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Introduction to Level 1 by Tony Eng

Video Transcript: If you’re good at what you do, then you have to explain to others what it is that you do. And, the difficult part here is twofold actually. One – is learning how to distill what it is you do into a couple of sentences that’s, two, understandable to a range of different audiences. It’s worth your time to figure out how to do that and then, depending on the person you’re talking to, you’re going to have to adjust what you came up with for the specific audience that you’re addressing.

I’d encourage you to get something down on paper because the feedback is just as valuable as the experience of going through it and writing it all down. More information about this assignment and some examples are in the assignment itself. Are you ready?


The goal of this assignment is to learn how to explain what it is you do to a range of audiences of different technical backgrounds.

Begin with a sentence that anyone in your field working on your specific problem would understand. You can either craft this sentence from scratch, or base it on the title of your thesis (Masters or PhD), a paper you’ve written, or a paper from your research group.  

  • Since this is just an exercise, it can be something you worked on in the past, something you are currently working on, or (possibly) something you intend to work on in the future.
  • If you are stuck or have writer’s block, try talking it through with a peer or writing down what you would say.

Then rewrite this sentence at least six times in such a way that each successive rewrite is more accessible and understandable to a less and less technical audience.  As you progress from more technical to less technical, there are less technical details; there is less about “how” something is done, and more about “what” is done. Of course each rewrite will be more and more general, and although it will admit other possibilities as well, it should still describe what you do.

  • In your response for the assignment write a short description intended for different audience types. Examples of audience types include:
    • (Your) Research group.
    • Experts in the field.
    • Technical experts not in the field.
    • Learners.
    • Potential and/or existing sponsors.
    • General public.

Find 2-3 friends or colleagues and gather feedback from them using the peer feedback instructions below.

Assignment Notes:

The difficult part about this assignment is struggling with how to express what it is you work on, without getting bogged down with the specific details of the project or approach (the “how”).   For this assignment you do not have to worry about discussing the motivation (i.e. “why” your work is important). The peer reviewer will only look at the series of rewrites; they won’t be able to assess  if what you’ve written is correct and complete; only you can do that.



Peer Feedback Instructions

Find 2-3 people of different technical & non-technical backgrounds and show them your sentences.

Ask them the following questions:

  1. Which sentences were understandable? (i.e. they got the idea about what you’re working on, even though they might have questions about specific details.)
  2. What questions do they have about your work? Are there any areas of confusion or details they’d like clarification on?


Finished Model 1

Computational Biology – Protein Sequencing

  1. I am sequencing proteins de-novo from MALDI-PSD TOF spectra using a probabilistic model of fragmentation and simulated annealing (most technical)
  2. I am working on de-novo peptide sequencing from tandem mass spectra with an efficient sequence search strategy
  3. I am trying to sequence a peptide using component peptide information from a mass spectrometer
  4. I am performing string reconstruction given the weight of the string and the weights of a set of substrings
  5. I am computationally sequencing short proteins by making a guess and refining that guess.
  6. I am sequencing short proteins using information about the masses of its sub-peptides
  7. I am computationally sequencing short proteins
  8. I write computer programs to analyze proteins
  9. I work on stuff with biology and computers (least technical)

Finished Model 2

Material Science  – Fuel Cell Technology

  1. We make fuel cells cheaper and smaller by fabricating electrodes out of a new material, electrospun from a special polymer, that exhibits a high surface area to area ratio on the nanoscopic level. (most technical)
  2. We make fuel cells cheaper and smaller by using a new material with a huge surface area to area ratio, so that the fuel cell reaction can produce just as much energy, using low-cost smaller electrodes instead.
  3. We make fuel cells cheaper and smaller by making them out of a new low-cost material that can produce just as much energy using less material.
  4. We make fuel cells more efficient by increasing the surface area available for the fuel cell reaction.
  5. We improve fuel cells by making them out of a new material.
  6. We will make traditional batteries obsolete by making more powerful and compact fuel cells.
  7. We make devices last longer by creating better batteries that last longer. (least technical)

Case Study: Michael Walsh On Keeping Audience In Mind When Networking

WARNING: This video serves as a demonstration of the underlying ideas from this exercise applied to a (then) current MIT graduate student. The video is a little long. While it isn’t necessary to watch this video in order to progress through level 1, it is encouraged.