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March 07, 2014

Academic Idol

Graduate Students Rapidly Relay Research

By Cindy Carroll

Ph.D. candidates explained years of research in just minutes at Carnegie Mellon's inaugural Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Championship.

The competition, brought to CMU by Dean of Libraries Keith Webster, challenges students to give a compelling talk explaining their work for a general audience.

"Many of our students are working on research that has a broader impact on society, health and the economy," Webster said. "Challenging them to communicate their findings to a non-specialist audience, in a concise manner, helps to share their contribution. It also offers a great venue for students both to showcase their research, and to step back and reflect upon the big picture of their research."

The Public Communication for Researchers (PCR) student group provided support for the event. PCR President Jesse Dunietz said that communicating with others is an essential part of a scientist's job.

"Researchers possess knowledge that can make a crucial difference in the ability of others to make good decisions, so it's our responsibility to help society use what we've learned," Dunietz said. "Projects like 3MT hone participants' skills for doing just that: boiling down a complex research idea to its most essential elements, and conveying them compellingly to smart people from other backgrounds."

The rules are simple. The only aid students are allowed is a single Power Point slide. The goal is to engage the audience with simple spoken words that communicate the essence of their thesis work.

Eleven Ph.D. candidates made it to the final round out of 140 initial registrants. The first-place winner was David Rollinson, of the Robotics Institute, who presented his thesis "Snake Robots in the Wild!" Second place went to Suchitra Ramachandran of Biological Sciences, who presented "The Brain as a Statistician." Third place went to Patrick Foley, a statistics student, whose thesis is "Statistics and the Human Connectome."

Rollinson is at the final stages of his Ph.D. work. He said it took time to whittle the presentation down to three minutes, but the end result was a "fantastically distilled elevator pitch."

"I really liked the idea of taking a step back and reviewing everything from a more 'big picture' perspective," he said.

Ramachandran said the competition provided her a way to think about why people should care about her research. To prepare, she talked to people outside her field.

"Those conversations helped me not only figure out the best language to use to communicate to them, but also made me open to interesting intuitions and perspectives they had about my research as outsiders," she said.

In an audience vote, Ramachandran and Arun R. Shrivats (Biomedical Engineering) with the thesis "siRNA Therapeutics for Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva" tied for the People's Choice Award.

Shrivats said he has always enjoyed sharing his research with friends and family, and the competition helped him put more thought into the best ways to do that.

All three said the competition broadened their knowledge of work being done by graduate students.

"I learned of a lot of different avenues of research going on at CMU that I would have otherwise never been exposed to," Shrivats said. "The competition was also a great reminder for me to focus on what I could control. There were a lot of students that wanted to do well in this competition, but at the end of the day, the only thing each of us could control was our own performance. I really enjoyed this experience as there was a huge focus on simply bringing out the best in yourself."

Webster, who joined CMU earlier this academic year, was previously at the University of Queensland (UQ) where 3MT launched in 2008. It has now been adopted by dozens of universities and Universitas 21, a global network of research-intensive universities hosted its inaugural international competition last fall.

"The success of the competition at UQ showed that there was great demand for opportunities like this," Webster said.

"I have been overwhelmed by the response by the CMU Ph.D. student community to the 3MT competition," Webster said. "They have risen to the challenge, and presented some truly transformational research."

Watch the finalists' presentations.