Carnegie Mellon University
April 13, 2015

Three Minute Thesis

Three Minute Thesis

Garrett Stack's single 3MT slide, "Damming the Romantics"

Describe more than a year's worth of in-depth, doctoral research. Make it understandable, compelling and engage a non-specialist audience — and do it in only three minutes.

Scores of Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. students did just that as part of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. 
This is the second year that CMU has taken part in the international event. Begun at University of Queensland in 2008, it quickly expanded to hundreds of universities in more than 18 countries.

3MT was brought to CMU by Keith Webster, Dean of Libraries.

"I saw the impact 3MT had at the University of Queensland," explained Webster, who while Dean of Libraries there, had been heavily involved in working with the participants.

"It was an opportunity for students to strengthen their communication skills and a vehicle to showcase the breadth and depth of talent amongst early career researchers," he added. "Carnegie Mellon has an incredibly talented Ph.D. student pool, and 3MT was a logical choice."

At CMU, all doctoral students are eligible, even if they've entered in prior years. Adding to the challenge — contestants are allowed just one static slide. No animation, no props, no video.

Participants from departments across the university competed in the preliminary heats of this year's event with 11 reaching the finals. A panel of judges selected first, second and third place while the audience chose a People's Choice winner. All winners received cash prizes up to $3,000 supporting research or travel.

The judging criteria weighed comprehension and content as well as engagement and communication — was it too trivialized? Or was it presented in a way that consolidated their ideas, crystallized their research and captured the imagination of their audience. 

The students represented a cross section of disciplines from engineering and the biological sciences, to computer science and English. Presentations ran the gamut, from power system reliability under the threat of climate change to new statistical methodology reducing search error and from collaborative music performance via machine learning to the use of sensors that economically protect our infrastructure.

Annie Arnold"The competition is a great way to begin thinking about how you are going to talk about your research," said Garrett Stack, a third year Ph.D. student in Rhetoric in the English department and one of the 11 finalists in the competition. And communicating that work in ways other than the traditional conference paper is becoming increasingly important, says his advisor Barbara Johnstone, professor of English and Linguistics.

Stack presented "Damming the Romantics," examining the transition in arguments for public support from 'Romantic,' or commonly-used themes, to more complex tactics.

"I was very excited to participate in the 3MT competition," said First Place Winner Annie Arnold, who is working to develop a biodegradable bone implant using modified graphene — essentially pencil lead. Unlike a permanent device, this implant would degrade over time while promoting new bone tissue to replace itself.

"When I tell people that I study chemistry, the most common response is a strange look accompanied by how much they disliked the subject when they were forced to take it," Arnold explained. "The 3MT competition gave me the opportunity to not only share how exciting my research is, but also to convey that chemistry is fun, exciting and has the capability to really help people."

It looks like she — and the others — succeeded.

The 2015 Three Minute Thesis Winners were:

  • First Place: Annie Arnold, Chemistry: Modified graphene: Biodegradable bone implants
  • Second Place: Michael Craig, Engineering & Public Policy: Keeping the lights on: Power systems, water and climate change
  • Third Place: Sam Ventura, Statistics: Solving the identity crisis
  • People's Choice: Vincent DeGeorge, Materials Science & Engineering: Tomorrow's electricity: Stadium or lawn seating?

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