Keep your audience in mind: what works in SciFund proposals and what doesn't

Keep your audience in mind: what works in SciFund proposals and what doesn't

Bree Putman

Note from Jai: Bree is a SciFund Challenge participant and a doctoral student in ecology at UC Davis and San Diego State University. Right now, SciFund people are getting feedback on draft versions of crowdfunding projects that will soon be on RocketHub. What’s working in those projects? What could be improved? In this post, Bree critiques the effectiveness of the message in SciFund projects (when particular projects are singled out, Bree got permission to do it).

Easy to grasp science metaphors = great SciFund project.

Do you think of gel electrophoresis as a process of large and small animals running through a dense forest of trees? How about comparing the tail of a peacock or that of a widow bird to the XKR-S Jaguar sports car? Also, who knew that a pro-wrestling match is similar to mitosis?

As an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, my professors often used simple metaphors to convey abstract biological topics. In the beginning of my academic career, I was a tyro to concepts such as genetic engineering, sexual selection, and cell division. These metaphors greatly helped me in understanding the wonderful world of biology. Like me, the vast majority of people reading SciFund Challenge proposals can benefit from simple language and metaphors that relate to their lives.

The projects that I have reviewed and found most appealing are those that tell a story or compare the research to something anyone can relate to, not just scientists. For example, parasites could be the brain-eating zombies of the animal world, or the evolutionary arms-race between predator and prey could be an eternal boxing match. Although such metaphors simplify the research, they are approachable and effective at conveying information. Keep your audience in mind. You are not writing to an evaluation committee composed of fellow scientists. Your audience should be thought of as elementary school kids—to get their attention your project needs to be simple, fun, and exciting! Do not lecture to them and DO NOT USE JARGON!  The removal of jargon is above all most important. After reading several proposals, I believe that many SciFund participants may be using jargon without realizing it. Below, I list several examples:

  • “By flowing our wine through a pulsed high electric field between two titanium electrodes for varied time-points we aim to set off a series of chemical reactions that will leave the wine less bitter, acidic and with greater clarity. “

This sentence is wordy and sounds very scientific even though when one examines the words closely, it is actually a simple concept. To simplify just state: “The wine receives electric shocks to alter its bitterness, acidity, and clarity.”

  •  “If some of these secondary proteins are important for the Polo kinase function in promoting the uncontrolled division of the cell, inhibiting the specific interaction between them and the Polo kinase can be a new promising way to try to treat cancer. 

Although this author defined much of the jargon used above, readers will not remember definitions. How is a secondary protein different from a primary? I didn’t even know there were different levels of proteins! Also, many people may not even know that cancer can be defined by uncontrollable cell division. And why is this division bad?  Simplify this by saying: “Cancer occurs when the cells in your body rapidly multiply without your permission. A sneaky protein called Polo kinase (Polo for short) may be the culprit behind this process. However, we believe that Polo is not working alone; Polo probably has other protein friends that are helping your body’s cells multiply causing cancerous tumors. Our goal is to break to connection between Polo and its friends.”

See to learn more about this exciting research!

  •   “Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a unicellular freshwater chlorophyte”

 This is used as the first sentence of one proposal. It does not excite me nor do I understand what the sentence means. What are these crazy words in italics? Also, I have no idea what a chlorophyte is! For all I know, it could be some bad disease.

See to view this scientist’s lab web page.

  •   “Cilia/Flagella are the motile organelles of the cell.”

Another first sentence. Cilia = jargon, motile = jargon, organelles = jargon. I appreciate the definition of Cilia and Flagella, but it is not helpful to use jargon in the definition. Simplify by saying: “the cells in your body are made up of many parts that help them function properly. The Cilia/Flagella are propellers that help your cells move about, allowing them to interact with their environment and other cells.”

See for more information on flagella!

Every participant has a novel and exciting project, but it is the presentation that will set projects apart. Also, the incentives to funders may help influence their monetary decisions. Use the “Golden Rule” on this and offer them something you would like to have. A picture of your study organism they can probably find online-in other words, not too exciting. However if you make the reward personalized and give them choices this could pique their interest. For example, they could “adopt” and choose the name one of your organisms, and a personalized tour of your lab or field site is always a plus.  In summation, the SciFund challenge is not only a great way to raise funds, but it allows scientists to connect with the public in a huge way. These posts will provide public education and outreach and hopefully scientists are rewarded in return. It’s a win-win situation.

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  1. Great entry! As part of the general public unfamiliar with much of the jargon (and equipment), I saw the drawing of the gel electrophoresis chamber and immediately thought of this:

    I tutored undergrads back in the 70s, when paper card catalogs still existed. After trying unsuccessfully to teach a couple of students the difference between a gene and a chromosome, I pulled one of the catalog drawers out and set it on our table. I pointed to the long, skinny wooden box and said, “This is a chromosome,” then pulled out one of the index cards and said, “This is a gene.” Their eyes lit up and they got it. Made my day!