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A quick trip through data in the sciences

By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Policy fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science took the audience on a tour of techniques they use in their work and presented some tips on how to interact better with experts in various scientific fields during the Saturday session, "A quick trip through data in the sciences."

Carolyn Lauzon presented a problem she encountered making sense of brain scan data as a doctoral researcher in medical imaging. "The question is, is the data good?" she said. "The answer is boxplots!"

Boxplots show the median, mean and spread of the data in a sample, and can be created through R or your favorite statistical software.

Biophysicist Kathleen Ractliff shared three graphs that express growth: linear, exponential and sigmoid. Very rarely does nature present a perfect linear graph, but exponential and sigmoid which looks like a stretched-out S can express the growth of GDP or antelope populations. She recommended plotting data on both a linear and a logarithmic scale, which plots numbers on orders of magnitude.

Entamologist Cynthia Hsu, introduced the crowd to methods in spatial analysis, which assess the difference of one cluster of data against another cluster in another place. One tool is called SADIE Reheated (Spatial Analysis by Distance IndicEs). The EPA, NASA and NOAA also make available free software to perform geostatistics. One application is for sensor-journalism. When journalists collect data with sensors they can use spatial analysis to see how the data is clustered and then go to SADIE and see if the data is related to another variable.

Social scientist Beth Duckles talked about her tools as a qualitative researcher. Like journalists, some of her most important tools are listening, asking good questions and being quiet while taking thousands of pages of notes.

The fellows also provided tips for journalists who want to approach researchers during reporting. Lauzon said graduate students in a professor's lab can help journalists if the researcher is too busy with his or her work, advising and serving on committees.

The fellows also discussed access to scientific data. For many, data is like a "secret sauce," Duckles said, so it's helpeful to build rapport before asking for access. Hsu recommended asking scientists for access to their data after publication. Just having read a scientist's work is a big step toward gaining cooperation, Ratcliff said. First, go talk to them in person. Then you can work up to getting their data.

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