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Three Minute Thesis: Analogies vs. Technobabble

Yi zheng

“How Do We Understand Foreign Accents?” wins the third 3MT competition at Stony Brook University

Research is teeming with technobabble. There are thousands of words that make perfect sense to a specialist, but no sense to an average person.

Yi Zheng, first-place winner of the 2018 3MT competition and a PhD candidate in Psychology, talks about our ability to process language and accents (photo by Taylor Ha) 
Yi Zheng, first-place winner of the 2018 3MT competition and a PhD candidate in Psychology, talks about our ability to process language and accents (photo by Taylor Ha).

“The public and our policymakers don’t understand academic research very well. It’s a fact,” said Charles Taber, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education at Stony Brook University. “And much of the responsibility for that unfortunate fact is ours.”

“There’s a way to break through the technobabble,” said Taber. “Be vivid. Be exciting. Get to the point.” And that’s exactly what 17 Stony Brook University graduate students did last week.

Students competed in SBU’s third Three Minute Thesis competition, an international program founded at the University of Queensland in Australia. The event was created to teach doctoral candidates how to explain their research to any person. The catch: They only have three minutes to do it.

Rap, poems and songs were forbidden at the event, held on April 13 at the Charles B. Wang Center on campus. So were props and plastic models. The students had only their words, their wits and a single, static PowerPoint slide.

Their research topics were diverse: Uber’s introduction to the NYC taxicab market, the invisible victims of the opioid epidemic, the point of alternative medicine. But each student found ways to connect with their audience.

“Have you ever had diarrhea?” asked Joanna Kim, a PhD candidate in Pharmacological Sciences.

“How many of you didn’t get enough sleep last night?” said Anusha Shankar, the third-place winner and a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolution.

“How many of us have tried to do regular exercise and stick to a healthy diet – but failed?” asked Vihitaben Patel, a PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering.

They tried to resonate with the audience with their only tangible tool – their PowerPoint slide. Barbara J. Brennan from the Social Work PhD program, whose project was called “Siblings: The Hidden Casualties of the Opioid Epidemic,” showed a snapshot of a heroin overdose victim and his sister. Others leaned toward comedy, like Vihitaben Patel and her picture of an overweight mouse from the Pixar movie Ratatouille.

Additionally, they all used conversational language that could be found in children’s textbooks – analogies that tugged at each audience member’s imagination. One contestant explained that the smallest hummingbird is about the weight of a dime, while another described the small intestine as a six-meter long tube with a surface area of 330 square feet, which was half the size of the lecture hall they stood in.

“At this point, when you are ready to compete, I think the most important thing is to be connected to the audience,” said Zoya Vallari, PhD candidate in Physics and Astronomy, the winner from last year’s 3MT competition and a judge for this year’s contest. “Don’t try to memorize every single thing. The important thing is to be present.”

A panel of judges evaluated each competitor in two categories: 1) Comprehension and content, and 2) engagement and communication. The judges included faculty, staff, alumni, graduate students and postdocs. The competitors with the top eight scores from Round 1 advanced to the final round and competed for the top three spots, as well as a People’s Choice Award voted by the audience.

The first-place winner and People’s Choice Award winner was Yi Zheng, a PhD candidate in Psychology who spoke about “How Do We Understand Foreign Accents?” The runner-up was Molly Graffam, a PhD candidate for the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, for her project “Nitrogen – Public Water Enemy #1.” The third-place winner was Anusha Shankar for her project “The Surprising Secrets of Sleeping Hummingbirds.” They won $850, $500 and $250, respectively, through prizes provided by the Alumni Association.

Zheng is investigating how our brains process language. Even the most sophisticated machines like Siri and Alexa can misunderstand us, said Zheng, who speaks with a slight Mandarin accent. So why and how do humans get better at understanding accents?

She advises students to seek training from SBU’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which helped her and the other graduate students prepare for the competition. Founded in 2009, the Center helps people convey complex research topics in clear, colorful, and engaging ways.

“They should walk away believing that all the scientific topics – there’s a way to talk about them in a very easy way that everyone can understand,” said Zheng.

SBU 3MT 2018 was jointly organized by Graduate and Postdoctoral Professional Development, the Career Center and the Graduate Student Organization, with additional support from the Alumni Association, the Center for Inclusive Education and the Graduate Career Association.

Taylor Ha

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