3) MARLIS DOUGLAS: ABT – Solving the “… I heard you but did not know how” Puzzle

As mentors, we guide students through the process of learning skills to absorb and parse knowledge, and it is rewarding to see students transform from novices to skilled professionals. But certain ‘tricks of our trade’ fail to translate through this process, a situation particularly puzzling when the student is hard-working, motivated, and technically competent. What is missing?

I serendipitously stumbled upon the missing link. One of my students was in the process of rewriting a dissertation chapter into a publication, but decided to rephrase the research question and frame the study it within a different context. Suddenly, a fascinating story emerged that convincingly demonstrated how the ecological theater (i.e., environment) shapes the evolutionary play of fish hybridization over eons. Eureka – we had narrative!

So, after complimenting the student, I commented: ‘This is what I’ve been trying to tell you.’ He responded: ‘I heard you but did not know how to do it.’

I was dumbstruck. The student obviously had good ideas and applied himself to achieve the goal but was never taught those skills that could promote a compelling narrative. And I, of course, felt complicit in that I failed to communicate the ‘… how.’

So, I set out to improve my own communication skills to become a more effective mentor and had my own epiphany after learning about the ABT framework. I realized it provided students the guiding principle that teaches them how to pitch their ideas and place their research within a relevant context that would resonate with the intended target audience.

And how does the ABT fill such a niche? It forces the student to focus only on key information –to surgically select from all their knowledge only what is relevant for a concise, but persuasive story. Extraneous ideas, unanswered questions, and future research directions must be removed. By adhering to this trajectory, the student develops their scientific thinking and becomes a scholar.

I also realized the ABT helps me assess how well a student comprehends what and why there are ‘doing science.’

At first, ‘research’ is rather nebulous to a student. Many have difficulties articulating the overarching question they will address and how they intend to solve this problem. But it is wasted effort to ‘… do science’ without a clear question– the wrong data are generated or analyses are inappropriate, ultimately resulting in biased insights.

By using the ABT, the student must first identify the ‘real’ question by sorting through the jumble of ideas. Once done, appropriate course work helps to learn the tools to solve the problem. Once training and skills are acquired, the process of ‘… doing real science’ is finally initiated.

The last big hurdle is writing the doctoral dissertation –probably the most daunting task for both student and mentor. Students suffer through submitting iterative drafts that seemingly get massacred by the mentor’s feedback. The mentor also anguishes over perceived inabilities of seemingly brilliant students to draft a coherent and captivating manuscript. It is during this phase that students morph into professionals. Slowly but surely, they learn to develop a compelling narrative by contrasting the existing knowledge with the new research and building a story.

The ABT is the vehicle that allows this process to emerge. The student learns to select relevant information and appropriate context for a journal by interpreting ‘…why it should interest the reader.’ If the study is intended for an applied conservation journal, readers will not care if data are generated by a new fancy computer program, but rather, how does the research help with management of fish populations? In contrast, the fancy program is the focus of a journal that publishes methodological aspects, with management implications a by-line that demonstrates the new methodology.

The ABT framework has now become the core principle in my lab that guides students towards fulfilling the requirements of their advanced degrees. It starts from the very beginning when they define their research question, extends through the selection of an appropriate approach, and ends with placing their research into a compelling context that resonates with the scientific community.