Getting Ahead of the Narrative: A Writing Workshop for Science Summer

Penn's Clean Energy Conversions Lab organized a writing workshop that aimed to enhance research and manuscript development through activities such as elevator pitches, identifying project highlights and obstacles, discussing core values, and storyboarding manuscript ideas.

The most important measure of success for any scientist is the quantity and quality of their publications. For each publication there must be hours of data collection, analysis, and synthesis of existing literature, resulting in the final product of an academic paper. Putting together a final manuscript is a team effort. 

As one of the most prolific and well-established laboratories in the field of carbon management, Penn’s Clean Energy Conversion Laboratory (CECL) an affiliated lab of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, takes their publications seriously. Led by Peter Psarras, research assistant professor, and Estrella Beroff, lab manager, this community of innovators decided to do something different this summer. They conducted a day-long writing workshop, where undergraduates, graduate students, and staff could come together and brainstorm constructively.

The goal of the workshop was to help launch a productive summer of research and manuscript development. Psarras kicked off the day with an anatomy lesson on the structure of an academic paper, focusing on the pillars of “motivate, educate, plan.” Psarras relied upon his extensive lecturer experience to bring life to the otherwise dry subjects of sequential and iterative review. 

In the first writing exercise, participants drafted and performed elevator pitches of their summer research projects. In turn, labmates followed up with questions and feedback. Topics ranged from the interplay between geothermal energy and direct air capture (DAC) to indirect carbonation to energy transport modeling. 

After lunch, Beroff shared her unique brand of scientific writing, inviting each participant to share a “rose,” “bud,” and “thorn” from their research projects. Roses are things flourishing in a research project, such as feeling ownership, flowing funding, or PhD proposals accomplished. Buds are new things on the horizon that may require more hours in the lab or finding policy applications. Thorns are the obstacles holding the team back from success.

The thorns category took the bulk of time. First the team plotted their collective thorns onto a simple two-by-two matrix that compared importance with difficulty. Then, each member wrote continuously for ten minutes about their thorn, using a writing tool called “The Most Dangerous Writing App.” The app requires that users write continuously, or all the content disappears.

The team then progressed to a discussion on the topic of core values, inspired by “Ten Simple Rules for Creating a Sense of Belonging in Your Research Group.” Agreed upon values included respect, trust, accountability, and thinking flexibly. The full results of this discussion are consolidated into a values statement to complement the mission and vision statements for the lab website.

Finally, Psarras spent the rest of the day on the concept of storyboarding an idea. He demonstrated how a scribbled bare-bones outline can be turned into a polished and professional communication tool. Participants in the workshop then tried their hands at illustrating the stories of their soon-to-be manuscripts, identifying any major holes in the narrative. 

The day of instruction, brainstorming, and practice brought renewed enthusiasm for the challenge of research and writing. Elevator pitches will become update blurbs, lab notebook scribbles will become methods sections, and a collection of adverbs will become the foundation for building an inclusive and productive team.