planning how to present the material on a particular subject in light of how well it worked last semester. "The biggest struggle most have is trying to make class just an increment better than last year," Harker notes.  "Changes we make may appear subtle, but they make a world of difference in how students receive and assimilate the information."

Science JournalsScience JournalsScience JournalsScience JournalsScience Journals
The research of Life Sciences professors has been published in many of the most prestigious journals and read by scientists around the world Background and front cover Professor Sandra Burnett director of the Research Instrumentation Core Facility observes students Jordan Meyers and Emily Moore analyzing cell samples through a Zeiss Axio Imager A microscope to identify cell structures according to cell staining.

When faculty are not teaching, they are often serving on various committees in their departments, the college, or the university that address the needs of the campus community. Whether they are reevaluating curriculum, debating the need for new lab equipment, or evaluating grant proposals of others, Life Sciences faculty keep very busy. "Everything that gets done in the college is modestly administered by a full-time administrator," Harker reports. "But the real work is done by faculty asked to serve in these positions."

 With all that to do professors must still spend time-lots of it-writing grants and proposals to raise money to support their research, figuring out which students can best help with the research when the money comes in, keeping their labs free of biological and chemical hazards, and turning in annual reports to the agencies or people funding the research. "On top of all that they retrying to get data is of a quality that can be write a paper about it send it a publisher and have them accept it," Harker continues. "Nowadays that is getting tougher and tougher."

Tough, but it is certainly not impossible-at least if the recent performance of the Life Sciences faculty is any indication. In 2008, the names of Life Sciences faculty and their students appeared as authors in 120 different journals on 174 peer-reviewed journal articles, up from 136 in 2004, many in the most prestigious journals in their fields, including Molecular Ecology, Cancer Research, Cell Molecular Microbiology, Biochemical Journal, Journal of Immunology, and Global Change Biology.  "An article by Professor Crandall and co-authors Professor Michael Whiting and post-docs Hojun Song and Jennifer Buhay recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most high impact journals we have," Harker observes.

Associate Dean Alan Harker
"We make sure our faculty are moving their research from the lab to the marketplace peer reviewed journals" says Associate Dean Alan Harker.
Impact is important; consequently, professors shoot for journals where the most people are going to read their research findings. Depending on the subject that may mean a society journal that peers in their discipline read. Plant and Wildlife Sciences professor Jeff Maughan, for example, published a paper to The International Journal of Plant Sciences. In other cases, a professor may seek out a more widely read journal. Professors Michael Whiting and Joel Griffitts, for instance, have published papers in Nature and Science respectively, important journals that everybody reads. "If you don't get into those then you go for something perhaps a little more specialized, but not as widely read," Harker continues. "There's a trade-off there in that the people who read about your research are going to be able to use what you've done, but you have less impact on the wider scientific community. "

In any case, the fact that something gets published in a peer-reviewed journal is important because good science gets published, reflecting well on the professors, the college, the university, and often their students. "If the research is well designed, well executed and well analyzed, it will get published," Harker explains.

At BYU, research and publishing are often a cooperative effort between professors and students. "In fact, most of the papers we publish nowadays have three or four authors because different students have contributed to the work being published," Harker says.

To make this all happen, the college carefully looks at the record of potential hires to make sure they have a good research agenda and the follow through to get it published. Then the college does what it can to help them once they have been hired. That includes offering writer's workshops and help with the costs of publishing among other things. "It becomes clear very quickly that the college places a high priority on moving our research through to publication," Harker emphasizes.

Brigham Young University is unusual, a hybrid of a large undergraduate teaching institution and quality research and graduate programs. That combination is a blessing to both students and professors, especially if the professors excel at publishing. "We have a firm belief that you cannot be at the forefront of teaching in your discipline if you're not moving that discipline forward through your research and that means publishing," Harker concludes. "Publishing is really the professional validation of what a researcher has accomplished in the laboratory. " It is the art that validates the science.

All that and writing too

Professor Keith CrandallProfessor Keith Crandall, Chair of the Department of Biology, is one of the top publishing faculty members at BYU, averaging 10-12 publications a year in journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He currently has 10 papers that have been accepted for publication and 19 more in the submission process. "The first thing you need to do to get published," he says, "is to have a decent idea."

The next step is collecting data relevant to the hypothesis, something that usually requires funding. "That takes some convincing," Crandall says. "You have to show you can do research before you actually do the research. "

As a BYU faculty member, Crandall must find time to teach, do research, and fulfill his role as department chair as well. He attributes his publishing success to the talents of his post doctorate and graduate students. "It is not a one man show," he says. "If I was on my own I would only be able to mentor undergraduates and produce publications a year."

Dr. Crandall and Jennifer Buhay
Dr Crandall and Jennifer Buhay a recent doctoral candidate studied the genetic differences among crayFIsh species
While the post doctorate and graduate students do much of the mentoring, Professor Crandall also mentors students in his lab. He recognizes that he could probably publish fewer, more significant papers if he concentrated on his own research. "But I am more interested in involving the students. I love the student interaction," he says.

James Finley
James Finley a “ BYU student goes burrowing after crayFIsh Word is that he got an A in Dr Crandall’s class for his efforts.
To Crandall, there are many benefits from involving students in the research process. Not only does that involvement assist students in their future career and educational goals, it gives them hands on experience. "It is really useful for students who need a physical example of what goes on in the textbook," Crandall says,

Another benefit students receive from working in his lab is the learning process they go through to publish a paper. "You have to engage them in the excitement of doing the research doing the analysis and sitting down and writing the paper," he says.

Dr. Crandall
Dr Crandall’s work on freshwater crustaceans like crayfish has taken him from Arkansas to Australia.

For Crandall, the writing process is the culmination of the whole research experience. "I find one of the attractive parts of research is writing it up," he says.  "It gives me a chance to summarize the last three to ten years of effort." He also enjoys the travel he gets to do because of his research. For example he once traveled to Madagascar on a National Geographic grant, where he was joined by people who had paid thousands of dollars to accompany the scientists. "That's when you know you have a good job," he says. "When people use their vacation time to do what you do for a living you know you are having fun."

His work on freshwater crustaceans has also taken him to Australia New Zealand Taipei, and more recently, Chile and Brazil. He concludes, "You can be a very happy and productive professor and not publish papers a year. It just happens to be something I really enjoy doing."

A means to an end

Dr. Jeff MaughanMolecular genetics professor Jeff Maughan came to BYU from Monsanto Company in without a portfolio. Most new professors come from post-doc positions with an established research agenda, ready to put pen to paper and report their findings to the scientific community. Not Maughan. "I came from an industry job Monsanto wouldn't let me publish anything," he says. "I was starting fresh."  He has since published 12 refereed papers and two book chapters.

When Dr Maughan arrived at BYU, he went looking for a unique niche to devote his research skills to one where he could involve his students. He found it in the study of the plant species quinoa, one of a number of under-researched South American crops. Although the plant is indigenous to various parts of the world, it is particularly important to the people of the Altiplano, an area 12,000 feet high in the Andes that runs from Ecuador to Argentina and is occupied by a few million people. "This entire civilization lives in a place higher than Timpanogos," he says. "Very heavy frost hailstorms-not many food species grow in those conditions. "

 Quinoa is one. Amaranth is another. Both supply a complete balance of the essential proteins necessary to the human diet; consequently, the safety of those food sources is crucial to the people of the Altiplano, so crucial in fact that Maughan and his colleagues, Drs Eric, Jellen Mikel, Stevens, and Craig Coleman, have a virtual mandate to do research on the two food sources. "Before I got here Elder Eyring approached my colleagues and said they ought to think more about what they could do to bless members of the church elsewhere," Maughan reports.

Quinoa plantsDr. Jeff Maughan
(LEFT)The seeds of these quinoa plants growing in Bolivia are among the most nutritious in the world BYU scientists are helping native farmers improve quinoa production to feed more people. And Professor Maughan(RIGHT), a member of BYU’s quinoa research team, examines the plant under a microscope.

Working together in the Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory on the second floor of the Widstoe Building, they have done just that. In fact, Maughan's research may end up helping church members in places other than the Altiplano. One of his publications currently under review concerns research he is conducting with the help of his students on how some species grow in high salt environments. Quinoa, for example, grows around the edges of a huge salt bed in Bolivia that dwarfs the Bonneville Salt Flats. "Quinoa has some very interesting genes that allow it to adapt to saline conditions," he explains. "We've spent time looking for those genes with the hope that what we learn might one day help us improve agriculture in the U.S and throughout the world."

Dr. Maughan sees publishing as a means to important ends like that. In the world of plant research, amaranth and quinoa do not have the cachet of soybean, for example. All the more reason he and his colleagues publish to get the word out about the important work they do in their lab. Publishing leads to the dollars that keep their work going. "My colleagues at Monsanto may think I'm wasting my time when there is big money to be made with crops like soybean," he says. "But these crops provide a real tangible benefit to people in faraway places. Part of our mission is to serve members around the globe."