“So, what do you do?” It is a question we hear all the time: in the office from new colleagues, at networking events, at parties with friends and family… so we should be good at answering it, right? Unfortunately, for many researchers, this is not the case. We reach for familiar language and technical accuracy: “What do I do? Well, I study the genomic basis of colouration in the genus Salamandra.“ Cue blank stares and crickets. Does this mean my research is boring? No. All research is interesting, all research has something cool and exciting at its heart, we just need to find a way to get that across quickly and spark interest—we need a ‘Research Motivation Pitch’. (Oh, and to motivate you, this is also a competition! Read till the end to find out how to enter.)
The idea of a quick, roughly 30-second pitch to hook people on your research topic is something that I have come across throughout my PhD. Shamefully, I never actually got around to composing one. Why? Because it is harder to do than you would think. However, I recently attended a workshop on engaging with decision makers, where the value of such a pitch was hammered home.
Robert Gropp, the Director of Public Policy at the American Institute of Biological Sciences, ran the workshop. With extensive experience working on US policy in Washington D.C., Mr Gropp was very clear: whether you are talking to a US Senator, a colleague from a slightly different area of research, or your neighbour at the annual “block party”, you need a short, snappy introduction to your work. The aim is not to explain everything in detail, the aim is to hit them with big ideas and get them to ask for more—using three sentences or less!
The basic format should be: World problem > what you are doing > your ultimate aim (and, if you are meeting with a Senator, what you want from them). Some research is inherently easier to sell than others, such as applied research or anything with a clear human element. A lot of my colleagues work on the rabies virus, so they could use something along these lines:
“Even though rabies is a completely preventable disease, it still kills around 55,000 people a year. I am using computer simulations to study how it is spread and what groups of people are most at risk. Using this data, we are working with local governments, NGOs, charities and private firms to develop policies and strategies to combat rabies transmission and save lives.”
More abstract or blue skies research can be harder to pitch. I work on the evolution of colour patterns in a group of European amphibians, and when Mr Gropp challenged us to come up with three sentences that explained the motivation behind our research (in 10min), I did… poorly:
“I work on animal colouration to help us study some fundamental processes in evolutionary biology, such as the repeatability of evolution. Specifically, I work on European fire salamanders, which are very colour diverse and are a bit like the amphibian version of a wasp, with yellow-black markings.”
The wasps of the amphibian world… why I thought that was a good hook, only the pressure of the situation can tell! Others also struggled. One researcher, who works on the ways in which different colours of plant leaves turn sunlight into sugars (called photosynthesis), went down the jargon rabbit hole at first, but after some discussion, he decided that his opening line should be along the lines of: “Have you ever thought about how we are going to grow food in space?” This wasn’t quite what he was working on, and his colleagues would give him a hard time for implying that he was, but it was a fascinating question and led right into the topics he does specifically work on. As for me, after some work, I am currently on this:
“For all we know about the natural world, there is still a lot we don’t understand about the ways in which biological diversity arises. So I am studying the evolution of animal colouration, which is intimately linked to how animals live and reproduce, to help tease apart the processes that give rise to the fantastic diversity we see around us. And to do this I am using new methods to study everything from what we can see with our naked eye down to what is happening at the molecular level.”
Bit long? Sure. Still need some work? Definitely. But it is bound to catch people’s interest more than talking about Salamandra genomics or some odd phrase about wasps.
Coming up with three interesting and concise sentences to describe your research is hard to pull off. But the benefit of having a multi-purpose Research Motivation Pitch is clear. Never again will you need to think on your feet when someone asks: what do you do? Be it your granny or a PI you want to work with at a networking session. And after you hit them with your beautifully crafted lines you will have a clear idea of their level of interest and background knowledge from their response, which will help you continue the conversation.
We would love to hear your Research Motivation Pitch, so comment below or, if you can do it in 140 characters, Tweet it to us! (@UofG_PGRblog). Everyone is welcome to share theirs with us, but a variety of prizes will be available for the top entries from UofG PGRs sent to us before the 9th September—so get pitching!
To give you some extra inspiration, PGR blogger Jiska has had a go. Jiska researches cancer cell metabolism, which can be a bit chemistry-heavy to explain. This is her pitch:
Cancer develops when normal cells in your body go rogue and start growing uncontrollably. This makes for very hungry cells that use ingenious ways to scavenge as many nutrients and building blocks as possible. We’re trying to figure out what biochemical pathways they use to do this – if we find one unique to cancer cells, we can cut off their supply with a targeted therapy while sparing the healthy cells!