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Changing gears: Cara Yin

Changing gears: Cara Yin

Physics student Cara Yin entered the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition as a fun way to challenge herself. Her presentation on her research on a new way to conduct brain surgery won her the Queen's competition and took her to the provincial and then the national competition, where she won the People's Choice award.


[photo of Cara Yin]

3MT® is a university wide competition for Queen’s Masters (thesis or research project) and doctoral students in which participants present their research and its wider impact in 3 minutes or less to a panel of non-specialist judges.

Queen's University's Cara (Chenman) Yin has won the People's Choice Award at the national competition of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT).

Ms. Yin, a master’s student in physics, captured the People's Choice Award for her presentation “Seeing the world at the tip of a laser beam,” which encapsulates her ongoing research into using lasers to cut bone and improve outcomes in brain surgery. Voting for the award was conducted online.

Watch Cara's presentation: "Seeing the world at the tip of a laser beam."

Making the win all the more impressive is that Ms. Yin is an international student, who, when she first arrived in Kingston for her undergraduate studies, spoke very little English.

In the 3MT, competitors have just three minutes and one static slide to convey their research to the judges and audience.

Having advanced through the preliminary and final rounds at Queen’s 3MT competition, as well as the provincials, before reaching the national competition, Ms. Yin says she entered the 3MT as a fun challenge for herself. Although she says she was nervous to begin with, she gained strength and refined her presentation with each round.

“By the time of the Queen's finals, I was more confident about what I had to say in that three minutes. And I am very lucky to have family, friends and the Queen's physics department to cheer me on which really calmed me,” she says. “For the Ontario final, I really wanted to do well because I am not just representing myself but also Queen's. Queen's School of Graduate Studies helped me prep for the provincial competition which was extremely valuable.”

Judging for the national competition was based on videos of the presentations at the provincial competition.

Her accomplishment is also being lauded by the university.

“We are delighted that Cara has been recognized with the People’s Choice Award in the Canadian Three Minute Thesis competition. She represented Queen’s University brilliantly with her clear, informative and engaging presentation that landed her the majority of the more than 2,000 votes submitted from across the country,” says Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean, School of Graduate Studies. “ In three minutes Cara has educated many people about how lasers may be used as a neurosurgical tool with the potential to improve outcomes and she has provided a glimpse into the incredible research that our graduate students are doing.”  

Ms. Yin is grateful for the support she received from the Queen’s community and beyond.

“Winning the national People's Choice Award was a nice surprise. I should thank those who used social media like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word,” she says. “I am very grateful for the whole 3MT experience and highly encourage other graduate students to participate in future years.” 

First place went to Elizabeth Watt, a physics and astronomy student from University of Calgary, while second went to Rebecca (Delong) Dielschneider who is studying immunology at the University of Manitoba.

The announcement of the results and videos of all 11 presentations can be viewed at the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies website.

Learn more about Cara and her research:

This story was originally published on the School of Graduate Studies website in April 2015. Used by permission.

by Sharday Mosurinjohn

Chenman (Cara) Yin is a physicist’s physicist – she switched from astrophysics, the program for which she’d come from China, to engineering physics because the former was too “remote from reality” for someone who is more motivated “by solving hands-on problems.” In exploring the hardest of the hard sciences, she wound up working with an equally hard material, bone. In her Master of Applied Science under the supervision of Dr. James Fraser, Yin is researching how to use lasers to cut bone in hopes of making procedures like brain surgery safer. Her presentation of this research for Queen’s 2015 Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition won her first place and a spot at the provincial competition to be held at Western University later this month.

The laser cutting technique, which lets you measure and control the depth of the cut in real time, is extremely precise, more so than even the steadiest surgeon. This is because a laser – which, you may not realize is actually an acronym standing for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” – amplifies incoming light through a pair of mirrors and the “gain medium,” which can be an orderly crystal or even a gas like carbon dioxide. The amplified light is of a single frequency (or colour) and can be focused very tightly by a lens to generate a high energy beam to cut material. An incredible side effect is that the imaging light scatters into the surrounding tissue, which, once close to the threshold between the skull and the brain, also lets the operator see where that delicate brain tissue starts in order to protect it. The laser is controlled by a computer program that allows you to program the depth of your cut down to the micron.

For her 3MT visual, Yin showed an image of bone – a piece of a cow’s tailbone procured from the grocery store – incised with the Queen’s logo. What it took was to change the insignia into a black and white image and then to tell the computer that the black parts should be, say, one millimeter deep while the white parts should be zero millimeter deep – an exceptionally planned version of intaglio techniques used by engravers and printmakers for ages, with a few extra safety precautions. In the Fraser lab, users of the high-powered industrial laser stand outside an enclosure to observe the beam doing its work, entry to which would cause the machine to shut off automatically and immediately.

Yin had already manufactured the creative visual demonstration for a recent conference in San Francisco, but there she had ten times the time to explain how she did it. “It was mostly a process of taking out jargon,” as she describes the work of paring down from thirty minutes to three. That refinement was due in large part to a little help from her friends. Everyone’s presentation style is different and Yin found hers meant that she “needed to prepare exact words, or else [she] would tend to mumble or go into too much detail.” The biggest change she made from the heats to the Queen’s finals was to stop rocking back and forth as she spoke. “The camera really accentuated it,” she groans with good humour about her performance. And let that be a word of advice to future competitors: you may have to make a trade-off between self soothing and audience distracting.

Throughout her time at Queen’s another source of advice and support has been the mentorship of the recently late Dr. Geoffrey Lockwood, former Chair of the Engineering Physics program. “He influenced me a lot and he gave me so much help,” Yin explains. “When students switch into the Engineering Physics program they usually have to take an extra year to catch up on the necessary material,” but she says that “Dr. Lockwood kept encouraging me that I could do it in four years if I work hard, and I did.” Courses with Lockwood were also a source of inspiration, and Yin hoped to work with him in her graduate degree until he was diagnosed with brain cancer and sadly passed away this February. “He lived an incredible life and touched so many students with his teaching. He is deeply missed,” Yin adds. Looking back, she says with immense fondness, “my undergraduate education really changed who I am.” And the experience made her passionate about the research she is doing now, whose medical applications might one day make a difference in the prognosis of someone like Lockwood.

Yin herself also gives back for the sake of science and the students who love it. This year the torch is passed to her and her colleagues to represent Queen’s physics department at Kingston’s annual Science Rendezvous, where she will be delighting school kids (and their parents, no doubt) by using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream right before their eyes. (In case you’re wondering, you can pour liquid nitrogen directly onto the milk, sugar, and other good stuff, and they freeze because liquid nitrogen vaporizes rapidly at room temperature, taking away a lot of heat from the mixture). Yin also helps organize the condensed matter physics group weekly seminar series, which brings in scholars for a one-hour talk so that labs get a sense of what’s going on elsewhere and graduate students get a chance to network. Sometimes it even seeds collaborations.

Aside from all this, Yin is an avid basketball player, having played on Queen’s intramural women’s team for the past four years (“everyone I started with has graduated and gone!” she laments). This year she joined badminton, which she sees as a great way to get some physical activity without having to get a team together.

Fellow sports enthusiast and champion of all that is 3MT, the SGS’ Colette Steer will accompany Yin to the 3MT provincials. The story of her work and her slide will stay the same, but certain wording emphasis will change on the recommendation of Steer and Associate Dean Sandra Den Otter, who helped her analyze the playback of her winning performance. Looking ahead to the next competition, Yin remarks that 3MT has made her a lot more confident. The difference is merely having expressed the ideas out loud and seeing them met with nods rather than rotten tomatoes. “Now I know that people like it and they can get it.” With Steer as well as her best friend beside her for the next round, Yin is sure to have more than a few fans.

[cover - Queen's Alumni Review Digital Special Edition Fall 2015]