Research "Elevator Talks"

Bill Gates at a reception. Photo by Steve Jurvetson. Use: this image has a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

In the job search and interview process you will have some very brief, yet critical, opportunities to describe your research to departmental faculty, institutional administrators, and students. You'll want to be able to convey the nature and significance of your work to other academicians, who will have a wide range of areas of expertise. As with many situations, it's important to hook your audience early on, to convince them that what you do is important and that they want to hear more about it. To that end, it may help you to think about what you could say in the time of an elevator ride.

Participants from our Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences Workshops have found it helpful to draft such statements in preparing for the interview process. However, if you memorize your statement, your delivery may be less engaging than if you simply think about the key points you wish to make. One workshop leader suggests thinking of this in terms of a three-part delivery: Statement... But... Therefore.... For example, "X happens, but we don't yet understand..., therefore I am...." This format encourages you to explain why your work is important.

Examples from "Preparing for An Academic Career" Workshop Leaders

  • Kurt Friehauf, Professor of Geology, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

    Version 1: I am an economic geologist, so I deal with the geology of economic mineral deposits. Most of my work is in copper and gold mines, but I also study molybdenum, iron, and rare earth elements deposits. My research helps mining companies discover the metals we use in our everyday lives.

    Version 2: I am a geologist who studies the ways water and rocks interact with one another. The rocks in the earth's crust may seem solid, but they're actually more broken up than an old country road in a poor county. The cracks are generally filled with water that's squeezed into circulation by the earth's heat and pressure. As the water flows through cracks, it chemically reacts with the rocks on the sides of the fracture. In a sort of yin/yang way, the water causes new minerals to form in the rock and, at the same time, the rock changes the chemistry of the water. When the waters contain dissolved metals, changes in the chemistry can cause the metals to deposit to form valuable veins of gold, copper ores, and many other metal resources that we dig up to make the modern world in which we live.

    I study the minerals in active copper and gold mines to deduce the chemical characteristics of ancient geothermal waters that form ore. Knowing how mineral deposits form helps us figure out where we can efficiently and responsibly explore for new mineral resources.

    Version 3: I study the chemical interaction between water and rocks – especially when those reactions form mineable metal deposits. Most of my work integrates (count out on fingers for visual supplement):

    1. Making geologic maps in active copper, gold, and molybdenum mines to determine the spatial distribution of minerals, with
    2. Microscopic studies of samples to determine the timing relationships between mineral assemblages, and finally
    3. Thermodynamic analysis of the minerals present to calculate the chemical composition of ancient ore-forming waters and deduce the chemical reactions that were key to depositing valuable metals.

    By understanding what causes minerals to deposit, we can develop new models that predict where we might find new resources and mine them in an environmentally responsible way.

    Kurt's explanatory comments:

    • Version 1 is brief, but commonly leads the listener to think I'm an economist and not a geologist.
    • Version 2 is more or less what I tell folks when they ask me what I do. The language is simple and attempts to be approachable by using the image of the country road. Most people seem to get what I do when they hear this. I have learned not to tell people that I study the geology related to mining right up front because most people have a very negative view of mining and so would stop listening as soon as I said the word "mining." This talk would likely be considered condescending to a scientist listener, so I would say something more technical if my audience was a scientist.
    • Version 3 would be what I would tell a scientist (biologist, chemist, physicist, fellow geologist, etc.).
  • Margot Gerritsen, Associate Professor of Energy Resources Engineering, Stanford University

    I generally use something like the below for research related audiences. Note that I wrote it in really short and not too beautiful sentences because it is meant to be spoken and I speak much more simply than I write.

    Depending on the audience, I may throw the information around a bit. Sometimes I start with the applications (wind, climate, ocean currents) and then mention computer modeling.

    Shortest version: I am a computational engineer. I love building computer models that simulate natural or engineering processes. I particularly enjoy simulating fluid flows, such as wind, ocean current, but also the flow of water, oil or other fluids deep in the ground. The computer models are like "virtual laboratories" that allow us to observe the processes (which we cannot do in nature) and play with them. We can use this improved knowledge to better predict weather or climate, or improve the design of groundwater remediation or oil production systems.

    ... sometimes I go on like this: All of these processes are really complex. You have to pay close attention to how you model them mathematically so as not to give a false picture. This is a wonderful challenge. Also, the models are huge and really expensive to run. Figuring out how to implement the models on the computer so they run most efficiently is another great puzzle.

    .... and sometimes I add something like this: This research sits at the interface of mathematics, physics and computer science. I therefore get to work with very diverse teams of experts and that is really exciting.

Examples from Stanford University Graduate Students and Postdocs

The Stanford University I-RITE/I-SPEAK program teaches graduate students and postdocs to prepare and deliver highly understandable, compelling oral and written accounts of their research for non-specialized audiences. The examples below are geoscience examples taken from their archive.