Thursday, 5 December 2013

Help with a lay summary of my throwing research

I am applying for a research fellowship and part of the application is a 2500 character lay summary; see below. I would love all and any feedback from you about how well it scans for you.

I have also put a public copy of this and the scientific abstract on Google Drive that can take comments, if you are so inclined:

Lay summary
Scientific abstract

The remit of the section is
Provide a lay summary of your proposed project. This should be understandable by an A-level science student. Explain why you have chosen to work in this subject area and what it is about your proposed research that you find particularly exciting, interesting or important. Also explain the potential impact or wider benefits to society of your research. 

EDIT AFTER FEEDBACK:
Imagine you are standing on the rocky shore of a lake with a friend, who challenges you to a competition: who will be first to hit that floating branch with a rock? You and your friend hunt for suitable rocks to throw, hefting them in your hand until you find some that feel just right. You then take turns throwing those rocks to try and hit the branch, getting closer on each throw until finally one of you scores a direct hit.

The simplicity of this commonplace game is deceptive. Throwing is actually so difficult that humans are the only species who have specialised in it. We have hands that can grasp objects; bodies that help make the precisely timed throwing action possible; and the ability to perceive which objects are most suitable for throwing. Evolutionary biologists believe that throwing provided our relatively small and weak ancestors with the ability to hunt large animals such as mammoths. But throwing still plays a large role in modern life, even if it is more likely to show up these days in the sports arena than on the plains of North America.

Thanks to sports science, we know a lot about what throwing looks like when it happens. What we don’t know is how a skilled thrower produces that throw in the first place. What makes an object ideal for throwing, and how do we perceive this when we heft that object? How do we perceive where our target is? And, most importantly, how do we use this information to select a throw that will move this object in just the right way so as to hit that target? This project is all about answering those questions. We will measure expert and novice throwers aiming to hit distant targets and track their movements with high speed cameras. We will then analyse this data using cutting edge techniques to identify how people produce the throws they do.

I find throwing fascinating because there are so many unanswered questions from many different disciplines. Psychologists want to know how we perceive the environment and produce the throw; neuroscientists want to know how our brain works to support this behaviour; evolutionary biologists want to know how all these skills came together in our species and how this might have supported the evolution of language. My colleagues and I have the tools we need to actually answer these questions, and we believe that the answers will be of interest to many people, including scientists but also coaches and athletes interested in improving their techniques and accelerating their learning.
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ORIGINAL
Imagine you are standing on the rocky shore of a lake with a friend, who challenges you to a competition: who will be first to hit that floating branch with a rock? You and your friend hunt for suitable rocks to throw, hefting them in your hand until you find some that feel just right. Then you take turns throwing those rocks to try and hit the branch, getting closer on each throw until finally one of you scores a direct hit.

This game might seem an odd thing to want to study scientifically – it all seems so straight forward. But this simplicity is deceptive. Throwing to hit a target like this is actually a surprisingly difficult action that requires you to produce a precisely timed movement that suits the task at hand (how far is the target? How big?). Throwing is in fact so difficult that humans are the only species who have specialised in it. We have hands that can grasp objects, bodies that help make the precisely timed throw possible, and the ability to perceive which objects are most suitable for throwing. Evolutionary biologists believe that throwing provided our relatively small and weak ancestors with the ability to hunt large animals such as mammoths. But even today, throwing still plays a large role in modern life, even if it’s more likely to show up in the sports arena than on the plains of North America.


Thanks to research in sports, we know a lot about what throwing looks like when it happens. What we don’t know is how a skilled thrower produces that throw in the first place. What makes an object ideal for throwing, and how do we perceive this when we heft that object? How do we perceive where our target is? And, most importantly, how do we use this information to select a throw that will move this object in just the right way so as to hit that target? This project is all about answering those questions, using modern motion-capture and data analysis techniques.


I find throwing fascinating because there are so many unanswered questions from so many different disciplines (e.g. psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology). But even better, my colleagues and I have the tools we need to actually answer these questions! We believe that the answers will be of interest to many people, including scientists but also coaches and athletes interested in improving their techniques and accelerating their learning. It’s rare to find a research question with such wide appeal, and this makes it a very exciting topic for me to work on as a scientist.

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11 comments:

  1. *flexes fingers*

    The story is an outstanding way to start - but then you call it an odd and straightforward thing to study. "Here's a fun, meaningless thing that happens, and what kind of dope would care? Me!" You'd be more persuasive if you chose a story with an important, rather than arbitrary, goal. When (esp in modern life) are the stakes high when someone throws something? The story could make your argument for you and save you loads of characters.

    If the people in the story struggle explicitly with the various aspects of throwing that make it interesting, that carries a lot of expository load for you. Then all you have to do is point out: look at all the pieces of the puzzle, a, b, and c. Or: look at all the different information that's important and how it gets put to use!

    David and Goliath springs to mind (jumping on the Gladwell train without talking about any of the things he talks about); you can just conveniently overlook the slingshot and make it a throw instead. One possibility.

    The juxtaposition of ancient-human-ability-meets-modern-research-technology is an exciting bit.

    Never waste characters on "very."

    Basically, if you were out of time, this would be swell. If you have time, you can find a story that does more work for you, which will make it more compelling. If I were writing it, I'd make a list of all the times when throwing Really Matters, then I'd make a list of all the challenges throwing presents and make up a story where a thrower has to confront all of them in order to Save The Day, or whatever.

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    1. I've been thinking about this; the thing I like about throwing by the lake is that it's such a common experience, and it is the best example of a task that contains all the elements:

      -Most sports have set objects, so picking the right one to throw isn't an issue
      -Not everyone plays or cares about sports

      So when I say 'one thing you have to do is pick the right object' people can refer to the very strong feeling you get when you find the good stone, etc. My hunch is that this story (tweaked) does the exposition work I need for the reasons you lay out.

      What if I fixed the segue; not 'this is fairly ordinary' to 'this is actually all pretty amazing'?

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  2. Pedant alert: that would be "try TO hit..." not "try AND hit", unless you really mean that trying is different from doing.

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  3. I would delete the last sentence ("It's rare..."), as it doesn't actually say anything and therefore ends your message on a lame note -- but other than that it's great.

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    1. Fair point. I was trying to end it in line with the section guidance, and I wasn't happy with that. Any ideas, anyone?

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  4. Very much lay comments follow!
    You could argue kicking a football could be of more interest to more people? (Not sure other creatures can do that, either.)
    If you're talking about ancient throwing, how far do you have to go back so it was hefting a stone and not balancing a spear, e.g. http://www.news.com.au/technology/science/stoneage-steve-jobs-who-invented-stone-throwing-spears-was-not-even-a-human-say-scientists/story-fnjwl2dr-1226760914934 ? (Although I'd imagine a power throw over distance is similar.)
    Can you relate the scientific abstract and lay summary more closely?
    How does what you're doing differ from the research using a 3D camera system on top baseball pitchers discussed here: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/behavior/throwing-roach-evolution-2013.html ?
    Need to have more of a feel for your unique angle on this.
    Thanks for the chance to comment and good luck with it.

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    1. The unique angle is this bit (still not popping obviously!)
      Thanks to research in sports, we know a lot about what throwing looks like when it happens. What we don’t know is how a skilled thrower produces that throw in the first place.

      This work is about control - how we choose which instance of a throw that suits the current task. The Hawks post is talking about the biomechanics stuff (very cool, but we're the next step).

      Spears and balls differ in their dynamics but the basic idea remains the same.

      I keep the two abstracts distinct mostly as a way to get more information into the proposal as a whole! It also shows I'm taking the lay version seriously; not just editing the technical version with simpler words.

      Kicking a football is next on my list! It's another example of crossing a distance by generating a projectile motion. the target affordances remain the same, but the required action is very different - very cool crossover of research here.

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  5. Andrew, building off your last comment... I'm not sure what it is, exactly, you are proposing to study. I would want to see this much more explicit (especially as an A-rank science student).

    I would cut the story in half (I actually like the somewhat arbitrary, but very familiar example). I would elaborate us much as possible on "there are so many unanswered questions from so many different disciplines (e.g. psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology)"

    Neuroscience is sexy, evolutionary biology is sexy. Nothing before that sentence told me you are doing cool and innovative neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

    Given the space, I would avoid subtlety, and make sure people know how special they are when they read it: "This situation seems simple, because your body and brain have been honed by recent evolutionary pressures to make throwing something that humans are uniquely good at. Despite our knowing quite a bit about the movements that make throwing work, we know very little about how bodies and brains interact with the world to achieve such ends, and even less about how people are so good at anticipating their efforts (i.e., by picking appropriate objects to throw in different ways).

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    1. A-level is actually the last year of UK high school, not the skill of the student :)

      I've added some detail about the research itself; a lot of that is in other parts of the application so I'm trying not to over-duplicate effort. If this was the only information people saw I would need more details, but hopefully I would have more than 2500 chars :)

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  6. Mammoths. Shorten next bit? Nowadays more about success or failure at sports. We know about throwing action itself, not what generates it. ('Produce a throw' in lay terms would still be action/result, as in a throw of 60m, but also biomech #3 http://chatt.hdsb.ca/~campanarom/FOV1-000EE03C/FOV1-000EE042/Biomechanical%20Principles%20for%20Sport%20Application.pdf?FCItemID=S0A123277
    Anyway, the info comes together in the throw. What fascinates me is it's an opportunity to unlock the secrets of an ability that captures the moment humans began to outstrip the competition. How we began to interact with our environment in a more distinctive way. What work our brains needed to be capable of. How we arrived at this stage in evolution - even supporting language development. ('Even' because you're lobbing this in from nowhere.) Interesting not just to scientists, but also, etc.
    Hope this piques you to 1 or 2 more tweaks. Actually, I prefer cricket to football.

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