04 November 2022 Blogs, Academic, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Four steps for writing a great science biography

Assemble all the information you need for a winning research paper in under an hour

Gathering information for a great biographical research paper in the sciences is easier and faster than you think. All you need is one hour, access to your library’s online databases and the four-step plan below:

Pro-tip: Before you get started, check with your university library about access to a reference manager like RefWorks or EndNote. These handy time-savers make it easy to store the information you find in one place. Plus, when it’s time to write your paper, you can add footnotes and create bibliographies automatically.

Start the clock:

    1. Select the right person. You’ll write a better paper if you can relate to your subject and their work. So, choose someone who is impacting the world today… and in a significant way. That opens the door to using a wealth of contemporary resources – like newspapers and documentaries – along with their scholarly record. You’ll also be in a better position to include the kind of personal experiences that make your paper more engaging and demonstrate that you understand the impact of the person you’re writing about.

      Where to start? Nobel Prizes in the sciences are awarded every October, providing a selection of candidates for your paper. Want to impress your professor? Choose a scientist who is in line for a future Nobel. A great source is Clarivate’s Citation Laureates, an annual list of extremely influential scientists and a trusted forecast of candidates for Nobel prizes. This highly select group is chosen by the Institute for Scientific Information, which uses quantitative data together with expert qualitative analysis to identify the pinnacle realm of scientific contributions. (Bonus: there are often videos, interviews and even podcasts for Citation Laureates so you can include quotes from your subject in the paper.)

      Here’s an example of someone you might choose: The 2022 list of Citation Laureates includes Dr. Mary-Claire King, who discovered the gene mutation “BRCA1” (for BReast CAncer) in the mid-1990’s. Her discovery continues to play a critical role in cancer prevention. Because she appears on the Citation Laureates list, we know that her work is both impactful and influential. The content available on the Citation Laureates site provides a starting point for understanding and further research, including a podcast.

    2. Gather background information that’s easy to understand. Your subject should have a lengthy scholarly record, but that’s weighty content. Before you dig into that, gather information from the newspapers and videos in your library’s online portal to provide you with an overview of your subject’s work in everyday language. These are also great sources for helping you articulate your subject’s impact on science or the world. Further, they’re helpful in finding basic biographical information and anecdotes that can enliven your paper
      (Note: We recommend library resources versus a general internet search to ensure you’re using credible sources that are professor-approved.)

      Pro tip: When searching, use quotation marks around your subject’s full name (“Mary-Claire King") to get precision results

      Using our example of Mary-Claire King, we searched Academic Video Online in our library and found a video of Dr. King speaking on a panel about the ethics of gene counseling. We also found a documentary about the emotional impact of learning you have the BRCA1 gene mutation. In ProQuest One Academic, we narrowed our search to newspapers and gathered articles from across four decades, including a 1993 interview with the New York Times before her discovery of the genetic link in breast cancer – an excellent source for quotes and anecdotes that revealed her spirit and determination.

    3. See where they started. You can find your subject’s early career interests by looking them up in ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (PQDT), which will give you the title and abstract or the full text of their dissertation.

      Mary-Claire King’s dissertation Protein Polymorphisms in Chimpanzee and Human Evolution appeared in PQDT in 1973. That work is credited with furthering the understanding of humans’ and chimps’ genetic makeups and tells us that genetics was her passion as her career was beginning.

    4. Explore the scholarly record. Use the Web of Science™, found in your library’s online portal, to chart your subject’s research and impact on other researchers. Start your search in the “Researchers” tab to find their publications, using their name or author identifier, including ORCID or Web of Science ResearcherID. Once you have the correct author record, check out the metrics section and look for the “Sum of Times Cited,” which is a count of the number of times other researchers have cited your subject’s work. Then, click on “View Citation Report” for a quick way to see when and where your subject made an impact.

      Mary-Claire King’s publishing record spans more than half a century, with multiple extraordinarily influential papers. By looking at the chart of citations and publications in the Web of Science, we see her influence rising after her landmark BRCA1 gene discoveries in 1995. We also see a profound influence spike in 2005 when she publishes new research comparing chimpanzee and human genomes.

Let’s review the content you now have in hand:

    • You’ve identified a great person to write about
    • You have a solid understanding of their impact, plus quotes and anecdotes that will add life to your paper
    • You know how they started their research career
    • You know when and where they influenced other researchers

…Plus, it’s all easily at hand in your reference manager.

You’re ready to write a great paper. Good luck!

For more tips to make the information process more efficient read our blogs about writing research papers that impress professors and Clarivate’s Research Smarter series. Find great resources like the Web of Science and ProQuest One Academic in your university library.