“So, what do you do?” Explaining your research to a variety of audiences.

“So, what do you do?”

Since starting my PhD I’ve been asked this question countless times by all types of people. At first, the sound of those five words would trigger a mild bout of palpitations and I’d frantically search the questioner’s face for some clue as to how I should pitch my answer. Do I go all out with details of my research or do I scale it back and risk sounding like I’m the one with no idea about what I’m doing? In the end I’d more often than not end up with a combination of both and a forced smile on my face hoping there would be no follow-ups.

Meeting someone for the first time and explaining what you research shouldn’t be a mildly stressful experience. So to combat the palpitations I decided to create spiels suitable for every occasion. These currently range from “I’m a palaeontologist! …Yes, *rolls eyes* like Ross from Friends”, to a more in-dept story of my research with a little bit of justification thrown in for good measure.

One of the first opportunities to implement my effective communication skills (or as I discovered, lack thereof) and explain my research to a group of new faces was at my department’s weekly discussion group on the very first week of my PhD. All newbies and oldies alike were asked to explain their research (fossil organism, methods, location) by means of a hand-drawn picture on a scrap of paper. Below is what I managed to come up with…

The diversification of tetrapods in the form of a work of art.
The diversification of tetrapods made into a work of art

If you can’t tell from my beautiful drawing, I’m looking at the diversification patterns of tetrapods using data from across the globe (but you totally got that, right?!). I’ll admit my Palaeozoic tetrapod looks suspiciously like an algal-encrusted early mammal (teeth were added later for dramatic effect) and I should have labelled my axes, but I think the rest of drawing gets the point across when accompanied by an explanation. I’ll also admit that I only managed to stumble through a haphazard explanation of what I scrawled, passing the baton quickly on to the next person at the table. I hadn’t yet decided the best way to explain my research concisely, nor the correct words to use while trying to do so. It needed more work

This exercise among other palaeontologists was great practice, but it wasn’t long before I was speaking with people who weren’t at all familiar with the topic of quantitative palaeobiology but still wanted to hear about what I worked on. I realised that what I struggled most with was finding that middle ground between Ross Geller and full-on jargon. Explaining my topic to a non-specialist but interested audience was going to take some work.

In my endeavors to fill this gap, I came across the brilliant Up-Goer 5 text editor. Inspired by an ingenious xkcd comic and created by geneticist Theo Anderson, the editor only allows you to use the ten hundred most used words and has already struck a cord with many scientists wishing to communicate their research to those unfamiliar with the field. Naturally I had to have a go, but as ‘fossil’, ‘evolution’, ‘diversity’, and (annoyingly but not surprisingly) ‘tetrapod’ are not among the 1,000 most used words I knew it would be a challenge.

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Attempting to explain my research using the 1,000 most used words

It stills needs a lot of work (particularly my crude explanation of sampling standardisation in the second paragraph!). I could have spent an entire day perfecting it but even only 20 minutes showed me how many uncommon words I need to use to get my point across concisely. Sometimes jargon is useful, but when accompanied by a convoluted description it becomes very unfriendly indeed. Up-Goer 5 is on the extreme side of the effective communication spectrum and I don’t think I’ll continue using such a over-simplification, particularly since I’m sure everyone is familiar with the concept of a fossil! It did however give me some food for thought.

Being able to effectively communicate what my PhD is about has helped me take ownership of my work and I even feel a pang of pride when I give my little spiels! Perfecting my wording will be most useful when I return to my hometown for Christmas in a few weeks as I know I will be bombarded with this question many times over. Some people will be content with “Oh, I work with fossils” while others will want to know more. Armed with my concise explanations I’ll be able to confidently describe what I work on without fear of a raised eyebrow or confused stare. I think now I’d even be delighted to receive follow-up questions! (Although I am strongly aware that most follow-ups will be about why I do what I do, but justifying playing around with fossil data on my computer all day remains a story for another day!)

Why not give Up-Goer 5 a try yourself and see if it can change the way you talk about your research to a non-specialist audience?

Summer Spreadsheets

Since it is what consumes me right now, I’d like briefly to share a little bit of what I’m getting up to this summer. I may not be spending the time island-hopping in Greece or lounging in the Spanish sun, but I am lucky enough to be doing my work in the wonderful surroundings of London’s Natural History Museum. It’s only natural then to think I’m getting the chance to work on some rare dinosaur bone or groundbreaking ancient DNA analysis. Nope, instead I’m spreadsheeting my way to September*. Far away from the public galleries in the basement of the NHM’s Department of Earth Sciences sits the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology. This index is the result of the lifetime’s work of Dr. John Williams who, for almost 40 years, worked for BP (British Petroleum). During this time Dr. Williams was able to assemble a personal palaeopalynology (ancient pollen and spores) literature collection. Over the years this collection has developed into a fully cross-referenced card index and associated library of publications and today it contains over 25,000 references.

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One of the JWIP’s many drawers of index cards

The JWIP (because it’s full title is a bit of a tongue twister!) unfortunately isn’t much to look at, but what it lacks in beauty if makes up for in comprehensiveness.  The database is made up of those little index cards every student is familiar with, all of which are handwritten and stored alphabetically in countless filing cabinets. The data have come directly from published literature, including reports and theses, that Dr. Williams personally examined up until the end of last year. It contains over 250,000 index cards, with sections displaying data on fossil occurrences, stratigraphy, and taxonomy. The cross-referenced nature of the database means you can search for anything by starting with anything from publication author to geographical location. For someone like me with an tendency to organise obsessively, this project was a perfect fit.

Searching for the right cards...
Searching for cards on the genus Aquilapollenites

Aside from its unfortunate looks, the JWIP is unfortunate in a much graver sense. Its not digital. Digital databases are much more familiar to many of us, the Paleobiology Database being one example. No matter where you are in the world, if you have a computer and an internet connection you already have a vast amount of data at your fingertips. Index card databases such as the JWIP were once a common sight in laboratories and doctor’s surgeries during the 19th century and for the time were considered the height of sophistication. But the digital era soon crept in and made many of these index card set-ups obsolete. Nowadays, digitisation is a hot-topic in museums, libraries, and archives across the world. Museums like the NHM are swiftly choosing the most appropriate specimens to put in line to have their photograph taken and their details noted down. The ultimate goal of this process being to ensure longevity of the data associated with the collections, and also to allow the data to become more accessible, portable, and up-to-date. As it stands right now, the JWIP is available to any researcher seeking fossil pollen occurrence data – provided they travel to the NHM basement and sieve through the cards by hand, whilst recording the information they need.

Aquilapollenites attenuatus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Aquilapollenites attenuatus (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is where my project comes in. Over the summer I’ll be digitising, databasing, and analysing the part of the JWIP that belongs to Aquilapollenites, an extinct genus of fossil pollen. Species in the genus were at peak in the Late Cretaceous, along with the dinosaurs, some even surviving the extinction event that many dinosaurs didn’t. If that wasn’t cool enough, some Aquilapollenites species such as A. mtchedlishvilii are important index fossils that mark the boundary between time periods in rock formations of North America. I know, far too much awesomeness right there. When I finished placing all of the handwritten information from the 600 or so cards directly into spreadsheets, I had filled in over 24,500 cells. That’s a lot of data. As of this week I have a full two months left to work on my project and well on my way to getting some exciting results! Using the digital database I’ve created I’ll be able to use statistical and GIS software to assess the diversity patterns and historical distribution of the species within Aquilapollenites. Such a study has not been preformed before on this genus, and has only been made possible by the exhaustive nature of the JWIP. Despite the JWIP being a completely non-digital database it is an invaluable source of fossil occurrence data, possibly the most comprehensive of its kind available today. It is hoped that my project will kick start the essential process of modernising the JWIP, highlight its importance in paleobiogeographical studies,  and guarantee that it is around for more exciting projects in the future. I’ll report back soon with what interesting patterns the data throw up. I’d like to think that if the JWIP was already digital I may be able to sit in that Spanish sun and do my analyses from there. But for now all that is in front of me is a fun summer full of spreadsheets!   * I actually do work on some “conventional” specimens too. Check back here later in the month to read about the Miocene mammals I’m curating!

I suppose an introduction is in order!

So, I’ve jumped on the #scicomm bandwagon and started my own blog.

First of all, welcome and thank you for visiting! I know that what’s on offer here at the moment is somewhat limited but I hope that as time goes on and I start to build up more posts you’ll find something that tickles your fancy. I don’t admit to being an accomplished science writer in any shape or form so this blog will be as much for my improvement as your enjoyment! As you can probably tell by the name I (eventually) settled on, my writing will be primarily palaeo-flavoured, but with a few living creatures thrown in to liven things up (pun intended).

Many of you reading this might already know me, so I won’t bore you with details. Originally from Ireland, I’m currently at the NHM in London in the final weeks of my my MSc. Soon I’ll begin my PhD and I thought since I actually have some big-girl/real-world science-ing to do, now would be the perfect time to start colonising a blog of my own. Communicating science to the masses is something I have always been passionate about and now I’m taking my own slice of the action. In contrast to a lot of science sometimes, the tone of this blog will always be informal and free of ridiculous jargon – I’d like for everyone, no matter what their experience with science, to be subjected to able to read my ramblings.

And these ramblings will mostly be about what I get up to as a research student in Palaeobiology. For a little more context, my current and future research mainly focuses on the diversity of extinct organisms, from tiny fossilised pollen spores to colossal dinosaurs, across huge chunks of geological time. A pretty big topic by any standards. However, my interests go much further beyond just fossils, mostly thanks to my background in zoology and obsession with natural history collections (the creepier the better!). I’d love to incorporate some of those topics here too because, let’s be honest, everything needs some degree of fluffiness to keep it interesting. Above all, I’ll endeavour to portray, as accurately as possible, what its like to be a Palaeobiologist-in-training by writing about places I go and events I attend amongst other ramblings on everyday life in the world of palaeo.

Whether you find yourself here for fossils, insight, or just an aul nosey, I hope you find something that tickles your fancy! I would be delighted to hear from you, and of course constructive feedback is always welcome! Please do comment on my posts or get in contact with me on Twitter (even if you’re just in it for retweets of cool dinosaur pics).

Once again, thank you for visiting my little corner of the internet! I hope to see you back here soon!