Three Minute Thesis: Encouraging cross-disciplinary communication and competitive camaraderie
by Christine Elie
At 9:30 am on April 30, 2012, nine finalists for the Three Minute Thesis competition anxiously awaited as their final presentations fast approached. It was the culmination of months of planning. Briefed on the technicalities of their presentations, Colette Steer, coordinator in charge of recruitment activities, reminds the participants to “Have fun, you’ve done all the hard parts to get here, so remember to have fun.”
The competition brought together Graduate students from a variety of disciplines all charged with the same challenge: to condense their graduate work into a presentation that must remain under only three minutes. Armed with just one static slide to assist in their presentations, they were judged on communication style, comprehension, and engagement. The judges were Bhavana Varma – President of United Way KFL&A; Former Speaker of the House of Commons and MP and current Fellow in the School of Policy Studies Peter Milliken; and Principal and Vice Chancellor Daniel Woolf. As the room quieted down, Principal Woolf introduced himself to each of the finalists and told them he was looking forward to their presentations.
Adapted from a program developed by The University of Queensland in 2008, Queen’s University is the first in Ontario to host a Three Minute Thesis competition. With the stated goal of promoting effective communication of research, the Three Minute Thesis also allows graduate students to distil their research into a clear form. The challenge in this regard is neither to over-simplify nor over-complicate their work – they must highlight the wider implication of their research in a clear and concise manner.
Jennifer Campbell, Doctoral candidate in Engineering Physics took home both First Place and the People’s Choice Award for her presentation “Nanocantilevers: a new tool for medical diagnostics.” Looking at the potential contribution of nanocantilevers in analyzing patient’s breath to diagnose various ailments, Campbell’s presentation began with reference to her own childhood fear of injections. Her cutting edge work in understanding the movements of the nanocantilever was both engaging and intriguing, and surprisingly understandable to the untrained ear. Of the experience, Campbell said it was “stressful but enjoyable, it was fun trying to figure out how to relate to everybody.” Condensing her complicated work was helpful in her ability to communicate to those outside her field; she claims that this experience was “important for the next stage of my life.“.
Biology student Ann Mckellar was the runner up with her presentation “How will climate change affect migratory birds.” It looked at the implications of weather conditions thousands of kilometers from here on migration to our region. As a transnational study of migration patterns, Mckellar looked at the impact of climate change on the reproduction and survival of certain species of birds. Mckellar, who is in her final year of her doctorate, said that she found the experience rewarding: “it was really fun to meet all these people from different disciplines.”
From Left to Right: Judges with our winners; Anne McKellar - Runner Up & Jennifer Campbell - Winner; Our finalists
Judges: Dr Steven Liss, Mr Peter Milliken, Ms Bhavana Varma & Principal Daniel Woolf
Finalists: Brandon Tozzo (Political Studies), Jun Liu (Biology), James MacLeod (Pathology & Molecular Medicine), Dana Knarr (Education), Charla Gray (Rehabilitation Science), Sylvia Bawa (Sociology), Ann McKellar (Biology), Jennifer Campbell (Engineering Physics) & Xu Han (Biology)
The final round was preceded by three heats of competition, which took place over the month of April. They had the same format as the final, and saw the competitors cut down from approximately sixty to the final nine. When asked how the final compared to her experience in the previous heats, Sociology student Sylvia Bawa claimed she enjoyed the first heat more, as there was “a lot less pressure”. While many shared her view, Pathology and Molecular Medicine student James MacLeod thought the final was less stressful than the previous round. He felt “less stressed this time, you know now that you can do it.”
While some admitted to being nervous immediately before their presentation, all were impressively confident and eloquent when the three minute clock began to count down. The experience allowed audience and participants alike to see the breadth and depth of work being conducted at Queen’s University – a relatively rare occurrence in the sometimes incubated world of graduate studies. While several competitors expressed this, they were also fast to underline the importance of hearing what others thought of their work. Biology student Xu Han proclaimed, “it’s good to have the opportunity to show our research to the public outside of our field.” This was reaffirmed by James MacLeod who believes that in graduate programs, there is a tendency to speak to only others in your field; he argues that one of the best rewards of this competition is that it “makes you think about your research in different terms. It allows you to see how other people think you sound, what they say you are doing.”
As part of the judging criteria for the competition, communication style included the elimination of technical and specialist jargon. The competitors were charged with the task of making their technical and complicated work accessible to a large and varied audience. This was undeniably one of the more challenging aspects of the competition. Runner up Ann Mckellar claims that it was in this process that she found herself “simplifying down more that I thought I would”. The ability of communicate to an audience who are new to the subject was one of the more significant challenges for presenters. Jennifer Campbell saw this aspect of the competition as helpful to her familial relations: she claimed that “while practicing with my family on the phone, my Mom said ‘Wow, that’s really interesting! Now I know what you’re working on!’” Peter Milliken, who was one of the judges, highlighted how useful the competition could be in showcasing student research to the broader Kingston public and underscoring the value of this research.
Newly elected SGPS President Matthew Scribner believes that the Three Minute Thesis is an important event, claiming that it is “great that this is happening. It is getting people interested in these ideas.” The encouragement for the competition was felt by spectators and participants alike. As Sylvia Bawa commented, “Even if it wasn’t a competition, Queen’s should encourage this.” Hopefully this inaugural year will mark the beginning of an annual competition encouraging cross-disciplinary communication and competitive camaraderie.
Vice Provost & Dean, School of Graduate Studies,
Dr Brenda Brouwer with the 3MT cake!