Summarizing your research, with a catch

It’s important for scientists to be able to explain what we do to a broad audience, not just other scientists. After all, depending on the research we do and how we do it, those non-scientists are the people who pay for our work, and who potentially use it and benefit from it. But this kind of communication is also a skill that we don’t always practice enough as scientists.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to try to summarize your research in common language (no jargon!), or in 100 words or less, or in language that a ten-year old can understand. Today I discovered a new twist on this challenge: summarize your research using only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language.

As it turns out, it’s pretty hard. Many of the words I’ve already used in this post aren’t on that list. Give it a try!

I decided to explain our ongoing research on the diversity and ecology of arctic flies. “arctic” isn’t on the list of 1000. Neither is “north”. No “flies” either. See what I mean?

Here’s what I came up with:

We want to see how many kinds of fly live way up where trees can’t. There are many more kinds of fly there than we thought, and we want to know how they share that little world. What do they eat there? What eats them?  Where do they live? How do they handle the cold and dark? We can’t understand or save those cold high places if we don’t know how all the pieces work. A fly is a small piece of a big world, but if there are lots and lots of small pieces, they can do a very big and important job to make that big world run the right way. This is really true in cold, dark and mean parts of the world where life is hard anyway. It seems like we should know a lot about the fly, but that’s not true. Not yet, anyway.

You know, I kind of like it . . .

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About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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