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  • Writer's pictureJuliana González-Tobón

Continuing Ag Science Research From Home

It is evident that the reality in which we are living right now is absolutely new for everyone and very, very challenging. We, as scientists working in the agricultural sciences, have a whole new question to resolve… How to do Ag science research from home during a pandemic?

If you turn on the news, log in to your social media account, or even just grab the phone and talk to a friend, chances are that you will listen about new realities people have to face now. For example, teachers re-inventing their classes to continue educating, students learning virtually, parents interacting with their children all day long… 

We are facing a rollercoaster of emotions and ideas. We want to progress in our research, but we also feel worried and anxious about everything that is going on. We may be used to a specific routine on-campus that implies lab or fieldwork. So, now that we are staying at home and so much has changed... How can we be productive?

There are many things that an Ag scientist can do at home. I am covering five examples but do not forget there is a whole ocean of online opportunities where you can find what is best for you. This article aims to provide support to all of you who want to establish a routine and perform some valuable scientific progress but do not know where to start.

1) Computational research (P.S. coding is great but it is not the main thing you can do):

Computational research is one of the most powerful tools that a scientist has nowadays. We can rely on millions of data obtained by other researchers around the world and stored online. With this data, we can either answer research questions of our own or ask new questions as well. It would be impossible for me to describe everything that you can do with bioinformatics from home. Also, it depends entirely on the project you have and what you want to achieve. 

Here are a set of useful resources to give you a head start:

  • NCBI and Ensembl: Being the most popular databases, these two resources hold tons of data that can help with your current bioinformatic projects. Both contain specific webpages for DNA, RNA, protein data. As well, EMBL-EBI (who hosts Ensembl) has a plethora of resources for specific bioinformatic processes. Pro tip! It might be easier to search in Ensembl by using one of its webpages specific for a certain group of organisms (Bacteria, Fungi, Plants).

  • Specific databases: Aside from these general databases, many others exist to hold specific data on different organisms or areas of science. For example, ASAP holds genomic and proteomic sequences for most pathogenic bacteria.

  • Computing platforms: Don’t worry if the computer you have at home is not the fastest. You have options to run bioinformatic analyses online. For example, Galaxy provides you with a computing platform that also facilitates setting up of the programs you use! Don’t forget to ask if your institution has a computing cluster to which you can access from home.

  • Of course, coding: You might want to use those sequences you downloaded from NCBI to run bash or a python script. You might also have no idea what I am talking about, which is absolutely fine! Coding is a great skill to have but it takes some time and a lot of auto-teaching. This is why this quarantine sounds like the perfect moment to try it! Datacamp offers very good courses in this area. Also, this resource from Professor David Tabb can guide you on the basics of molecular biology and bioinformatics! Finally, you can learn how to use the beloved R, free and a great resource to do coding and statistical analyses.

For further guidance on the uses and applications of bioinformatics in agriculture, check out this book by Hakeem and collaborators (2019).

2) That writing project you have been delaying for months?

I firmly believe that the hardest step when writing is to start. So, when I find myself procrastinating I open a new Word document (or whatever system you use), write at least a sentence, and save the file. It will be easier to continue from there. Don’t feel pressured to have words come out of you perfectly. It is best if they don’t. Write without thinking it through and see what comes out, this is what people call a “messy draft”. After having that draft you can polish it. However, if you don’t have it, there will be nothing to polish. You can join one of the online writing groups that are available now. Your institution will probably have some available. You can also join online communities like the Academic Writing Group or even contact fellow coworkers or friends and create your own group (here some tips). This can work better if you set a time for writing every day by yourself or with your group. Make it part of your routine. 

There are different services that will help you during the writing process. Grammarly is a plugin for your computer that can work with both installed and web-based applications. It will perform as an assistant while you are writing. So, it will indicate any grammar or spelling mistakes while also supporting you with logical order and flow of ideas. Other programs, as Writefull, provide a quick and reliable way to search for synonyms or assess repetitiveness of a sentence as well as clearness.

If you don't have a research project to write yet, you can always work on a literature review or a funding proposal! As scientists, these are common for us to do and this time at home seems like a perfect opportunity for it.    

3) How are you managing your stash of scientific literature?

It is very much probable that you also have a ton of literature to read. Books, articles, and so much information to safely maintain. Also, these might just be clustered together in your Downloads folder. Like many other researchers, I use one of the several reference management softwares that are available. Most are free but even the ones that cost can probably be accessed via institution accounts. The most popular are:

However, there are so many options for you to explore. The best part of using them is that not only they will help you with building your citations but also some will store the PDFs for you so that you don’t need to keep them on your computer. Some of them have a Microsoft Word plugin to allow for direct insertions of your reference list into your documents. Therefore, working from home is a perfect time to set up a reference management software if you don’t have one or to organize your current one. I had an absolute mess of papers with no order and no classification into folders. Now, using Zotero I have different folders for each one of my projects, which makes it much easier to find something when I need it or build a specific list of references for each paper.     

4) How are your presentations looking?

An awesome skill to have as a scientist to learn how to communicate your research! Part of this is to do comprehensive presentations, with a logical flow and clear slides

BioRender is an awesome tool to do impressive diagrams and scientific illustrations! They have a free version and right now they are uploading valuable webinars to their Youtube channel for you to acquire better designing skills! In a similar sense, you can use Canva (which is mostly free) to create beautiful infographics and all types of diagrams. They even have free creative tools and templates to facilitate virtual learning, here.

Other options to become better in communicating your research effectively can be obtained when participating in programs as Skype A Scientist, Plantae, Ciencia Puerto Rico, SACNAS, AAAS, or NYAS (among others). The best part is you can improve these skills while also helping the community, close and afar! 

5) Always wanted to learn a new hobby? Or to perfect certain skills?

Learning online is not for everyone. However, students right now are making the best effort to adapt to this new way of learning. If you are still working on that, if you already enjoy virtual classes or if you were fond of them even before the pandemic, now is your time to make the most out of it. So many platforms of virtual learning are opening to anyone who wants to learn literally, ANYTHING! This might be your chance to tune those skills and become even a better scientist than you already are.

Some examples here:

  • Coursera might be the biggest platform out there for virtual learning. They are offering so many free resources during the pandemic. Academic and non-academic related.

  • Feel like the best moment to refine some of your scientific knowledge? Or, you have to help your kids with homework while homeschooling? Try Khan Academy.

  • In Skillshare, you will be able to learn anything from animation to lifestyle to even writing!

  • Enough with work, want to get more crafty? Check out Bluprint.

So many more options for online courses here.

No matter what you are doing, remember that if you’re having trouble focusing you can always set up a virtual call with a friend or coworker who also needs to work and keep each other on track. This might give you an “office-like” sensation and will help you stay productive and focused.

I hope these ideas will help if you have been stuck deciding how to advance your research at home. Even if we were not living in a pandemic, these skills can be a real bonus for young researchers. We'd love to hear about any other tool or idea you think might be helpful. Write it down in the comments and stay healthy and safe! 

This article was written by WAGS collaborator, Juliana González Tobón.



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