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Science in Mind

Summing up a thesis in one snarky line

About a month ago, a Harvard University senior started the equivalent of an academic online confession booth: a collection of one-sentence snarky summaries of their theses.

The blog, LOLmythesis, is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the futility and incrementalism that can seem to be at the root of a project that has basically co-opted a person’s life. Called “LOLmythesis,” for laugh-out-loud my thesis, it has become a legitimate meme, drawing entries from sarcastic thesis students from universities across the world.

Harvard senior Angie Frankel told the origin story of LOLmythesis on National Public Radio , explaining that “I have killed so many fish” sometimes just feels much more accurate than the true title of her thesis, “Characterizing the Role of [A Specific Gene] in Second Heart Field Progenitor Cells — A Close Look at Zebrafish Embryonic Cardiogenesis.”

Here are a couple of fun entries from local universities:

“Because human babies are lame and can’t do anything for themselves, the only ones that survived were those who could manipulate others into taking care of them, turns out we’ve been manipulating each other ever since.” — Biological and Cultural Anthropology, Boston University

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“Rocks that are next to each other in Massachusetts now were also next to each other 400 million years ago.”

— Geology, Amherst College

“A newly discovered worm protein does the same thing as a more well-known worm protein.” — Biology, MIT

“Almost breaking a million-dollar machine, in order to measure the strength of crab claw shell to the 0.001 k/N.”

— Biology, Smith College

“Online ads that claim you are the 100,000th visitor are surprisingly effective.”

— Computer Science, Harvard

“People reach faster and straighter to [take] pictures of cake than pictures of vegetables.”

— Cognitive Neuroscience, Brown University

Last year, right around this time, another Twitter meme took off, in much the same vein: tweets hash-tagged #overlyhonestmethods that showcased a funny and often cynical take on how science unfolds in the lab.

I love this type of humor. It is funny, it showcases the personalities of academics, and it lets people blow off a little steam during the serious pursuit of the answer to a question.

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To discover something new, researchers often have to spend a lot of time working on projects that many of their friends and families simply do not understand or care about. This website gives people a kind of common ground. And even though the projects can sound — when snarkily summed up — incredibly trivial, it is only by asking specific questions and doing experiments that scholars can learn new things.

It is also interesting for another reason: Woven into these kinds of jokes are occasional critiques of the incentive systems for research, or a subtle dig at the way a field moves forward that is worth taking seriously.

But mostly, they just make you chuckle.

“Turns out my 3 years of research made zero ripples in reproductive biology. But spending 3 years researching bull sperm serves as a great first date and bar topic.”

— Reproductive Biology & Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University


Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.