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Writing Abstracts and Summaries

Many conferences and grants will request an abstract or summary of your work. Abstracts are brief but comprehensive summaries of work that will be performed or presented later. Here are some general tips, followed by some examples for specific types of abstracts.

Tips for Writing a Good Abstract

  • Talk it out first: describe your work briefly to a friend who is unfamiliar with what you’ve done. Listen to what you say and jot down notes. This will help you determine what details are essential.
  • Use an outline of your presentation as the framework of your abstract. This will help you present information in a logical order.
  • Don’t include information that will not appear your presentation.
  • Define all abbreviations, acronyms, and unique terms.
  • Be brief. Remember, you’re usually limited to 300 words or event less.
  • Use past tense to describe methods performed and present tense to describe purpose of the study, the results, and the conclusion.
  • Make sure that your faculty mentor looks over your abstract before it is submitted. It’s often a good idea to have someone else, like a friend or fellow student, read it too.
  • Be sure that your abstract can be understood by a non-specialist!

For Performances or Exhibits

Provide a brief description of the work to be performed or exhibited in the form of a program note. Please make sure that your faculty mentor looks over your description before it is submitted. Here is an example of what program notes or a summary of a performance might look like:

Title: Variations and Transformations
Summary: Variations have frequently been written by instrumentalists as vehicles for their own virtuosity. The works featured on this program however were all written by important composers who were not themselves cellists, but each with a particular performer in mind. The results are works of substance, yet rich with cellistic personality. These composers also reveal some affinity or homage in their choice of theme or model, yet they develop and transform the borrowed material in their own special language. I find this interplay of “old” and “new” especially fascinating in our age of “historical awareness”.
(by Brent Wissick; used with permission)

For Posters and Platform Talks

Abstracts of research presented as a talk or poster should contain the following elements:

  1. Purpose of the study
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experimental approach
  4. Summary of the results
  5. Conclusion and implications

It is easy to make your abstract too complicated or technical. Here is an example provided by Prof. Garon Smith, U. Montana, of how a complicated abstract can be rewritten for clarity.

Example of an abstract that is too technical:
Title: Utilizing Three-Dimensional Fluorescence’s Red-Shift Cascade Effect to Monitor Mycobacterium PRY-1 Degradation of Aged Petroleum
Samples of Mycobacterium PRY-1 inoculated motor oil are subjected to three-dimensional fluorescence spectroscopy to document the shifting of excitation/ emission maxima as the solutions undergo serial dilutions. Effects such as self-quenching of individual polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and energy transfer between PAHs combine to produce large red-shifts in the resulting fluorescence emission spectra. This process is repeated over a series of weeks and is compared to preceding spectra to gauge the microbial degradation of the petroleum. Results show a two-fold, or 75%, PAH contaminant degradation by Mycobacterium PRY-1 over a 140-day growth period.

Revised so that non-specialists can understand it:
Title: Cleaning Up Oil Spills with the Right Microbe – Mycobacterium PRY-1
An undesirable by-product of fossil fuel use is the release of toxic substances when environmental spills occur. Luckily, some soil organisms can digest these compounds and render them harmless. This study demonstrates how a specific microbe, Mycobacterium PRY-1, can rid the soil of toxic components in oil spills. Petroleum contains many harmful fused-ring molecules (polycyclic aromatic hydro-carbons or PAHs) that give off a characteristic fluorescent glow when illuminated with ultraviolet light. The nature of the fluorescence changes as oil ages or is diluted. It creates a 4-dimensional fingerprint and allows a sample’s toxicity to be evaluated. Our results show that the microbe removed 75% of the toxic compounds in 140 days.