I recently came across this very awesome site called “lol my thesis”. The site challenges people to summarise the content of their dissertation in one sentence. The one-word thesis summaries range from the somewhat surprising (“Irish cultural history is defined, before and after, by one school teacher’s crazy lifelong dream of becoming a martyr, because druids.“) to the somewhat less surprising (“If you take an obscure mathematical object and encode it into another obscure mathematical object, the result is an obscure mathematical object.“) to the somewhat depressing (“We will never know what a long dead writer wanted us to know about his work.“) Reading the entries on lol my thesis reminded me of a rather traumatic experience I had as a young grad student.
At the time, I was doing research for my MSc thesis in developmental genetics. I was working in one of the biggest zebrafish labs in the world (zebrafish have transparent eggs and embryos, so you can actually watch them develop under the microscope, which is really cool). In order to understand what genes have what function in development, the lab had created a living “library” of fish with different tiny genetic mutations that affected the way they developed (often in subtle ways). This army of mutant fish was matched with an army of grad students and postdocs who tried to figure out what was wrong with “their” fish and why. My project involved characterising two mutations that affected skin development and map the relevant genes (i.e. figure out what chromosome they were on, and where on the chromosome). Because these were the pre-high-throughput-sequencing days, this actually involved quite a bit of work, and so I spent long days in the lab (or rather, long nights, because nighttime was when nobody else needed the machines and lab equipment). On weekends, I would often come for experiments and/or on feeding duty, which involved feeding the whole massive army of fish (a few thousand tanks) from a little wash bottle. For a year (because, obviously, the project that was intended to be completed in six months went way over time), the work in the fish lab was my entire life. And it was not always fun.
One day, on my way home from work, I met an acquaintance on the bus. She was studying law, and she asked me what my MSc dissertation was about. I thought for a moment, and then – recalling advice about how to communicate science to a non-scientist audience – tried to put it in the simplest way possible: “You see, I study how the skin develops. We use zebrafish for that. I have fish where I know that a gene is not functioning the way it should, and I am trying to find out what that gene does and where it is located.” I thought I had done quite a good job. She looked at me incredulously. And then she asked: “Really? This is an entire dissertation? Isn’t that just one sentence? It is located at this position: … “
Had lawyergirl punched me right in the stomach, there and then, it could not have hurt more. All the hours of works, my whole scientific career to date, the main content of my waking life – all that, just one sentence? I tried, feebly, to protest: “Well, you can’t just say that. You have to explain why you know this and how you found out.” – “Okay then”, she replied, “two sentences: It is located at this position: …, because …” I was gutted (and not just because she obviously did not know the first thing about grammar and where sentences end and begin. Or how to count to two. Seriously, don’t they teach you that in law school?) I was gutted because a thing that was so extremely important to me, that I fought for every single day, that I spent so much time on, was reduced into something so small and irrelevant.
It took me a while to get over this. With time, I gained perspective, both on the significance on my project in the grander scheme of things, and on the significance of comments made by random people on buses. But only when browsing through lol my thesis did it occur to me that there is true beauty and wisdom in condensing the content of your research into one sentence. So here it is: “We were looking for this gene that is involved in skin development, and we found it. So long, and thanks for all the zebrafish.”