Navigating the Literature Review

I had been working in the lab for a few months, just getting into my own project and making progress. It was March and I had applied to the SURP program at the School of Medicine, with plans to spend the Summer in Pittsburgh and continue my research. Then, the talk about COVID suddenly intensified and we were moved to online classes. I still had hope that the SURP program would be running, but I soon found out it had been canceled. What was I going to do for the whole Summer? I couldn’t just sit at home and watch Netflix for the next couple of months, especially after building momentum with my research. So, I talked to my mentor and PI, and we decided that I could spend my Summer doing a literature review and getting a deeper understanding of the disease I was studying (PFIC). At the end of the Summer, I would be able to publish my minireview in a real academic journal! I was so excited, but had no clue where to start.

Having never written a review before, I first read a few examples that my mentor told me were great model papers. Once I got an understanding of what goes into the paper, I brainstormed what the layout of my paper would look like. I would have an introduction, a section on bile formation, individual sections on each type of PFIC, a section about how to study this disease, and finally, a conclusion. Now, it was time for the hard part. I hopped onto PubMed and started my journey of reading a bunch of research papers and taking notes. I was opening new tabs left and right and got lost in the literature. It was exhausting and overwhelming because I didn’t know which information to include, what was relevant to my paper, or how in depth I should be explaining the molecular phenomenon.

I once again sought the advice of my mentor, who gave me tips on how he stays organized when he’s writing papers and how he determines which information is important to write about. As I read more papers and continued writing, I got better at extracting the relevant details and synthesizing multiple papers together. By the end of the Summer, I had a paper I was proud to submit for publication. I learned that organization is key when you have to manage and keep track of which information came from which papers. The earlier you start developing a system, the less hectic it will be towards the end. It’s also a great idea to take advantage of your mentors’ previous experience. They’ve been undergraduate or graduate students writing their first paper for publication before. There is a lot to be gained from having a discussion with them and seeking their guidance. I’m glad I was able to spend quarantine learning how to write a review paper and getting a publication. When I returned to the lab the following Spring semester, I was able to understand the rationale behind the experiments I was doing and think critically to plan my own experiments. 

P.S. If you’re interested in reading the review paper I wrote, here’s the link: https://www.wjgnet.com/1007-9327/full/v26/i47/7470.htm

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