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The WISL Thesis Award

May 15, 2014

Back in my second year of graduate school, UW-Madison chemistry professor and director of the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy Bassam Shakhashiri issued a challenge to all of the department’s graduate students. Write a chapter in your thesis explaining your research to the general public, he said, and I’ll give you $500.

Thus was born the WISL thesis award. At the time, graduating and writing a thesis were only nominally on my radar – I had a good three years left before I really needed to worry about it. By the time I finally sat down to write my thesis, I wasn’t even sure the awards were being offered any more.

But the idea was still kicking around in my head, and since I was in full-on science communication mode at the time (I wrote most of my thesis DURING my summer as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow – not something I’d necessarily recommend!), I figured what the heck, why not. If nothing else, Bassam would probably still enjoy reading it, and I could send a copy to my parents, too.

The resulting chapter landed in Appendix B of my thesis, but then sat around on my hard drive for seven months before I finally remembered to send it to Bassam. But send it I did, and since it turns out the WISL thesis awards are still going, my thesis chapter is now out there for anyone and everyone to read.

I hope you’ll head on over and check it out, and take a look at what some of the other recent UW-Madison grads wrote about their research, too. And if you’re writing (or getting ready to write) a thesis of your own, even if you’re not a UW-Madison chemist, consider writing one of these thesis chapters yourself. If nothing else, it will give you some practice writing – and might give you something you can send to your parents.

P.S. Yes, it’s 11 pages long.  It’s a thesis chapter.  If you just want the upshot, try this:

I spent my graduate career sticking molecules to surfaces, and then blasting them with lasers to make them “dance.”  The idea was that figuring out how the molecules dance tells us a lot about what’s going on at the surface… but really, blasting stuff with high-powered research lasers is just really cool.

Happy? 😛

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