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USU Graduate Students Participate in 3 Minute Thesis Competition

A woman stands at the front of a crowded auditorium as a photo of a cheeseburger is projected onto a screen behind her.
Event Helps Craft the Perfect Science Elevator Speech

By Christopher Austin

Dr. Sarah Thibault-Sennett was talking with a relative about her research observing fertility in mice and using them as a model to simulate similar fertility rates that occur in humans.

After she finished explaining her work, all her relative could say was: “it’s amazing; someone can go to school for 25 years just to see if a mouse has babies.”

Thibault-Sennet now admits that she can understand her relative’s misunderstanding of her work. After all, as a Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine (HJF) post-doctoral fellow at USU, she’s surrounded all day by like-minded scientists who work on complicated projects. Using scientific terminology every day for years becomes the norm for researchers, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the population understands it. Describing their work in lay terms is important for securing research funding, and for USU scientists, to ensuring that people understand its importance to the military and to the public at large and how it could improve or save lives.

The 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition – a science-based elevator speech event of sorts – was originally started at the University of Queensland, Australia in 2008. It was designed to help Ph.D. students hone their presentation, research and academic communication skills and their ability to explain their work effectively in language that anyone can understand. The program has expanded to several hundred universities and institutions across 65 countries worldwide.

People sitting at desks in a stadium-style lecture hall.
James Bowmer, forester stewardship coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management; Allison Rollins, Learning Resource Center director at USU; Brigid Nuta How, executive director of Nonprofit Montgomery, Kim Faltemier, a foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department; and Dr. Arthur Kellermann, the dean of the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine at USU served as judges for the 3MT. They came from diverse backgrounds with limited experience in the fields being presented. This way, the participants’ presentations could be judged based solely on their ability to convey their work in an understandable way. (Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Pagan)

USU’s participation in 3MT was the brainchild of Thibault-Sennett, who got the idea while preparing for a visit to Capitol Hill and working to ensure she could clearly articulate her work to Congressional staff and members.

“The words we use -- we don’t even think about the fact that they have different meanings for the general public,” Thibault-Sennett said. “One of the examples that I always think of is translation; we always, in general, use that word to mean taking something in one language and finding what it means in another language. When scientists talk about translation, they mean the process of converting a coded message in RNA to a protein.”

She recruited Dr. Kimberly Byrnes, a 2003 alumna of USU’s Neuroscience program and an associate professor in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics, to serve as faculty advisor, and wrote a proposal requesting five years’ worth of exploratory funding from the School of Medicine Endowment Committee, with the agreement that the program’s effectiveness would be assessed annually.

While the Endowment Committee was deciding on whether or how much to fund, Thibault-Sennett and Byrnes formed the 3MT leadership team with Claire Costenoble-Caherty, an HJF-funded Ph.D. student in the USU Emerging Infectious Diseases graduate program, and Alexandra Yaszemski, a doctoral student in the university’s Neuroscience graduate degree program, who both had expressed interest in 3MT.

A woman presents in front of a projected slide
Caitlin Williams presents on her topic, ‘Fighting Bacteria with Copper.' (Photo by Christopher Austin)

The Endowment Committee approved the funding proposal for five years. The 3MT group first organized a science communication workshop that was held at USU in collaboration with The American Institute for Biological Sciences. The five-hour workshop was designed to train scientists to clearly convey their research results and the importance to the public, whether they were giving a presentation, chatting with a reporter, or writing an article. The workshop was open to all students, but was primarily intended to help prepare students who were interested for the USU 3MT competition set for the following month. Nine students from the workshop signed up for the competition, and were offered two practice sessions – one informal and one essentially a dress rehearsal -- so that they could get suggestions and feedback from their peers prior to the main event.

In early April, the nine students competed in front of a panel of experts who judged their ability to clearly and concisely convey what they are working on in 180 seconds. The panel of judges included Brigid Nuta Howe, Executive Director, Nonprofit Montgomery; James Bowmer, forester and Stewardship Coordinator, Bureau of Land Management; Kim Faltemier, a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department; Alison Rollins, director of USU’s Learning Resource Center; and Dr. Arthur Kellermann, dean of USU’s Hebert School of Medicine.

“There are two areas in which you need to be proficient as a scientist,” said Byrnes. “In this day and age, when funding is so hard to come by, you need to be able to explain your research very quickly -- like if you are in an elevator with a funder or donor. Then there’s the policy aspect. The Society for Neuroscience has an event every year where they’ll take scientists to Capitol Hill and set them loose inside the Capitol building to talk to senators and congressmen about their science. They have 30 seconds to explain to somebody what they’re doing, why it’s important and why the politicians should be funding it.”

Students are also happy just to have the skills necessary to explain the importance of their work to their friends, family and others outside the science community.

Deborah Stiffler, an HJF-funded Ph.D. student in USU’s Emerging Infectious Diseases graduate program who won 3rd place and the People’s Choice Award in this year’s 3MT, is a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. During the 3MT competition, Stiffler used her three minutes to talk about her research that focuses on the relationship between the transmission of malaria in a community and the presence of HIV.

A close-up over the shoulder of a man’s hands as he writes on a program for the 3MT.
A judge of the 3MT writes makes notes regarding the contestants. (Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Pagan)

“I’ve actually had a lot of practice talking with the people that I volunteer with, and it’s awesome because it’s real life. We’re learning about this -- not just to do really well at 3MT, but to be able to communicate in real life with people, like when you’re at the Thanksgiving table and Gram asks you ‘how school’s going’ and ‘what are you working on,’” Stiffler said. “I never had a term for it before the workshop, but we have the ‘curse of knowledge,’ which is this concept that you’re so ingrained in your work that you don’t realize everyone else has a different thought process. That’s really challenging when you’re communicating with someone who’s not in your field. You need to remember that they don’t necessarily have the same foundational knowledge that you have and they’re not connecting the dots the same way that you are because you’ve been thinking this way for the past four to five years.”

The competition’s first place award was won by Britney Hardy, an HJF-funded student in the Emerging Infectious Diseases program, who presented her thesis Bacterial Warfare and You. Second place was won by HJF-funded Medical Psychology doctoral student Omni Cassidy, who presented Food Marketing and Obesity. They, along with Stiffler, were invited to compete in the state finals, which were held at the University of Maryland Baltimore on May 2.

"I am incredibly proud to report that our students found continued success and, once again, wowed the judges with their creative stories.  Britney Hardy won first first and Omni Cassidy tied for second place.  This showcase featured the top competitors at our neighboring universities:  Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, University of Maryland College Park, and University of Maryland Baltimore County," said Thibault-Sennett.

“I think this might actually be one of the most valuable communication skills of grad school,” Stiffler said. “We spend so much time speaking with the scientific community, but at the end of the day, we’re not doing this work so we can wow our science colleagues, we’re doing it because there’s a benefit to society.”