Planning a research project

Just thinking about process of how to come up with a research project can be really daunting. How do I come up with an experiment that no one has done before? Is my project interesting and worthwhile? Will anyone care about my work? These are all questions that scientists think about before beginning any big research project.

To answer the first question-you have to do a lot of reading. In preparation for my Rocky Mountain Colias project I read the existing literature for months! That meant a lot of printing out long academic papers and reading them at my desk for hours on end. Sometimes it would get boring, but it’s the only way to really know where the science is. Once you have a decent background you can start to figure out where the interesting questions are. There are times when you finish reading a research paper and you think, “I wonder what would happen if they did this experiment also?”, or in my case because I often revisit experiments that were done 30+ years ago I ask, “Has this phenomena changed with the warming climate?”. Bam! You’ve just thought of your next research project! Then comes the planning out the methods and specific way you will execute your experiment. Again, this often means going back into your giant stack of papers and seeing what scientists have done before. Sometimes there are really well established protocols for certain experiments and other times you have to devise your own methods to answer a really specific question. Once you have decided on your methods and you know that they work it’s time to get experimenting! This is the stage I’m at now. I have a research question- “Are Colias butterflies adapting to changes in climate?”, I have proven methods, now I just need to collect data. That’s why I am heading out to Colorado tomorrow (well I guess today as it’s now almost 2am on June 12).

Now that the experiments are figured out there are still the logistics of physically how to get everything needed for the research project. For me this involved a lot of planning, as I needed to get myself to Colorado to catch butterflies, quickly get them back to the lab (thank you Fed Ex overnight), and then I need to provide food for my caterpillars to eat even before doing any experiments. Luckily I am part of team (do two grad students count as a team?) of Colias researchers and we worked out most of these issues together.


I can’t believe the field/experiment season is finally here. The lab and research equipment are all packed and ready to go.

My husband Chris is helping to pack our field vehicle

The car, or very large SUV that we are taking out to Colorado is a Ford Expedition. It’s quite a change from driving my small Prius, but I’m getting used to driving such a big vehicle. We’ve been calling it the Canyonero because it reminds us of the car from this Simpsons episode.

The Canyonero from The Simpsons

Our "Canyonero"

Everything has fallen into place and I am very excited to begin the field season. I’ll try to blog during our road trip to RMBL, but if you don’t see any updates here I’ll be sure to keep in touch via twitter @jessicakhiggins!


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