“My Application of the Heisenberg’s Principle in Academia” by Brian Leung

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Congratulations to Guest Blogger Brian Leung for receiving an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program award! Read on to glean insights from his approach to writing a successful application.

My Application of the Heisenberg’s Principle in Academia|
By Brian Leung

If you have suffered through quantum mechanics, then you may have developed an aversion to the Heisenberg’s principle or apathy towards this concept. Others, who have not heard of Heisenberg’s principle, can look at this YouTube describing this phenomenon. Briefly, Heisenberg’s principle is also known as the uncertainty principle, which roughly states that if you want to identify the exact location of a particle at a given place in space, you will never know the speed at which it is moving. Conversely, if you want to know the speed, you will not know the exact location of the particle. Take this Futurama clip that highlights the Heisenberg Principle, note what Professor Farnsworth is saying.


Here’s another example: picture a baseball in the air; as it is in mid-air, you know the exact location, but you have no idea how fast it’s going because it’s a still picture frame. Taken together, the more you know of one thing, the less you know of another.

Applying this principle metaphorically to academia (specifically geared towards graduate students), one can see a similar emergent relationship between grades and practical skills. The higher one’s GPA, the less experimental knowledge one obtains, and vice versa. Of course this is taken lightly, but there’s also a “sweet spot” when it comes to this balance between academic performance and experimental knowledge. There are always outliers who have stellar GPAs and have incredible experimental knowledge. (I am forever jealous of these talented students.) Another application of this in terms of grant/fellowship writing is the more you focus on your grant/fellowship, the less experiments you will be able to crank out. It’s that ability to strike a balance between writing and experiments. If there has been anything that I have learned since starting graduate school is the ability to balance coursework with experiments and writing with experiments.

So where am I going with this? My tip for writing grants that seems to work the best is doing a little bit each day. You can write during incubations, while your code is processing, or even when you wake up in the morning. Yes, making the effort is extremely difficult, but even getting a paragraph or an outline down is great. Just make sure you keep writing and don’t look back to edit until you finish everything. If you have non-sequitor paragraphs and poor word choice, keep it.  You will find a place for it later. Resist every temptation to edit until you’ve finished getting as much as you can on the page. Once this writing process becomes routine, you’ll become more efficient and soon, it will become a daily task. I’ve applied this strategy while working on the NSF GRFP, and it so far has worked for me! You too can apply for the NSF GRFP! Give this writing method a shot! After all, who wouldn’t want $32,000 for their stipend, plus $12,000 in education costs and additional international research opportunities? Even if there’s a lot of uncertainty, the more you write, the less you will worry. Just write on and Fight On!