Disclaimer: The brain sucking and flesh-eating amoeba that I mention below are discussed solely for the purpose of addressing what happens when you use keywords. The scientific facts are not studied and serve to illustrate a point about research, not to comment on the state of amoeba in southern lakes.
As you other educators have doubtlessly discovered, many students struggle with research. There are many reasons for this, but one that continually surprises me is the fact that they often do not know how to enter search terms. They will be researching an author, for example, and they will type the author’s name, but they will never consider the possibility of adding other words to the search or using a title or other descriptor in place of the name. They also struggle with scanning information and selecting the best hits, but that’s a struggle for another post. This post will focus on using search terms (and the horrifying amount of information that is available on the internet).
So, here’s the story. Yesterday I embarked on a water skiing adventure for the first time in about 20 years. Consequently, my first couple of attempts, I was slow to get out of the water. As you know if you’ve been dragged along by a boat without actually making it up to standing, the excruciating time from the initial motor rev of the boat until you pathetically let go of the tow rope involves mouthfuls and mouthfuls (and, in my case, nosefuls and nosefuls) of water.
The second time that I wiped out prior to standing up, I felt a full liter of water go down my left nostril. As a result, I could feel my left nostril begin to clog up (once I paused long enough to quit choking on the water that remained in my mouth and gushed down my throat).
By dinnertime, I felt congested enough to be mildly concerned. Still, I showered and went to bed without much worry. I fell asleep dreaming of skiing.
As often happens, I woke up around 2:00 AM. After I woke up, I found myself more concerned about the building congestion in my nose. It was then, after about thirty minutes of failed attempts to blow my nose and fall back to sleep, I did what all desperate people in the age of the internet and smart phones do: I reached over, opened up Safari on the phone, and then clicked on the search button. I typed in the following search on Google: getting lake water up nostrils.
This is the point where I encountered the brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria Fowleri). I know it sounds like some sort of horror movie absurdity, but at 2 AM when the internet tells you that it is a real problem, it seems nothing short of terrifying. Essentially, what I learned is that the amoeba attacks are extremely rare. (Did you get that, people who read the disclaimer, but are both squeamish and curious? They are EXTREMELY rare--you should keep swimming in lakes.) Additionally, the ideal water conditions are around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they happen when the host (in this case, me) gets warm water (from southern lakes or thermal springs) up the nostrils. The amoebas settle in your nostril cavity and then pave their way from the nostrils up into the brain, where they feast on your brain matter until you die. Of all of the people that have had this happen since it was first recorded in the 1960s, only 1 person ever has survived. The time from initial contact to death is generally somewhere between 7 and 14 days, and in the meantime, the host experiences nausea, vomiting, headaches, neck stiffness, and loss of memory.
(As a point of reference in the category of research/ scanning/ paraphrasing, I paraphrased all of the above information from a quick scan of several sources. The information is an amalgamation of what I gleaned from my quick 2 AM perusal.)
As you can imagine, I instantly found myself worrying less about my nasal congestion and more about whether I had other symptoms of the amoeba invasion. For the record, anyone who has ever attempted water skiing knows that a stiff neck, potential headache, and pain in all other muscles seems to be pretty standard.
The prospect of sleep dissipated into oblivion.
Part of the problem with this particular search was that ALL of the top hits were about the brain-eating amoeba. I did what good researchers do (though somehow this post is becoming more about brain eating amoeba and less about research) and tried another keyword search.
This time I tried lake water causing sickness. Big mistake. That one looked even scarier, so I went back to my original search. I scanned the relevant information before selecting hits to actually read. I also managed to ignore all of the articles about the amoeba (I feel the need to reiterate that they are brain-eating each time I mention them) for quite a while. I even exited the search, realizing that it was not relevant and would not help with the real problem I was having.
However, as often happens, once I saw the terrifying lines and the abundance of similar hits, I was intrigued and had to read everything. I tore into the graphic details of several of the hits—I had plenty of time since sleep was impossible. I finally read a PBS article in which the author kindly tried to minimize the fear, ending with the statement, “know your risks, make sure water isn’t jammed up your nose [easy for you to say when you aren’t the one getting pummeled by a ski wipeout!], and enjoy the warm weather.”
When I found myself unable to feel assured enough to drift back to sleep, I finally wandered into the living room. Fortunately, insomnia runs in my family and this was a family visit, so my father was still up. I eventually admitted my tragic discovery and he assured me that the water was not in fact warm enough to end my life through a brain-eating smorgasbord. However, he then went on to say, “I don’t mean to scare you, but…” (I should pause here to explain that one of the first lessons I learned in life was that when my father says that statement, whatever comes next will undoubtedly terrify me.) “There have been several reports of flesh-eating amoeba in the lakes.” He went on to describe in vivid detail an incident with one particular victim, which I will spare you here as I attempt to return focus to the merits of keywords when doing research (though I’m sure you could find the account, and lots of others, with a quick Google search).
Charming, Dad. As you can imagine, my terror moved from terror about my brain to terror about the flesh that houses my brain.
Anyway, I assured him that I was feeling better and that I’d go back to sleep.
After another twenty minutes of staring at the ceiling, I finally reached over for my phone once again. (I can sense you groaning as you read this statement, for by now we all know how these kinds of searches, especially the ones in the middle of the night, turn out.)
This time, after careful reflection, I considered what I truly wanted to know and typed stuffy nose after skiing.
Ta-da! After that search, I found tons of information about people who had experienced similar aftereffects post-skiing and lake swimming. These articles and chat forums focused on using saline solutions to clean out the nasal cavity, and many people discussed the pros and cons of nose plugs.
While I know that this seems far removed from student research, it led me to an important realization about the importance of search terms in the research process. Although my first search accurately described what happened, my later search focused on the effects of the incident, and therefore provided the information that I most needed to know.
Overall research lesson? Modify your search terms and keep looking until you find the information most relevant and useful to you. And above all, DON’T PANIC.
(Image above comes from AnimalShak)
(P.S. It is with tremendous willpower and enormous restraint that I managed to keep this information from my husband so that he could enjoy the water sports for the rest of the week amoeba fear free. I didn’t post until after we left so that he would be safe from the discovery.)
Best wishes with your future research endeavors!