A Day in the Life: My Research in Four Letter Words

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to attend a Science Communication symposium put on by my school’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) chapter. There were many valuable nuggets of information I gathered from the event, but my favorite part was when we were tasked with describing our research with only words that are four letters or less, with no acronyms or technical terms. The purpose of the activity was to get us talking about what we do in very simple language. My first thought was, “Hey! This is a really cool idea and a challenge I am excited to tackle!” About two seconds later I realized that “beaver” has six letters…this was going to be tougher than I thought.

When the activity was explained to us, we were first instructed to describe our research as if we were presenting it to a group of scientists in the same subdiscipline. By subdiscipline, I mean people who study things that are very similar to what you study. You can think about my field of study, discipline of study, and subdiscipline of study like one of those nested Russian dolls.

nested dolls
The big one is my field, the next is my discipline, then subdiscipline. This picture has 5 dolls though. So the next might be…subsubdiscipline? Like only people who study beaver effects maybe? Then subsubsubdiscipline? I think at that point its probably just me and any poor souls stuck reading my dissertation (looking at you committee members) who would understand what I’m talking about.

For example, my degree will be in Geology so I would consider geology/earth science my “field” and it is the biggest of the nested dolls. People in my field study climate change, El Niño events, groundwater, tectonics, mountain building, lunar zircons, etc. There is a huge variety of research interests in my field of geology/earth science, but everyone is a scientist who studies the earth.  My “discipline,” the nested doll within geology, would be hydrogeomorphology. This is my discipline because I primarily study the intersection of hydrology and geomorphology. Other people in my discipline might study glacier dynamics, flash floods, mudslides, etc. There is still some variety in research interests, but everyone is focused on water and landscapes interacting. Finally, the smallest nested doll is my “subdiscipline.” For me, this would be stream and wetland ecohydrogeomorphology, because specifically I study how ecologic agents (beavers) can affect the hydrology and geomorphology of stream and wetland systems. Other people in my subdiscipline would study things like the effects of fish nest building, altered vegetation growth, or log jams on hydrology and geomorphology of streams and wetlands. Generally speaking, the further down the nesting doll structure of specialization you get, the more detailed you can be but fewer and fewer people will have any idea what you are talking about.

Contrary to popular belief, most scientists I know don’t actually try to make their language as inaccessible as possible. We just aren’t always the best communicators and want to be really specific. And especially for younger people we want to “sound smart” when we talk about our work, even at the expense of being understood by a broader audience. There is a time and place for being very specific and technical, like in the methods sections of academic papers or job interviews. There is also a time and place to be less specific and more understandable, like in the introduction of academic papers and in presentations at large conferences and when your friends ask you what you actually study for the 10th time because the previous 9 times you’ve spouted off a bunch of jargon-y garbage that they had no clue what meant but they didn’t want to sound dumb asking you to describe it in simpler terms.

Here is how I would describe my research to people in my subdiscipline using all my beloved technical terms and jargon.

  • Subdiscipline: I use numerical modeling coupled with field-based spatiotemporal head gradient, passive tracer, and stream discharge monitoring to determine the patterns of hyporheic exchange flow in the uniquely organic rich sediments underlying and adjacent to active beaver dams in the 1st-5th order semi-arid mountain streams. I hypothesize that given certain topographic and hydrologic conditions – such as bedslope, bedslope gradient, sediment depth, hydraulic conductivities, Manning roughness coefficients, depositional history, and peak flow conditions –  one can predict whether the hydrogeomorphic effects of beaver damming can alter the status of the impounded streams from ephemeral to perennial on a timescale and spatial extent yet to be determined.

Even when I read that now it sounds awful. Do I know what it all means? Yes. Would I want to read a paper that started with those sentences? Nope.

Now if I was told to describe my research so the “general public” could understand it, it might look something like this:

  • General Public: I study the ways that beaver dams can change how water flows in mountain streams. I think that sometimes beaver damming can even make otherwise seasonal streams have water all year long.

I think that explanation is pretty straight forward. Yes, if people starting asking more questions like “well why would they have an effect at all” or “how do you get data to prove your theory” then I would probably start rambling on at the discipline or subdiscipline language level and they would probably nod politely for a while before walking away without understanding it any better. I still need to work on being able to answer questions in simple terms, but I do feel like I have a good grip on just describing my research in simple terms.

Given that I was able to boil down my subdiscipline description to the general public description, how hard could boiling it down again and only using four letter words be? Answer: really freaking hard.

My Thought Process While Trying to Describe My Research in Four (or less) Letter Words

  • okay. how about “I see how beavers use….”
  • shoot wait beaver is six letters!
  • how do I say beaver with only four letters.
  • it would be weird to call them beav’s
  • plus no one would know what I was talking about
  • this is too hard I’ll come back to the beaver thing. moving on
  • okay. how about “I see how ____ use dams made of wood to alter…” shoot nope alter is too many letters
  • change? nope
  • adjust? nope
  • okay scratch the change idea. what are the beavers actually doing. they stop water…
  • oh crap water is five letters.
  • hmm. I did not anticipate not being able to use water or beaver in my description.
  • $@!*
  • water….
  • river? nope
  • stream? nope
  • brook? nope
  • creek? nope
  • jeez why are all the words for moving water 5 letters long! it’s like this is a conspiracy.
  • ugh.
  • rain? sure.
  • okay well beavers don’t really stop rain. but they sort of trap it…yes! trap is only four letters. I can do this!
  • okay. how about “I see how ____ use dams made of wood to trap rain in their ponds and the sediments surrounding mountain stream…” oh wait way too many letters going on here. reel it in.
  • can’t say sediment. dirt? yeah dirt works.
  • can’t say ponds either. I could say pond though. just no plural ponds. okay
  • mountain? ummm I’ll just leave that detail out. not super important anyway.
  • okay. how about “I see how ____ use dams made of wood to trap rain in its pond and the dirt near the pond. They can make streams…”
  • ugh jeez I keep saying stream. do I even really need to say the part about the ephemeral/perennial stream threshold? no. its just an added complication.
  • okay. I’ve got “I see how ____ use dams made of wood to trap rain in its pond and the dirt near the pond.”
  • wow back to trying to say beaver in four or less letter words.
  • what is a beaver
  • this is starting to feel sort of existential. what is a beaver? what am I? oh wait gotta get back on track
  • okay. what is a beaver.
  • a beaver is big.
  • a beaver is a mammal? can’t say mammal
  • can’t say animal either.
  • hmm.
  • rat. a beaver looks like a big rat. PERFECT.
  • okay. I’ve got it now.

I see how a type of big rat uses dams made of wood to trap rain in its pond, and in the dirt near the pond.

mad beaver
Big rat. Big angry rat. But angry is 5 letters….

After I arrived at my extremely simplified description of my research it dawned on me that my most complicated description for subdiscipline listeners really doesn’t contain all that much more information about what I am interested than my simplest description. The specialized description does contain a lot more information about the how and why and where of my research, but the what is fundamentally the same. I see how a type of big rat uses dams made of wood to trap rain in its pond, and in the dirt near the pond.


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