Describing your research – scientific soundbites from Dunedin

I’ve been travelling around the country talking to emerging researchers about the interesting projects they are working on for their PhD theses or as part of their post-doc research.

In particular, I’ve been giving them tips on how to effectively communicate their science and in an exercise during the workshop, I ask the researchers to sum up an aspect of their research in a maximum of two sentences – they have five minutes to do it.

The idea is that these researchers whittle away the complexity of their science or research so that it is easy for a layperson to relate to it quickly. Why would a scientist want to do this?

Well, Einstein has a good reason: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” he once said.

But there’s another reason. The more engaging scientists are and the better they are at communicating their science, the more engaged society will be in what they are doing. Lots of benefits flow back to scientists when the public which is funding the science actually “get it”.

I was aiming in their answers for the type of quotes Stephen Hawking gives in summing up what drives his research interest, such gems as:

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.


Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

I ended up with an eclectic grab-bag of answers, some great ones, some very much in need of refinement.

Dunedinites – my research in two sentences

Here’s my top 10 favourites from the Dunedin workshops:

A human foot washes up on the shore. How long has it been in the water? a marine bacterial molecular clock provides the answer.

Rejection hurts but why are some people more resilient than others?

It’s not just getting the bimbos off the beach when a tsunami comes but looking at ways of informing people about ways of reducing community vulnerability and increasing resilience to disaster.

I don’t want to kill humans, I don’t want to kill animals either. Hence I am killing yeast to save humans.

The wind blows sand into your face like needles and at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve gone 10 round in a boxing ring. (doing fieldwork on a braided river in a norwest gale).

I build houses on a molecular scale. By designing the size of the door, the furnishings and who lives there, you can control who wants to be inside. Then you know where the bastards live.

Driving our athletes to eat well so they can play harder, longer and smarter. Fuelling those Ferrari engines as well as possible.

I can force a fly to live longer, just by changing what she eats for dinner. I want to find the genetic mechanisms underlying this change.

Improve, sleep, improve weight. Sleep is an additional weight-management tool for youth.

How can we label food so that people can actually understand what is in it?

And a sample of the rest… (I’ll post all of them when I’ve more time)

* Take nothing at face value, question the scientist that plays ‘God’. Are we simply the product of our biology and genetic impulses?

* The calf muscle (the big one at the back of your leg): how does it ‘really’ work when you go up and down on your toes.

* Losing your memory = losing your mind. My research is to find molecular mechanisms that contribute to memory and this is altered with aging and potential memory loss.

* Can people learn better in areas they already know?

* Glaciers are shrinking  as the climate is warming, but is the relationship between the two so simple?

* Shining lights at babies. How to detect ultrasound using lasers.

* Small differences now can lead to new species later on.

* How can we label food so that people can actually understand what is in it?

* Don’t feed your baby,  let them feed themselves.

* It is obviously not possible to dissect a leukemic child to understand what’s going wrong with it. That’s why we need animal models, its not to be cruel to animals, it is to help human beings.

* On inter-generational transmission of tribal knowledge: How did our ancesters know what to do when communicating tribal knowledge of customs and practices and how did they ensure this continued to be handed down to the following generations? On participant said ‘I looked, I listened, I did and that’s how I learnt’.

* Bull kelp make great floating rafts that were exploited by Maori fir their seafaring. I’m trying to find out if other native New Zealanders, like snails, travel on kelp rafts too.

* Does quad bike vibration influence balance in New Zealand farmers? Apotential pathway for injury, rollover and falls.

* What we are and what we do is a big mix of our genes and the environment together.

* Illuminating the pathways and fine-tuning the components of a natural process in cyanebacteria to produce renewable hydrogen, one of the best fuels we have.

* What effect did improving playgrounds have on children’s physical activity? No discernable effect when comparing total activity, but for some children, the improved playgrounds had an effect.

* Lifestyle choices and environmental factors of parents may be remembered transgenetically, affecting the health and appearance of multiple generations.

Next post… Christichurch researchers…


  1. samuelmann

    These are great. Early in their projects we have our capstone IT students work up a “system sentence” that describes the challenge, their solution and that it is deployed – all written in past tense. This sentence eventually forms the basis for their assessment and is a key driver used repeatedly used in helping them through their studies (the sentence can change of course, but we try to avoid drift).
    A different approach is used at the CHI conference where each day starts with “CHI madness”. Every speaker for the day lines up to give their 25 seconds with three slides. They have to give actual results (so not – ‘we found cool stuff, come and find out’). In an less than hour you get the essence of the hundreds of talks for the day.
    It wouldn’t work for a small conference though. Instead at CITRENZ we’re borrowing from Pecha-Kucha, but with a twist (
    Keep up the good work.

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