Carnegie Mellon University
March 29, 2017

Short and Simple Is Key in Three Minute Thesis Competition

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By Heidi Opdyke

This story was updated at 4 p.m., April 5.

Through Carnegie Mellon University's Three Minute Thesis competition audience members explored 10 different research topics in a very quick fashion.

First place went to Diane Nelson, who is studying biomedical engineering. Second place and the People's Choice Award went to Surya Aggarwal, Mellon College of Science. Third place went to Ania Jaroszewicz, from the Department of Social and Decision Sciences. The Alumni Choice Award was awarded to Sudipto Mandal, from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Michael Craig, a doctoral student in the College of Engineering, was one of the finalists who discussed their research in McConomy Auditorium. Three Minute Thesis is a research communication competition that challenges Ph.D. students to give a compelling presentation on their thesis and its significance in just three minutes, in language that anyone can understand.

This was Craig's second time in the finals — he placed second in 2015 — and third time participating in the program. Each year he has discussed a different aspect of his research. This year his talk was titled "Grid-scale electricity storage: A help or hindrance for mitigating climate change?"

"Last year I got too involved in the details," Craig said. "But it's such a good experience. More people should participate."

Pallavi Baljekar, a student in the School of Computer Science's Language Technologies Institute, participated for her second year. Her research focused on speech, but she said while public speaking makes her nervous, "people should try it even if you're scared."

Her talk, "Speech Synthesis from Found Speech," looked at how she is working with large sets of data from low-resource languages publicly available on the web from sites like YouTube to create acoustic models with it.

For example, Konkani and Kannada are languages spoken in regions of India. While both are spoken by more than a million people, there are relatively few sites that are translated into them or have text-to-speech capabilities. Baljekar said companies such as Google and Amazon are starting to devote more resources for languages found in emerging markets.

"There are more and more special conferences popping up devoted to low-resource languages," she said.

This was CMU's fourth year hosting the event, which started at the University of Queensland in 2008. The competition has been adopted in more than 57 countries at hundreds of institutions.

University Libraries Dean Keith Webster brought the concept to CMU and hosts the competition.

"Our students are doing such interesting, innovative and complex work. It's a joy to learn more about their research and see how they approach the challenge of conveying it to a non-specialist audience," Webster said.

This year saw CMU's highest number of participants, with 78 graduate students participating in 10 rounds of preliminary competitions.

Jaroszewicz, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in behavioral decision research in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Science, competed for the first time. The focus of her talk was "How the Psychology of Poverty Affects Behavior and Financial Outcomes."

She said she hopes people take away from her talk the idea that poverty is complicated and goes beyond financial issues.

"There are a lot of other factors, helplessness, isolation, hopelessness," she said. "Poverty is much more complex than many people perceive it to be and consequently, understanding those complexities can improve the effectiveness of welfare programs."

Jaroszewicz said Three Minute Thesis has given her an opportunity to think about how she communicates her work to people who might use it to help shape policy or nonprofit programming.

"For researchers like me, you get used to speaking to other people in your field and using terminology and shortcuts that others may not understand," she said.

This year's finalists were:

  • Surya Aggarwal, Biological Sciences
  • Pallavi Baljekar, Language Technology Institute
  • Michael Craig, Engineering and Public Policy
  • Jooli Han, Biomedical Engineering
  • Ania Jaroszewicz, Social and Decision Sciences
  • Sudipto Mandal, Materials Science and Engineering
  • Diane Nelson, Biomedical Engineering
  • Will Penman, English
  • Emily Simon, Biological Sciences
  • Jesse Thornburg, Electrical and Computer Engineering