My PhD explained using only the 1000 most commonly used words

A dreaded question for any PhD student (in my field at least) is a non-specialist (often family or friend) asking something like… “so what is it you actually do?”. Maybe I’ll develop a stock response over the next year or two but for now there’s just lots of umming and ahhing until the subject is changed.

I suspect a lot of PhD students feel the same way, hence the uptake of the #UpGoerFive hashtag where, in deference to a great xkcd, people have taken on the challenge of explaining complex topics using just the 1000 most commonly used words, through this great tool. Cue a tumblr and the usual twitter back-patting, but while it’ll no doubt be forgotten in a week or so, I really like this idea.

Here’s my brief attempt:

I use computers to look at things on top of the stuff that tells a cell how it is made. Maybe the on top stuff tells the bottom stuff what to do, or maybe it’s the other way round. We don’t know that much about these things yet but we’re trying our best. I’m also seeing how the under stuff looks in real life – we sometimes like to think it’s a straight line but it’s really much prettier than that!

Pretty tricky when words like “DNA” and “gene” are off limits, let alone anything to do with chromatin and histone modifications, but a great idea and maybe it’ll help me put together some kind of layman’s explanation next time I’m asked to explain my work in simple terms.

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