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Communication Takes Center Stage at 3MT Challenge

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3mt 24 winners
Winners from the 2024 Three-Minute Thesis competition (left to right): Shoumik Saha (third place), Catherine Feldman (first place), Ashley Barry (second place) and Laiba Bilal (people’s choice). Photos by John Griffin.

The need to effectively communicate knowledge to a general audience is more important today than ever. That importance becomes even more amplified when you’re talking about complex subject matter.

Such is the nature of the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT), an event designed to help advanced students develop their presentation, research and academic communication skills to explain their work more effectively to general audiences.

Originating at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, 3MT is now held in more than 200 universities around the world. On March 8, 15 doctoral candidates took the stage in Stony Brook’s Charles B. Wang Center and had three minutes to explain their research to a general audience — using only one slide.

“The 3MT challenge is an opportunity to celebrate the incredible research being done by our doctoral students,” said Celia Marshik, dean of the Graduate School. “It also gives us an opportunity to train students and provide professional development on how to take specialized and highly technical work and make it make sense to a general audience.”

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Catherine Feldman

This year’s winner was Catherine Feldman, a doctoral student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Her presentation, “FLASH Photography: Exploding Stars on Computers,” explained the importance of recreating the reactions that occur on stars on computers to help solve future real-world challenges.

“In the beginning it was hard to accept that what other people think is cool about my research isn’t necessarily the part that I think is cool,” Feldman said. “We all have this struggle because we are all fascinated with our own research. I kept changing my talk until at one point, it didn’t sound like me anymore and I cried right on stage in front of everyone at our practice session.”

While she said that experience was mortifying, she credited the support and encouragement of everyone who worked with her for helping her develop a draft she was happy with.

“I loved the practice sessions and really looked forward to sharing each new draft because I knew that it would be even better afterwards,” she said. “For me, 3MT turned into a larger challenge of explaining why basic science research is so important.”

Feldman, who also earned her undergraduate degree at Stony Brook, will go on to represent Stony Brook at the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools’ regional 3MT competition at the University of New Hampshire on April 26. She will defend her thesis in May and then begin her post-doctoral work at MIT Lincoln Lab in Lexington, MA, a United States Department of Defense research center chartered to apply advanced technology to problems of national security.

Feldman credited her advisor Alan Calder, a professor in the Astronomy Group within the Department of Physics and Astronomy, for encouraging her work and her excitement for her project, and thanked her 3MT mentors and fellow competitors for their support and feedback.

“We all worked really hard to showcase our work, and it was wonderful to feel like part of a team, even though it’s a competition.”

Ashley Barry, a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, was the runner-up with “’Madness’ in the Movies,” which explored the historical portrayal of mental illness in movies.

“This experience has been fulfilling,” said Barry. “Being the only humanities participant has been really interesting because I see the fundamentals of science communication and what kind of principles I can transfer over to humanities.”

Barry said being in the humanities had both advantages and disadvantages.

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Laiba Bilal

“People may be more familiar with the work because I study film, but getting them to see the academic rigor of it is another challenge entirely,” she said. “We’ve been working with the Alda Center and that’s been really useful to figure out the audience and rhetorical goals of conveying my research. I had to think about the research outside of the academy, how you want it to hit people, and what you want them thinking about as they leave the room.”

Laiba Bilal, a PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, was voted “People’s Choice” winner for her presentation, “Unlocking Xenon’s Superpowers.”

“In the beginning it was scary and we were using a lot of jargon,” said Bilal. “But after we presented it and got feedback it completely changed the idea of how it has to be done. We initially thought of it as just another regular presentation of what we do, but this is a completely different thing.”

Bilal said that while doctoral students explain their work often, it’s a struggle trying to explain that work to kids, which highlights the need to simplify the message.

“I have three daughters including one in third grade, and now she can also understand what I’m doing,” she said. “I was rehearsing in front of her and finally she said, ‘okay, now I understand the story.’”

“This event is really about professional development,” said Molly Lotz, director of Research Training Initiatives in the Graduate School. “Yes, there are prizes that will be won. But regardless of how the scoring goes, all of the speakers have already developed their research communication skills in order to reach a broad audience through their work. It’s a unique opportunity for Stony Brook to showcase the in-house skills we develop among our graduate students and communication — valuable skills that will aid them in becoming the next generation of scholars, teachers, leaders, innovators, and advocates for research.”

“These skills will serve them well throughout their careers,” added Marshik. “No matter what they do after leaving Stony Brook, whether they go into industry, nonprofits, or academia, being able to talk about this research in layman’s terms will help them and the wider community that we all serve.”

— Robert Emproto

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