Information for project students

This information is for undergraduates and Masters students who do projects in my lab. Most of these will involve visual psychophysics in humans or praying mantids. Computational projects are also available, but since I’m in the Faculty of Medical Sciences, most students don’t have the programming expertise to do such a project.

Many students very much enjoy their projects in my lab and get a lot out of their time here. Several of them have even been authors on scientific papers in recognition of the data they have collected. But my work tends to be more computational and probably more abstract than many “biology” (psychology, medicine) students will be used to, so expect to have to work hard to grapple with unfamiliar concepts. Many/most of you will be supervised day-to-day not by me but by one of my team: a PhD student or postdoc who has the relevant expertise.

Lab meetings and weekly updates

While you are doing your project, you will be welcomed into the lab team. As part of that, you will attend weekly lab meetings. You will hear other lab members talk about what they have been doing, and in time, you will start to join in. Initially, lab meetings will be confusing because you won’t know the details of everyone’s projects (we’ll provide a brief background where possible, but if we did that in enough depth for you actually to follow, we’d run out of time). But over time you will pick up more and more. Even if you don’t follow the details, it will still provide insight into how science is done; the discussions about what data means or what experiment to do next.

In advance of each week’s lab meeting, every lab member (including me, and including you) is expected to email round a “weekly update”:a brief account of what they have done that week, typically in bullet-point form. It’s a good idea to also include a brief list of what you hope to achieve next week (“start pilot experiments; read remaining 3 papers”). Then your next week’s report can begin by reviewing what you did and did not achieve out of your plan!
Your weekly update should be honest and include any set-backs. Take the opportunity to highlight anything you want to discuss. This might be in the lab meeting if it’s fairly straightforward (“got some good data from the experiments this week – will present graphs in the lab meeting”) or elsewhere if it’s more specialised or will require longer (“tried experiment again but still not working – can we meet next week to discuss this Jenny?”).

Working with volunteers

Many of you will be running experiments with human volunteers. Obviously, it’s very important you are above reproach in your dealings with these, especially where they are coming from outside the university. All volunteers will need to give informed, written consent to participate. It is important that you keep these secure and give them to Jenny to file at the end of your project.

We generally acknowledge people’s time by giving them a gift voucher for a local shop in recognition of their participation. Obviously, it is essential that you handle this responsibly and keep careful records of the vouchers you have given out. Make a template receipt with your name and the name of your project, ask the volunteer to sign to acknowledge receipt, and again, keep these receipts secure and give them to Jenny or the lab member who is directly supervising you.

When you record a participant’s data, either yourself or via a computer program, do not use their name to identify them. Best practice is to use a code, e.g. P001, P002 etc. Record their gender and year of birth. For children, also include the month of birth, but not the day, so as to reduce the amount of identifying information. If you may want the person to come back for a follow-up experiment, and so need to know who is P001, P002 etc, record that information on paper and lock it in the lab filing cabinet.

Housekeeping

Most of my research involves relatively standard office equipment like computers, monitors and projectors. Thus the safety requirements are less stringent than for wet labs, and personally I’m relaxed about you drinking coffee in the psychophysics lab etc. However, please tidy up after yourself. I don’t want to come in and find empty coke cans, crisp packets etc. (You’d think this would go without saying but apparently not.) After you’ve finished work, please shut down computers, turn off monitors etc. This is especially important with projectors.

Writing your dissertation

My major tip for success with your dissertation is: start writing it as early as possible. Students tend to be far too optimistic about how long it will take them. You will typically start off your project with reading around the research question. So you should aim to start drafting your introduction as you do so. You need to be able to explain to the reader what you are doing and why. Once you are collecting data, you should be able to start writing the methods section. This will probably involve constructing diagrams or taking photos to show the stimuli or apparatus.
You may not be able to write the results section until you have finished collecting data, but you can still start constructing Excel or SPSS worksheets that perform the appropriate analyses and plot the appropriate graphs. Even if you haven’t got any data, for example because you are waiting for ethics approval, you can make up some toy data and start constructing these worksheets. What sort of data do you expect to have? What sort of statistical analysis do you plan to run on it? Make sure you know how to do this in the stats package of your choice.

My second major piece of advice would be: don’t assume the examiner knows anything at all about your research question. They will probably come from some quite different area, and will know as much about stereo vision as I do about retinal development or genetics (which – trust me – is not much). So explain everything very clearly. Run it past your mum or your housemates. If they don’t understand your research question, the reader probably won’t either, and, how to put this, it’s possible you don’t understand it very well either.

Oh and last but not least, use some piece of software such as Endnote to manage citations, use Word’s reference features to automatically update figure numbers etc for you, and make sure you know how to use Word’s Track Changes and Comment features.

Timeline

In order to help you manage your project and to avoid pre-submission misery, I suggest the following timeline for a 12 week project:
Weeks 1-3 : read around research question, mug up on relevant background, start writing introduction, start getting familiar with equipment / experiment.
End of week 3: send me the first draft of your introduction. I won’t read it or comment at this stage, but it will concentrate your mind if you have to get something together to send me!
Weeks 3-8 : major data collecting phase.
End of week 5: send me the first draft of your methods section.
End of week 6: produce the first graphs of your data.
End of week 8: have implemented the first statistical analysis. Data will still be coming in, but you will just add that to your worksheet and recompute.
Weeks 9-12: work on writing up your dissertation, redoing the earlier drafts etc.
End of week 10: send me the first draft of your results section.
End of week 11: send me a complete draft of your dissertation. At this point I will give you detailed comments and feedback, which you will then have a week to address.

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