Computing Tips for Undergrad Biologists

A few tips on how to best exploit computers for students in upper level biology classes.  The goal of this list is not to teach how to use these tools, rather just provide some pointers on what might be valuable to learn (via exploration, online help, or in-person tutorials).

Using Excel Tips

The following are several key features of Excel that can help you make full use of its capabilities for analyzing data. Most of these are demonstrated in this Excel workbook: Learning Excel Example.

  • Formulas: these allow you to make calculations based on the contents of single or multiple cells or cell ranges.
  • Data tables: the full power of additional analysis tools is only available if data is properly arranged into a table. That means all data is organized into a contiguous set of rows and columns. No gaps – do not put data in different sheets, and do not leave blank rows or columns. All the data should fit together with the top cell in each column identifying the data recorded beneath it. The table thus includes variables (columns) recording data for a series of cases (rows).
  • Filtering: turning filtering on allows data in a table to sorted or filtered (i.e. show only a subset) using simple controls in the header cell for each variable (i.e. column). This is the easiest way to sort data or to find specific groups of data.
  • Pivot tables: these allow reorganization, classification and summarizing of the data in a table using the variables in the table. For tables that include more than approximate 25 rows, pivot tables are usually a much faster way to calculate sums, averages, counts etc. for subsets of the data.
  • Dates and Times: make sure you enter dates and times as numbers and with formats that are unambiguous.

Using Word Styles for Consistent Formats and Tables of Contents

Microsoft Word has several features that many student do not take advantage of:

  • Page breaks: use these to deliberately choose where you want a new page, rather than just adding extra blank lines.
  • Section breaks: use these to switch between portrait and landscape orientations in the same document.
  • Ruler controls: use these to directly control how first lines and subsequent lines indent in paragraphs (instead of using the tab key).  You can also change page margins.
  • Styles:  These you to apply a consistent format (font size, bold/italics/underline, and colour) to text.  You don’t have to use style for this – you can specify each format directly (e.g. set font size to 14, changed to bold and make text dark blue).  However, doing this by using pre-defined styles (or defining your own) ensures you are always consistent.
  • Table of Contents: if you use styles to format your headings (for sections, sub-sections, etc.), Word can automatically build your table of contents using those headings.

Organizing References, Citations and Reference Lists

Keeping references and references lists organized can be difficult.  Reference management software makes it easier.  The software can help you:

  • keep a list of references you need to read
  • create lists of references
  • automatically format both citations [e.g. (Darwin, 1859)] and references [e.g., Darwin, C. 1859. On the origin of species. Routledge.] in your Word document as you write it.

Two reference management software options for StFX students:

  1. RefWorks – recommended by the library: adding references, creating a reference list, creating citations and a reference list as you write.
  2. Zotero – recommended by RCW because it free, and it is better at adding references: adding references, creating a reference list, creating citations and a reference list as you write.

Accessing Campus Online Resources from Home

Access to journals, software and other resources is often limited when you are at home.  The solution to this problem is to connect your computer so that it is part of the StFX network (and therefore given access to those resources).  You do this by running a Virtual Private Network app, or a “VPN” – which StFX provides.  Download, installation and use instructions are here.