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Your Life’s Work in 180 Seconds: The 3MT Challenge

3mt 2023 finalists
3mt 2023 kling
Katherine Kling took top honors in the 2023 3MT competition with a presentation titled “Paradise Lost in Madagascar?” Photos by John Griffin.

It will take the average reader about six minutes to read this story. If you were reading it during the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, not one, but two doctoral students would be challenged with describing the importance of their academic pursuits before you got to the end.

Such is the nature of 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.

Fourteen Stony Brook University doctoral candidates squared off in the Charles B. Wang Center on April 5 as the university’s 2023 competition returned to an in-person format for the first time in three years. Competitors have three minutes to explain their research to a general audience. In addition to the time limit, presenters are allowed only one slide.

Originating at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, 3MT is now held in more than 200 universities around the world.

3mt 2023 finalists
Fourteen Stony Brook University doctoral candidates squared off in the Charles B. Wang Center on April 5 in the 3MT competition.

“3MT is technically a competition, but at the end of the day our goal is about professional development,” said Kathleen Flint Ehm, assistant dean for graduate and postdoctoral initiatives at the SBU Graduate School. “We hope this process helps our participants build their communication skills so they are able to talk about their work and its importance to any audience wherever they go. Not just at Stony Brook, but in every step that they take.”

Executive Vice President and Provost Carl Lejuez described the event as “an important part of our commitment to graduate education, to professional development, and everything it means to have a vibrant, strong, and supported set of graduate programs.”

“It’s hard to be short and accessible, and that is everything that we’re doing here,” Lejuez said in his remarks. “What’s great about this event is that you’re working on one of the most critical skills as a researcher; the ability to be clear about what it is you want to communicate and the ability to do it in a way that’s concise and readily understandable to people who can take a lot from the work you do.”

Competitors presented in a first round comprising two groups of seven, and judges scored the presentations based on comprehension and content, and engagement and communication. The top eight scores then squared off in a final round.

Katherine Kling, a PhD student in the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences (IDPAS), took top honors with a presentation titled “Paradise Lost in Madagascar?” which explored how rural communities in northeastern Madagascar use wild plants and what consequences that has on the environment.

“I touched upon two chapters of my dissertation for this competition,” said Kling. “For my three minutes, I really wanted to focus on what — if anything — people may have heard about the people of Madagascar and to ask my audience to think a bit critically about the treatment people who use natural resources for subsistence often receive.”

Kling said she spent a lot of time editing and reworking to get it down to three minutes.

3mt 2023 audience“I learned how helpful it is to have people from outside my field listen, provide feedback, and tell me what it is they think I’m trying to say,” she said. “I wanted to share so many little details, but ultimately it was much more important to step back and see how an audience could relate to that bigger point. The biggest challenge by far was keeping it to three minutes.”

Kling will represent Stony Brook in the Northeastern regional competition hosted by the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools on April 28.

Kaushik Londhe, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering, was the runner-up with, “Can radiation solve our drinking water problem?”

“It’s a great feeling to be one of the winners, especially considering how competitive the final round was,” said Londhe. “3MT is such an interesting competition that being able to connect with a general audience while explaining your PhD work in three minutes and then winning a prize does make me feel that my work is impactful and relatable.”

Samantha Chen, a PhD student in Integrative Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology, was second runner-up and was also named the “People’s Choice” winner for her presentation, “How the Aging Brain Processes Loneliness.”

“Loneliness and social isolation have attracted a lot of attention since the pandemic, which pushed the whole world to talk about social isolation and loneliness,” Chen said. “I hope this keeps awareness going and helps to prevent its negative effects.”

Chen has taken science communication courses offered by the Alda Center for Communicating Science, something she recommends for all graduate students.

“They always emphasized that if your work cannot reach a broader audience, how can you convince people that you’re doing important work?” said Chen. “It turned my academic mindset upside down. My biggest challenge was to squeeze several years of work into such a short time without losing important details that are fundamental parts of my work.”

“Every year we see evidence of this Stony Brook principle, that research communication is fundamental, and each year the caliber of the talks gets better and better,” said Ehm. “These are the skills that you’re going to use to talk to your families, to your deans, to your funders, or wherever your next career step may take you. These are the skills that are going to help you no matter where you go after Stony Brook.”

— Robert Emproto



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