Whale Barf and Perfume (and other three minute theses)

Grad student Baillie Redfern won a competition run by PhD Comics to have her three-minute research presentation (Engineering the Perfect Perfume) transformed into an animated video.

The life of a UBC graduate student in a research-based master’s or doctoral program can be filled with wonderful collaborations, ground-breaking research and thrilling intellectual challenges. But it can also require long lonely hours in the library, in the laboratory, or at a research site far from hearth and home.

Working among like-minded colleagues who share specialist knowledge and vocabulary can also leave a student feeling socially challenged when it comes to communicating beyond the walls of their particular academic enclave. That’s where the Three Minute Thesis (3MT™) comes in.

This academic competition challenges grad students to improve their oral presentation and communication skills by having them explain the breadth and significance of their research to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes.

UBC 3MT™ 2013 needs judges, sponsors, event volunteers and an audience! Find out more.

The format of the 3MT™ competition was originally developed at The University of Queensland in 2008 and the idea spread quickly and dramatically.  By 2011, 42 institutions across Australia, New Zealand and Fiji were taking part, and UBC became one of the first North America universities to join in, with nearly 100 students participating. This year’s competition is attracting even more schools.

While some critics charge that trying to explain years of complex research to a general audience in only three minutes runs the risk of trivializing or dumbing-down important work, the competition is in no-way meant to replace the rigorous process of crafting a specialist symposia within their discipline.

Instead, 3MT™ is an opportunity for graduate students to develop skill and experience at communicating their research effectively. After all, the work of a graduate student is not only to master their field and create new knowledge, but to learn to convey that knowledge to the wider world. Whether they continue on in academia or develop careers in the public or private sector, success may well rely heavily on their capability as communicators. The importance of providing students with opportunities to practice cannot be overestimated — and it allows the rest of us of us a chance to understand and appreciate the value of the work.

Sometimes there are unexpected benefits. Microbiology and immunology master’s student Leah Lim, a 2011 finalist, found herself at a luncheon sharing her presentation with Canada’s Governor General, and 2012 finalist Baillie Redfern went on to win a competition put on by PhD comics that resulted in her research presentation on engineering the perfect perfume being transformed into an animated video (see above). The video has received more than 50,000 hits on YouTube. Presenting complex research in a non-traditional way may be helping to increase understanding and interest around what goes on in the world’s top universities.

Former 3MT™finalists often comment on how the competition made them look up from their computer screen and take in the bigger picture. Here are some examples of the results:

Too much β-catenin: Sticky Synapses, Sticky Memories

Fergil Mills, PhD Candidate, Neuroscience and 2012 UBC 3MT Finalist Runner-up:

“The number one thing that blew me away about this competition was not getting better at presenting my own material — it was hearing everyone else’s. The breadth and depth of research going on in our university is just staggering, and we got to hear amazing talks on everything from pine beetles to perfume made from whale vomit. As researchers it is all too easy to fall into the trap of getting lost in our own little bubble of specialization, and the 3MT™ is a great way to hear concise, amazing stories from all sorts of different fields of study.” — Fergil Mills

Improving Access to Justice and Lawyer Satisfaction through Market Modification

Andrew Pilliar, PhD Candidate, Law, 2012 Finalist:

I am a big believer in, and supporter of, the (3MT™) program. It was a great experience for me, and I think it’s a great addition to academic life at UBC. I would do 3MT™ again in a heartbeat. Universities cannot be ivory towers in the 21st century. We live in an information-rich world, and important research should be communicated widely. The 3MT™ competition provides a great opportunity for young researchers to gain experience communicating their ideas to a broader audience than those within their field. It challenges students to hone their communication skills so that they can make their research stand out.  This is hugely valuable.” — Andrew Pilliar

More videos of finalists’ presentations can be viewed on the Faculty of Graduate Studies YouTube channel.

How you can get involved with 3MT TM

This spring grad students will take the stage at UBC’s Vancouver campus for the third annual 3MT™@UBC competition.

If you are interested in attending, mark your calendars for the semi-finals on March 12 and the finals on March 14. The venue will be the Graduate Student Centre Ballroom but the schedule is still to be determined. The event website will keep you up to date.

There are plenty of opportunities for alumni and community partners to participate in the 2013 UBC 3MT™ competition, including:

  • attending the semi-final or final as an audience member
  • volunteering for a judging panel (time commitment for judges would be two hours)
  • sponsoring a 3MT™ competition cash prize
  • contributing towards event operations (catering, videotaping, room booking)
  • sharing this news article with friends and colleagues

If you have any questions or would like to support the event, please contact Jacqui Brinkman, manager of the Graduate Pathways to Success Program (jacqui.brinkman@ubc.ca or 604-827-4578) or Carolynne Ciceri, communications manager (carolynne.ciceri@ubc.ca or 604-822-3747).


One comment

  1. This “3MTTM@UBC Competition is an awesome idea. I’m definitely “a dinosaur”. As I lived through the decades, “yes”, I had to several times endeavour to relate what my field of study was in ‘common language.’ After several years in one field, I switched to another field of study. After a few more decades, I studied another one – and after retirement, did another, “History”

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