Don’t Get Lost in the Flood: Expressing Significance in Research

Trying to explain to someone how direly important it is that we be able to accurately map what is and is not area that gets flooded by a river when it rains too much can be difficult. My day to day research probably will not seem that significant or exciting – making maps of floodplains on a black and white digital elevation model (like the one in my featured image) and then using ~math~ to test their validity does not sound important or fun. However, even though accurately mapping Arctic floodplains is what I am focusing on this summer, the main purpose of my project is to determine the amount of frozen organic carbon trapped in Arctic soil. The importance of this is much more obvious; organic carbon (usually in the form of plants) trapped in permafrost soil will not decompose when frozen. Luckily, by definition, permafrost soil is always frozen. But with rising global temperatures, the soil is able to thaw, allowing the organic carbon content to decompose into carbon dioxide and methane – greenhouse gasses. Keywords phrases like ‘permafrost,’ ‘rising global temperatures,’ and ‘greenhouse gasses’ grab the attention of my audience; climate change is a big issue that at the very least needs to be looked into. Unfortunately, in order to quantify how much organic carbon that has been trapped in the soil due to sediment deposition of floodplains, we need to accurately map what is a floodplain. What that boils down to is me playing with maps and calling it science. It is also important to note that making these maps by hand is extremely time intensive. The hand-mapped floodplain to the side took me about 7 hours to complete, and in the full view of the river system, this would be too small to see. The permafrost will be totally melted by the time I finish mapping Alaska by hand. So, to stress the importance of my research, I link my main goal and focus, accurately mapping Arctic floodplains, to the environmental analysis it will aid.

My professional goals are to conduct research at a National Laboratory. Most likely, I will need to express the importance of my research to large funding providers that will receive thousands of applications with limited funding. Donors like the NSF and other government agencies will have to determine which research projects to accept based on many impressive proposals from across disciplines. If I am able to communicate with someone outside of my field how significant my research is, I will be a much more competitive applicant. On the other hand, if my project receives funding from an organization, the transaction does not start and end there. Most organizations that throw money at a project will want to see the results of said project. Showing the donors a few graphs and saying “clearly, we hit our goal” is not actually showing them anything. I will need to be able to communicate to them how and why the work they funded was important. Therefore, it will be extremely useful to be able to communicate how significant my research is for my professional goals.

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