How To: Set Up A Science Experiment

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Last week, we heard from Dr. Erin Warshaw, scientist and dermatologist extraordinaire, who also moonlights as my mother. She shared her love of science with us and how her favorite book growing up, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, inspired her to have a lab off her kitchen where she could set up experiments to her heart’s content. Today, she has authored over 207 peer-reviewed publications about experiments of all sorts. Below, she shares with us best practices for setting up an experiment. Scientist or not, Dr. Warshaw’s insights provide a wonderful framework for all of us to nurture our curiosities!

  1. Have an Idea: “The most important thing is coming up with an idea: A really important question that is novel. And it can come just from daily life. Come up with a really compelling, interesting idea.” What is something in your daily life that you’re curious to investigate? Make a list. Pick one that speaks to you!

  2. Develop your Hypothesis: “Then, determine what the main hypothesis is: so either it works or it doesn’t.” What is your gut feeling about the question at hand? Pick a side, for science’s sake.

  3. Define Change: “Figure out how to tell that difference. So, for example for one of the studies we did... if we expect the difference to be 15%, we need 300 patients to detect that difference.” Determine a framework for monitoring change, and be sure your sample size or time observing is ample enough to generate results.

  4. Write Rules and Stay Accountable: “Then, you have to write the protocol and go to the institutional review board who reviews the protocol and makes sure that it’s ethical and makes sure that patients are being treated fairly.” Write your own guidelines for your experiment if you don’t have plans to take it to an institutional review board. Share your hypothesis with friends and family and take their suggestions into account.

  5. Collect Resources:  “And then, once you get that approval, then hopefully you can get funding for the project.” What supplies do you need to execute your vision? Ask for help and apply for grants if your idea could benefit!

  6. Gather and Synthesize Data: “Then you advertise for patients, they enroll in the study, you collect all the data, you enter it in the computer, and then afterwards you analyze all the data, you type it all up in a manuscript.” Have a clear way of gathering your data, be it a new special notebook or an easy to follow spreadsheet. Write about what you’ve discovered!

  7. Get a Second Opinion: “You submit it, you get reviewers that give you all sorts of comments and suggest you do things in different ways which you can’t because you’ve already done the experiment so you just have to explain and spin it to get it published.” Ask for a second opinion (or three or four!) about your conclusion.

  8. Share Your Findings: “And then hopefully it makes a difference and advances science!” Shout your discovery from the rooftops! You’re officially a scientist.

Thanks again, Dr. Warshaw! Tune in next week to hear from another amazing woman on Okay, But What Do You Do?!.