Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Inaugural ‘Three-Minute’ Thesis Competition Challenges Grad Students to Explain Their Work

Graduate students spend years working on thought-provoking, complex research projects that can benefit society and develop their expertise in a field. But when it comes to explaining their work to people unfamiliar with their discipline, many students find themselves at a loss for words.

The University of Virginia hosted its first annual Universitas 21 Three Minute Thesis Competition – which, fittingly, was abbreviated as “3MT” – on Monday with an aim to turn the frustrating process of explaining complicated research accurately and quickly into an opportunity for U.Va. graduate students. Six finalists, selected from their three-minute online video submissions, presented a summary of their thesis projects to a live public audience and panel of faculty judges in the Nau Hall Auditorium.

Universitas 21 is an international network of 27 leading research-intensive universities, of which U.Va. is a member. The 3MT competition, which originated in Australia in 2008, expanded its scope and invited U.Va. and other member schools to send entries this year. The contest to determine U.Va’s entrant in the U21 Grand Final was organized by the Graduate Studies office in the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Whether they are writing hundred-page dissertations or conducting years’ worth of laboratory experiments, graduate students become very comfortable with their own disciplinary jargon, said Phil Trella, U.Va.’s assistant vice president for graduate studies. But when students start applying for jobs out in the world, and even within academia, they aren’t used to expressing their research in the context of a short, concise way that is understandable to people who are not experts in their fields.

“This type of competition is something we’ve been interested in doing for a long time, because it’s great for graduate students to learn how to talk to people outside of their disciplines,” Trella said. “If you can connect people to your research, which is that thing that is most precious to you as a graduate student, it puts you in a great position to be considered for a job. That can be within academia, or in any field of industry, government or nonprofits.”

The competition also presented an opportunity for the students to share their research interests with others outside their disciplines. After hearing about each other’s research, a couple of the students – and a few of the faculty judges –exchanged information and pledged to keep in contact about possible future networking opportunities.

“Our office feels very strongly about trying to connect people across disciplines,” Trella said. “In today’s academic environment, collaboration is becoming increasingly important. Cluster hiring is becoming more and more popular in universities, and graduate students in general are ending up in jobs where they need to be able to collaborate across boundaries. Even in the context of research, you can take it to next level by expanding to other areas.”

Biomedical engineering student Lindsey Brinton won the U.Va. competition, presenting her thesis on identifying early signs of pancreatic cancer, titled “Catching Tumors by Their Webs.” She received a $500 travel award and will have a video recording of her speech advanced to the U21 Grand Final competition. There, her video will compete with submissions from other Universitas 21 institutions across the world.

It is difficult to detect early-stage pancreatic tumors, Brinton explained, because the pancreas is buried in the body and the tumors are extremely small. Her research uses stromal or "tumor support" cells that surround the tumor, which are 10 to 100 times more numerous, to detect where the cancer is located.

“I was so happy to share my research and that it was so well received,” Brinton said. “Really, I was very impressed with all of the finalists. I learned a lot attending the competition.” 

In preparation for her presentation, Brinton found that practice made perfect. “I tried to think of analogies that would help explain [my research] in nonscientific terms. I tried out all of my ideas on my friends and family first and incorporated a lot of their advice. Then I practiced it ­– a lot. I tried it out in front of some of my fellow graduate students and further refined my talk.”

Fellow biomedical engineering student George Cortina was the runner-up. He received $100 gift card for his presentation, “Using Simulations to Understand Drug Resistance.”

“It was a very intriguing idea to engage Ph.D. students to present their research in three minutes,” said competition judge Jeffrey Legro, Vice Provost for Global Affairs and professor of politics. “Students did a really great job, and their presentations were very clear about what they were doing in their research.

“It was the best 18 minutes I’ve spent in a long time.” 

After viewing the success of the competition among students and faculty, the Graduate Studies office plans to host a similar competition for all graduate students in the spring, Trella said.

“This is part of the Graduate Studies office’s overall initiative to create more of a community among graduate students and to help students share research across disciplines with one another. Plus, it’s a great professional development tool.”

The U21 International Competition winner will receive a $2,500 travel award to visit any of the consortium member’s universities, to benefit their research or ongoing career development. The winner will be announced Oct. 29.

The final contestants will also participate in a “People’s Choice Award,” with its own $300 cash prize. Members of the public can vote for Brinton, or any of the contestants, by clicking “like” on their favorite video entry on Vimeo starting Friday.

by Lauren Jones

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