Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

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Sima Guang Hater
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Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Sima Guang Hater »

I often get asked how to be a good science player by enterprising high school students. I've given a lot of different versions of my spiel over the years, and I want to compile all of my ideas and notes into one place. I hope that by doing so, I can help future enterprising quizbowl players navigate the quizbowl science canon and the larger world of being a STEM student.


If you've just started attending quizbowl practices, you may feel totally overwhelmed. The canon is full of things you've never heard of. The older players on your team, or on other local teams, are so much better than you currently are. This feeling may be particularly acute as a science player. The most important thing is to get over this feeling by having the right mindset. Like any other task worth the time, there are no shortcuts to getting good at quizbowl. But half the battle is your own psychology.

One reason I believe that people have a particularly bad time with science is that other categories are superficially easier to understand. A statement like "a character in this novel breaks a pickle dish", or "one leader of this country instituted the White Revolution to improve literacy rates" are self-contained, requiring little background knowledge to understand. However, a statement like "Transforming one quantity in this theory to a Minkowski space gives rise to the Virasoro constraints, which are commonly used alongside the light-cone gauge in order to quantize symmetries" is barely even English. The most important thing to remember is to not be intimidated, either by the canon or by other players. The difference between quizbowl and a science class is that you are not expected to know everything, nor are you going to be tested on every single fact that is thrown at you. So instead of fixating on how little you know, just enjoy the journey. Treat every new thing you learn as a new arrow in your quiver, rather than thinking of everything you don't know as a personal failing. Don't let the things you don't understand intimidate you - take them as opportunities to learn instead. Ask an older player, or a teacher, to explain the things you don't understand. In no time, you will become a much better player, and you'll have cultivated a hunger for learning things that will serve you well not only in quizbowl, but in life.

The other part of having the right mindset is to be genuinely interested in science as a subject. This makes the journey much more fun. Note how I emphasized "genuinely" interested; what I mean by this is, that outside of class, science is on your mind and takes up a substantial portion of your thoughts (perhaps alongside, for example in my high-school days, video games, the girl I had a crush on, and the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I'll leave it to those of you that know me to decide whether that's changed). Perhaps you like reading popular science books, or Wikipedia articles about science, or like talking about science with your sciency relatives or sciency friends. This is the kind of curiosity and interest that is important for a nascent science player. This is the raw material that you have to cultivate and prune in useful directions. Because insofar as there's no actual magic to becoming a great science player, there's nothing worse than the journey feeling like a slog through a bunch of boring material. If you treat becoming a great quizbowler as a chore, as something you have to do, you're activating all of the wrong pathways in your brain and your mind will actively resist doing it. Especially as a freshman, there's very little pressure on you initially - so just cultivate your interest by reading what you can, making sure to see knowing something as a reward, rather than not knowing something as a punishment.

A non-quizbowl experience I have to relate is studying for my board exam (USMLE Step 1) a few years ago. The codified "Penn Method" for doing so consisted of something like 15 review books, two electronic banks with 4000 practice questions each, and something like 4000 pages of class notes. What a pain. But, as I'd learned how to do through quizbowl, I made it into a game. Rather than seeing it as an insurmountable task, I made it into a fun journey - trying to learn everything I can, binary-matching and building associations like I was in-game, trying to get the same dopamine rush out of answering a tricky question in the Qbank as I did from powering a tossup, etc. And I did fine.


Probably the most common question I get is some variation of "how do I study for science?" There has been a plethora of posts about that subject, with everyone offering their opinions. Here's the bottom line: you're intelligent kids, you know how you learn best. What works for one person, whether its reading, taking notes, flashcards, writing questions, quizzing each other, etc, may not work for another. All of that advice applies to learning science for quizbowl as well. You have packet archives and a list of textbooks to read. These are the starting materials. The advice I usually give is to start with an easy packet set, read all of the questions in your chosen subject areas, and look up the clues that you don't know, either in a textbook or wikipedia. Taking the extra time to understand a clue, rather than just binary matching, helps reinforce knowledge, will probably make the clue more memorable, and will serve you well at higher levels when binary matching is actively screened against. Memorize the clues using whatever method you feel most comfortable with. When you're done with easy sets for a given year, move up a level, and continue the process.

(Side note: when you clicked the above link, did you think "CHRIST THAT'S A LOT OF BOOKS, HOW AM I GOING TO LEARN ALL THIS?!" or "WOW, THIS LOOKS LIKE SOME INTERESTING STUFF! MAYBE I'LL START WITH THIS ONE HERE!". If it's the former, you do not yet have the right mindset. If it's the latter, you have already taken the first step. Those of both mindsets should take heart: no one in quizbowl has actually read even a tenth of these, and no one actually "close reads" a textbook like one does a novel, or a Hafiz does the Qu'ran. Just read the ones that look interesting to you, and you will get much better very quickly.)

This tethered, "packet-plus" approach is a good way to ensure that the things you're learning are being strictly filtered through a criterion of quizbowl-notability - i.e., everything you learn will have some reference in the canon. However, it's also important, in my opinion, for truly great science players to just learn science for science's sake, if for no other reason that writers like me will be constantly finding new leadins to trip up packet-study-ers. You can't go wrong reading the textbooks listed above, as a good writer will be writing their clues out of textbooks, rather than wikipedia or random papers. Plus, these are the things that actual scientists in the field learn, meaning it's a great supplement to any future scientific education you decide to take on.

There are, however, peculiarities when studying for quizbowl from textbooks and primary material that are worth mentioning here.

First, you must "quizbowlify" the things that you learn directly from textbooks. In quizbowl, algorithms will not be read to you in bytecode, equations will not be presented to you as they are shown in textbooks, and biological concepts may be clued in ways that are very different from how they are explained in a textbook chapter. Taking the extra time to not only learn a fact, but to think about how that fact may come up in quizbowl, is a necessary step to being a great science player. For example, I remember saying "H psi equals E psi" to myself instead of just memorizing the rune-like markings corresponding to the Schrodinger equation.

Second, unlike some other subjects, there is a functional ceiling to how much one person can truly understand. For example, unless you are some kind of legendary genius, you will probably not understand string theory as a high schooler. It is ok, and expected, in general, to have a popular-science, superficial understanding of some parts of a subject (or even to just have a binary-matching understanding of it), while having real knowledge of others, and this is especially true for science. Unlike fake knowledge in other subjects, fake knowledge in science is almost terminally fake - I would probably understand some named thing in history or psychology easily after a short explanation, but understanding Virasoro algebras would probably take a great deal more background than I have. Every great science player has some varying depth of real knowledge across subjects. Don't use this as an excuse, however - the best science players also have very real knowledge of their best areas, which is why they're great at them.


Parts of this next section applies to learning any subject in quizbowl, not just science.

Combining a healthy, genuine interest in a quizbowl with the right study material, along with a dash of competitive fire, leads to drive, determination, or as I like to call it, bloodlust. You feel a genuine hunger to learn more, to read more, to get more points. I'm reminded of a story Max Schindler told during the PACE coaches panel in 2015, about him and Ben Zhang being so wrapped up in quizbowl that they would read packets together in the middle of class. This story is perfectly illustrative of the kind of mindset that a great quizbowler (or great anything, really) achieves. I personally experienced something similar, often almost compulsively reading packets on my laptop in the middle of class, while watching TV in my common room, or during my time in the lab when a procedure was running. Essentially, I surrounded myself with quizbowl (or, honestly, with material for my midterms and finals when the time arose), and studying simply became a part of life, rather than a chore I had to set aside time for. The commonality here is that in both cases, quizbowl was so on our minds that reading packets and studying became a natural drive, or a form of inaction, rather than a form of action, akin the concept of wu wei in Taoism. Taking that natural inclination, and putting it through the lens of the quizbowl canon, is in what many cases makes a great player.

There are times, of course, when you have to break this natural inclination. Even among the most driven group of four people, there will be gaps in knowledge, and even the most driven specialist will not simply pick up and remember every single fact in their area without some degree of real, sustained, tedious effort. Every year before nationals, I used to flashcard a bunch of organic reactions and diseases just to make sure I was remembering everything correctly. I also looked over geologic time periods, some physics concepts, and a few math theorems, but I hated doing this - I don't care about these subjects. However, at that point, it became less about me and what I was interested in, it became about what it took to win. To relate this back to my USMLE studying, I positively loved almost every subject I learned, except for anatomy. Anatomy sucks, it's boring, and you don't actually have to know that much about it to be a good doctor. But I slogged through it, perhaps not as much as I should have, but I did. There will be things in quizbowl like that.

I don't want to pretend that being good at quizbowl is free of strife and struggle, that becoming a great player is simply a matter of tricking your mind into coasting into 100 ppg and just learning things you like. That's simply not the case. Winning ACF Nationals took a great deal of difficult studying, memorization, and just plain old boring work. However, the important point is that even when it was difficult, the drive was natural - I felt like I was pushing myself, rather than anyone pushing me. And learning new things was still fulfilling and interesting, even if having to memorize all of the details of them weren't. As much as possible, keeping the spirit of wonder and curiosity alive helps carry you through any difficult time, whether it's juggling a tough courseload, slogging through grad school, or making that climb to a national championship. It's important not to forget that.


One of the beautiful things about being a STEM nerd is that there's tons of ways to express it. Quizbowl is just one. In this section, I'm going to try to talk about other ways in which that can be expressed. Those of you lucky enough to attend competitive high schools with great college counselling and a history of sending lots of kids to MIT and Caltech, or those of you true STEM geniuses who have already published papers in Nature and Science as 12-year-olds, you can probably skip this section, as I'm not going to be telling you much that you don't already know.

I have a lot of thoughts about the intersection between college admissions and quizbowl (and college admissions in general), but I will try to selectively distill them here. I don't want to start a debate about the craziness and the randomness of college admissions, about "prestige", about the worth of going to an expensive competitive private school over a state school, about how society defines success, the damaging psychological pressure of it all, etc. I only want to see smart students maximize their options. I also don't know, exactly, how much admissions counselors like quizbowl as a thing-in-itself (rather than as a vehicle for things like leadership or curiosity), but anecdotal evidence and Matt Jackson's "Big Vision" series of posts tells me that it's perhaps not held as highly as it should be (counterexample: my former teammate Patrick Liao mentioned me by name in his Penn application. And we all know how well that turned out for him.).

Just like quizbowl, colleges, graduate schools, medical schools, etc, care about signalling. Just as quizbowl will not reward you for just reading a novel or Wikipedia article without actually buzzing on a clue and saying the correct answer, colleges will not reward you on an application if you simply write "I really love and am good at history!" without backing it up with grades, activities, and competitions that demonstrate the same. Both of these forms of signalling are artificial, probabilistic, circumstance-dependent, reduced-dimensional projections of a hidden space of abstract traits - traits like ability, drive, passion, greatness, intelligence, knowledge, leadership, etc., and it is worth acknowledging that this is why both quizbowl and college admissions feel "fake". However, as neither the moderator nor the admissions committee can read your mind, this is the system we're all stuck with. In both quizbowl and college admissions, not to mention in life, it is not enough to be a slacker-savant if you want to maximize your opportunities - you must play the game, and you must play it according to their rules, not yours. There is, of course, the option to not play, and that is an option that I personally can respect. However, refusing to put in the tedious groundwork will win you neither the admissions game nor ACF Nationals, and that must be acknowledged.

For STEM kids, this kind of credible signalling comes in a few forms, including dedicated STEM competitions, research, tutoring (as a community service thing), and the taking of advanced classes. All of these things, to varying degrees, naturally overlap with quizbowl.
Me, In Another Thread wrote:One thing you may consider doing is trying to get your school to administer the Olympiad qualifying test for each of these subjects, and then training for those tests, rather than directly "training" for quizbowl. Plus, making the finals of biology, chemistry, or physics olympiad is a HUGE boost to your future college application AND to your quizbowl ability. A lot of very good science players in QB made it far in these things (I don't have to name names, you know who you are).

Chem Olympiad (USAChO): ... ocess.html training program which is really good

Physics Olympiad (USAPhO):

Biology Olympiad (USABO): ... 20Keys.htm (Old tests)
I want to both deepen and broaden this quote. Being good at science generally opens you up for a lot of other opportunities (National Science Bowl, the Olympiads listed above, research competitions like Siemens and Intel if you have a good research university near you, etc, etc). Of these, it's widely acknowledge that a national finalist or better finish in the Chem, Physics, or Bio Olympiad, getting into RSI, and/or placing highly in the Intel STS or Siemens competition are the closest things to a golden ticket for a good STEM-focused student applying to college. Of these, the Olympiads are the most portable (unlike research contests, which are difficult if you don't have a suitable university and amenable research group nearby) - they can be administered anywhere, and teachers are generally amenable to doing so. The best part is, you're already learning these subjects for quizbowl - it's like killing two birds with one stone. One of the greatest opportunities I had as a scientifically-minded kid was all of my bio reading paying off when I made finals of USABO; had I known about quizbowl, I feel like I would have read even more, and possibly made it earlier. The same bloodlust and wu wei that I outlined above will serve you just as well in these activities as they do in quizbowl.

More broadly speaking, there are cross-training opportunities for almost every single part of the quizbowl canon. Are you a good classics or myth player? There's a National Mythology Exam and a National Junior Classical League, the latter of which I'm told is quite prestigious. Are you a good history player? There's history bowl. Quizbowl is like a nexus. Because it encompasses all subjects, you can use it as a guide, or a mirror, to see what subjects truly interest you - and you may be surprised by what you find. And if you're already going to study that subject for quizbowl, why not take it a step further and rack up some resume points with another activity related to that subject?

Few can truly claim to know what college admissions officers want, but admissions counselors like to talk about cultivating a "spike" (i.e., achieving national-or-better-level results in one extracurricular or subject), rather than being perfectly well-rounded ("jack of all trades, master of none"). Quizbowl can easily be made another part of your "spike", and if you're already really interested in science and putting in the work, you can be paid double or triple for the same amount of effort. Plus, it opens the door to rack up secondary interests and awards, so you can pass the admissions Turing test by being someone who "thinks and feels deeply" and "defies the stereotypes"


One of the biggest hindrances I've heard about from people is their high schools not allowing them to take sufficiently advanced science classes until they are juniors or seniors. This is a huge problem for the budding science player/STEM nerd. The problem is, that while AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics, if they are offered at all, are often the capstones of a given high school's course offerings in science, AP science classes are the ground floor for being a good science player. Put another way, you absolutely must learn the material in these classes as soon as you are able. Just as literature players have to read [about] much more than the 15 or so required novels that the typical high schooler reads for classes, science players can't let classes limit them. There are a few ways to do this.

1. READ AN AP GUIDE. If you're particularly self-directed and enterprising, reading Barron's or Princeton Review is a pretty easy thing to do. Many people self-study for APs, often achieving good scores on them. A particularly great tactic is to read about something you're learning about in a freshman-level class in your AP guide. For example, if you're learning about hemoglobin, chances are the only things your freshman bio teacher will tell you are that it carries oxygen, contains iron, and is mutated in sickle-cell anemia. If you take the time to read about it in an AP guide (or even more advanced textbook) instead, you may learn about thalassemia, the locus control region, the Bohr effect, fetal hemoglobin, 2,3-BPG...and then you're several steps closer to powering that hemoglobin tossup at the tournament next weekend. Remember - you are a budding great quizbowler. You are not there to learn the bare minimum. You are there to learn it all, and then recall it back at lightning speed when there's only 10 seconds left in a playoff game at HSNCT.

For quizbowl purposes, looking up the things you're reading about on quinterest or your locally-stored packet archive is a great way to reinforce the things you're learning, and to teach you clues at the same time, as outlined above.

2. TAKE THE CLASSES ELSEWHERE. This can be done with both the AP class itself or the pre-requisites. The good news is, schools will often budge on their prerequisites if you can demonstrate that you're competent enough to take the class. I managed to take AP Biology as a junior instead of a senior by taking a genetics class at CTY, for example. Nowadays, MOOCs and so on may serve this purpose. As a last resort, you can even get someone to tutor you if possible - a person in my undergrad lab paid me to teach her son AP Bio, for example. I'm pretty sure I spent the money on a Chicago Open ticket.

The bottom line is here, is that you must transcend the need for classes, and school administration, to teach you what you need to know. If you're a freshman in high school jockeying to become the next great science player in quizbowl (c.f. a blockbuster olympiad qualifier or research geek - cannot emphasize enough that the earlier you take the corresponding AP-level class, the better chances you have for this), chances are, your high school's curriculum was not written with you in mind. Hell, in many cases it's not even written with advanced non-quizbowl students in mind! Witness the fact that students on an accelerated math track may learn algebra several years before learning actual bona fide chemistry, even though algebra is the only math required for chemistry. Ditto something similar for trigonometry and physics. Some of you are lucky enough to go to schools with accelerated tracks, or an incredible array of course offerings past AP-level, or programs specifically designed to get students involved in research, or clubs with older students willing to teach this material, etc. However, I'm willing to bet this doesn't apply to the majority of you. So learn this lesson early: "do it yourself, because no one else can do it for you".

To give you an example of someone transcending their classes, a graduating high school player this year once contacted me as a sophomore, asking me for recommendations for a graduate-level organic chemistry textbook. You read that correctly. Not just regular organic chemistry, but graduate-level. Jesus Christ, I said to myself, who is this kid? Turns out, he is (or was, I guess), one of LASA's best players, who had already taken his school's offerings in organic chemistry (not something usually offered in high schools, incidentally) as a goddamn sophomore, and needed more challenging material. This is the kind of interest, accelerated learning, and drive you can only hope to cultivate in a great quizbowl science player, and a great STEM student in general (and he incidentally did quite well in his college application process).


I've edited science for several events, both college and high school, including three PACE NSCs, and wrote a well-regarded science subject tournament in 2014. I've been called the best science player in quizbowl, ever. Whether that's true or not, I at least have a claim to be someone who knows what I'm talking about with respect to science questions.

I partly wrote this guide as catharsis. I have a lot of regrets about my education in high school and how I navigated the college app process, part of which was my bad case of impostor syndrome. I realized that I made a lot of mistakes, not the least of which was failing to channel my curiosity into something that would have paid some more tangible dividends in the college application process (not that everything you do has to be cynically monetized in that way, of course), and not truly using what resources I could to learn the subject I loved the most.

In high school, quizbowl (like many other competitions) was unavailable to me as a resident of Topeka, Kansas (a state Charlie Dees has called the "North Korea of quizbowl"; I guess that makes Topeka Pyongyang). My high school was above average (ex. it has a nationally-ranked policy debate team), but not particularly great when it came to supporting extracurricular activities for science-inclined people like me (I had to start the Math Team myself, I had my AP Bio teacher administer the USABO, and my parents and I pushed for them to start teaching AP Chemistry, Physics, and Calc BC. You're welcome, students at Washburn Rural who came after me!). At best, one or two students out of ~400 would go to an Ivy-or-comparable institution every year, and they would almost always do so from their debate accomplishments.

I was lucky, however, to grow up in a fairly intellectual household. My only real outlet for learning about advanced science was reading old textbooks, Wikipedia, talking to my parents, etc, whenever the inclination struck me. I have a particular memory of sitting on my aunt's couch one summer, watching a marathon of Stargate SG-1 and reading a physics textbook I found in her massive bookshelf in the basement - had I discovered quizbowl at that point, I'd have probably been reading an NSC packet instead. This curiosity paid some dividends, landing me several state-level and super-state-level math contest awards, qualification for USAMO and for the finals of USABO, tutoring gigs, good grades, etc.

After coming to Brown (due partly to some questionable Early Decision choices and healthy doses of burnout, self-doubt, and fear) and discovering quizbowl, I feel like I had a focused, fun way to channel my interest in science, not to mention my random, completely un-developed interest in mythology, history, art, etc. Quizbowl, along with finally discovering how much I liked scientific research and finally getting to stretch my wings in a field I love (biochemistry), made my time at Brown incredibly fulfilling in a way that high school wasn't. I no longer felt like I was a square peg in a round hole, trying to push my way through subjects and activities I merely liked, rather than loved. It also helped me shed the self-doubt and fear that had plagued my previous round of applications, allowing me to bring my A-game to medical school admissions in a way I simply didn't in high school. I managed to claw my way into Penn's MD-PhD, a top-4 program with world-class researchers, not to mention the place that finally got me both an ACF championship and my name on a scientific paper. Learning for quizbowl not only honed my binary-matching skills for medical school, but gave me the drive, curiosity, and breadth to be able to navigate research questions in unorthodox and fruitful ways. For example, last week, I literally solved a major problem in my thesis by remembering a bonus part from ACF Nationals 2011 that I didn't know.

Quizbowl was, for me, a mirror I could use to search my academic soul. I realized that the biology and chemistry questions were my favorite, and the things I most looked forward to hearing in every packet and studying after practice for fun. I even found things I loved outside of science, and I was even good at a few of them - if you told me as a high schooler that someday I would edit an entire national-level history tournament, I'd have said that you've lost your mind. I hope that, for those of you just starting your academic and quizbowl careers, that it can serve a similar function for you too.
Last edited by Sima Guang Hater on Mon Jun 27, 2016 7:17 pm, edited 18 times in total.
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by vinteuil »

The Quest for the Historical Mukherjesus wrote:STAGE 1: MINDSET
If we ever collectively update or amplify the QBWiki how-to guides, a non-science-specific version of this section should be right there at the beginning. I know it'll be the first thing I send anybody who asks about getting better about quizbowl—great stuff.
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Corry »

I really like this post. But:
To give you an example of someone transcending their classes, a graduating high school player this year once contacted me as a sophomore, asking me for
The thread cuts off here! Don't leaving me hanging bro
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Oh No You Didn't »

So it's all just word association right
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Ike »

Someone should sticky this - if only for the science component, but there's a lot of good life advice in here as well as it turns out.

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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by The Dance of Sorrow »

Ike wrote:Someone should sticky this - if only for the science component, but there's a lot of good life advice in here as well as it turns out.

I agree and have stickied this for now - I predict that it will eventually go in the "best of the best" forum but I'd like it to see a good amount of time in the daylight of a commonly-read forum like this one.
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Doga (Dog Yoga) »

Bubalus Period wrote:So it's all just word association right
Alternatively, just flashcard this list:
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Vainamoinen »

I haven't been on the forums for a couple weeks post-NSC and just saw this post. I'll echo the above sentiments that this is a great post. I'd like to emphasize the part about not letting the courses you can take hinder your studying in any science subject. I never took AP Bio or AP Chem and have still been able to do decently in those subjects using the tactics that Eric explicated.

Another thing I've done to study science for the last four years, for what it's worth, is to read through current science journals. My parents bought me a subscription to the weekly, broad-subject journal Science when I finished middle school and I can attribute many tossups I've answered over the years to things I've read in it. Even if the specific topics of the papers in the journal are way too complex for an answerline or even a clue, it greatly familiarized me with the language of each science branch and inevitably discusses things that are tossupable somewhere in the paper. For example, a paper in Science that I read on "Translation dynamics of single mRNAs in live cells and neurons" a few days ago mentioned (beyond mRNA etc.): GFP, glial cells, FRAP, and Monte Carlo simulations. I suppose this maybe isn't as valuable of a use of time as reading through textbooks, but it has definitely helped me.

And to add to the discussion of the overlap of quizbowl science and college admissions, I'll add that I personally did no other science-related competitions (except some math modeling ones, and I have done some math research). I just talked about Feynman's BONGOS a lot and about how I felt that I learned much more science playing quizbowl than I ever could have in any other activity or even in any high school class.
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Re: Becoming and Being a Great Science Player

Post by Santa Claus »

Vainamoinen wrote:Another thing I've done to study science for the last four years, for what it's worth, is to read through current science journals.
For those of you who have access to ProQuest or other similar services that allow access to papers and theses and what not (perhaps you're related to someone who works at a university, or are taking a class there), I would recommend flipping through some undergraduate theses. The results are usually not very relevant (or very interesting), but since they're not meant to be consumed by fellow experts they always include a very lengthy section detailing the theoretical and experimental setup to any sort of research they do. A recent thesis I read covered everything I had ever learned about rotational wavefunctions and density functional theory (which, granted, was very minimal), and did it in about as clear and concise language as you can reasonably expect.
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