Three minutes is a little bit longer than the average traffic light. Next time you are stopped at a red light, imagine explaining your life’s work to the driver in the next car before the light turns green. If you can do it, you’re ready for the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.
The premise is exactly what the name implies; competitors, who are all doctoral candidates, have three minutes to explain their research to a general audience. In addition to the challenging time limit, presenters are allowed only one slide. 3MT originated at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, and is now held in more than 200 universities around the world, including Stony Brook. On April 6, the final round of the university’s 2022 competition was held virtually. Eight finalists squared off after making it through a preliminary round featuring an eclectic series of 180-second presentations ranging from neuroscience and chemistry to philosophy and music.
“3MT is a competition, but our focus here is really about professional development,” said Kathleen Flint Ehm, assistant dean for graduate and postdoctoral initiatives in the Graduate School at Stony Brook. “It’s about the core transferable skills that are essential competencies all of our scholars will need in the world no matter what career path they settle upon after they leave Stony Brook.”
The goal of 3MT is to help develop presentation, research and academic communication skills so students can explain their work effectively. It’s open to all doctoral students, and challenges participants to concisely present their research in an engaging form that can be understood by an intelligent audience with no background in the research area. As part of the competition, Stony Brook provides cohort-based training and coaching sessions. These sessions leverage another unique resource at Stony Brook, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Ehm, who also teaches for the Alda Center, leads the multi-disciplinary training and grounds it in the pedagogy of research communication.
Alfredo Fontanini, vice provost for research and infrastructure at Stony Brook, said that while communication is a fundamental skill that every scientist needs, many programs are not equipped to develop those skills.
“I’ve always been a great fan of the 3MT program,” said Fontanini. “It’s great to listen to students from all these fields presenting their research in a clear, passionate and approachable way. It reconnects me with all that is great about research and scholarly communities and brings back the enthusiasm that I have. As scientists, researchers and scholars, we spend our lives mining for new knowledge in the pursuit of new discoveries. But as important as those new discoveries are, it’s just as important to communicate those discoveries.”
Derek Pope, a PhD student in the Science/STEM Education program, took top honors with a presentation titled “Imagine Actually Understanding Math: Student Teachers’ Beliefs About How Math Should Be Taught,” which explored more effective methods of teaching mathematics.
“I’m a high school mathematics teacher and also an adjunct professor at Stony Brook, working with undergrad and graduate students who want to become teachers,” said Pope. “I’ve seen firsthand how an emphasis on memorization and procedures has left many students with a distaste for mathematics and kept them from truly understanding and appreciating it. I’ve also seen that it doesn’t have to be this way; mathematics can actually make sense. Based on the work I’ve done at Stony Brook with preservice teachers, I wanted to learn more about how teachers learn to teach, and how their beliefs about mathematics and how it should be taught change.”
Pope said that his early drafts were way too long, and it took several revisions to get under the three-minute mark.
“I practiced a lot,” he said. “At our meetings, the feedback I got was very helpful, and hearing my peers’ presentations also helped me craft my talk so that it would be engaging and drive home the point I wanted to make about my research. I gained confidence, and I learned how to speak and write more succinctly and without discipline-specific jargon.”
As winner, Pope will represent Stony Brook in the northeastern regional competition hosted by the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools on April 28.
Xinan Chen, a PhD student from Applied Mathematics and Statistics, was runner-up and also named the “People’s Choice” winner for her presentation titled “How Do Neuro-Degenerative Diseases Affect Our Brain?”
Chen said that since her PhD research has been published, preparing the content for her 3MT presentation was relatively straightforward. However, the knowledge she gained throughout the process proved invaluable.
“The key point for me was learning how to use plain words to describe my research so that everyone can understand it and even relate it to themselves,” she said. “Another important thing is to create an interesting and easy-to-understand picture in the presentation slide to help the audience.”
Chen, who paints as a hobby, drew the slide herself and conducted mock presentations to hone her message.
“The most important thing to me was practice, practice and practice,” she said. “I realized how fascinating it is to introduce my research to others. Before when I was asked what my research is, I was unorganized in my language and people always ended up puzzled. Now I am much more confident and can quickly get to the point without using jargon.”
Farzana Ali, a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, took third place for her presentation “Let Your Watch Pick Your Medicine,” which explored the possibility of leveraging smartwatches for mental health diagnoses and treatment.
“My initial presentation focused on the parts that I deemed significant, but through training, I understood the need for emphasizing the aspects that are more meaningful to my audience,” she said. “We got personalized feedback in a stress-free environment that opened up an excellent avenue for our growth as science communicators. I have gained more confidence in my ability to convey the meaning of my work to a broader audience. But more importantly, I have gained a deeper understanding of how we can make our work more useful through effective communication and grow together as a community.”
The Graduate School’s Flint Ehm added that one of the benefits of conducting the event in a virtual space is that it builds an additional modern world skill.
“Increasingly, our scholars are going to be called upon to give remote talks, webinars and have Zoom interviews for various jobs that they might be pursuing,” she said. “3MT is positioned as a competition, but in the end, I think what the participants will take away from this is real-world experience.”
— Robert Emproto