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Talking ‘bout my dissertation

A couple of years ago, I was invited to speak at a scientific conference at a high school. I came equipped with a standard PowerPoint about my research, as had the other speakers, assuming that we’d be presenting to mostly adults from the community and a few overachieving high school kids.

So, you can imagine our shock when we arrived to find an audience of primarily middle schoolers. We hurriedly revised our talks, cutting jargon and complicated graphs, trying to make sure—to the extent this is even possible—that a 10-year-old wouldn’t get bored.

And you know what? They were some of the best talks I’ve ever heard.

We scientists aren’t known for communication skills, and our bad habits are only reinforced by giving talks at conferences to our peers. I’ve sat through many incomprehensible seminars, thinking there was something wrong with me for not “getting it.”

But as soon as we were forced to speak at a middle school level, something cool happened: Not only could the students understand the talks, but so could I.

When I gave my own presentation, I found myself scrutinizing each phrase in a way I ordinarily wouldn’t. Would a middle schooler understand “clinical trial”? Maybe, if I explained it correctly—but why not just say “injected into people”?

And it wasn’t just about simplifying terminology. Every speaker had this genuine air of, “You have to hear this, because it’s so cool.”

Science needs more of that.

And so, in the spirit of encouraging scientists to develop their communication skills, I gladly agreed to judge the finals of the Oregon Statewide Three Minute Thesis Competition this past May.

If you’re new to the concept, a Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition is exactly what it sounds like: Ph.D. students have 3 minutes to summarize their theses. The primary criterion is whether they can, by virtue of their awesome communication skills, make an audience pay attention and learn something. Participants have one static PowerPoint slide—no videos, no props, no singing and dancing. Speaking longer than 3 minutes, even by 1 second, is an instant disqualification.

It’s harder than it sounds. And to many students, it already sounds hard.

The 3MT competition began as an experiment at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, when then-graduate school dean Alan Lawson concocted it as a means of forcing grad students to practice their communication skills. Lawson recalls the initial concerns that 3MT would encourage students to “trivialize their research” or “exploit it for laughs,” but he has found that it has actually had the opposite effect: The competitors who advance to later rounds are typically those who shed light on—not make light of—their work.

Even though it was initially intended only for University of Queensland students, by 2010, 3MT had been adopted by every university in Australia and New Zealand, plus one in Fiji. Today, more than 200 institutions in 60 countries host an officially registered 3MT.

Thus, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, with the Willamette Valley Music Festival blasting outside (and, frankly, sounding a little bit more fun than the prospect of watching grad students present their research), I positioned myself in the back of a small classroom with the two other judges and tried to look judgelike.

Then, nine frightened graduate students took the stage, each distilling years of research into 180 seconds.

They weren’t perfect. Sometimes the talks drifted a bit over the top, as when one geologist spread his hands wide and yelled, “I used LASERS to VAPORIZE THE ASH SAMPLES!” Yes, lasers are nifty, but there’s a fine line between animated presenter and wild-eyed supervillain.

And a few fell into mild forms of the jargon trap. One student said, “This can be accomplished pharmacologically,” which is not a super-complicated sentence, and it is probably one you’d even hear on the news. But why say that when you can simply say, “We can do this with drugs”? Another student talked about enzymes used for “lipid metabolism and lipid transport.” I’d say, “help us break down fats and move them around our bodies.” Yes, everyone knows that “transport” means “move around,” but saying “move around” broadcasts that you’re making an effort to be comprehensible. Audiences—whether middle schoolers, the public, or even other scientists—appreciate that kind of reassurance.

(Not that jargon doesn’t have its place—scientific terms are useful as general standards, for the sake of precision, or to convey to a frightening audience that we’re super-smart. But when the goal is clarity, the goal is clarity.)

Overall, though, the talks were good—these were, after all, the statewide finalists. I learned about acute myeloid leukemia, microsurgery, and stress fractures in racehorses. Melissa McDougall, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis, joked that her research on the prenatal benefits of vitamin E have caused some to call her “E-centric.” An actual joke! From a scientist! And it made sense!

Most importantly, the 3MT finalists answered the biggest question that every audience wants to know about any presentation in any field: Why should I care? For example, Manujinda Wathugala, a grad student in the Computer and Information Science Department at the University of Oregon in Eugene, described how his research helps self-driving cars make decisions. Then he transformed his daily computer mumbo-jumbo into a sentence a real human being would say: “So we taught those rules to a computer,” he said, “and asked the computer, ‘What can go wrong?’”

In the end, our judging panel awarded the grand prize of $1000 to Saul Propp, a University of Oregon physics Ph.D. student, who described using the “atomic blender” of electron vortices to mix nanoscale substances. Propp used an extended analogy of preparing a margarita only a few atoms in volume, which the judges found relatable yet accurate enough to capture Propp’s complicated thesis project. Presumably some of the prize money can be used for much larger margaritas.

In the grand scheme of a career in science, a statewide 3MT victory won’t necessarily change one’s trajectory. But the lessons about communication for every competitor—not to mention the audience members, who bestowed the $500 Audience Choice Award on University of Oregon anthropology Ph.D. student Annie Caruso for her talk about Caribbean archaeology—will help everyone understand a little better how to communicate their work.

A 3MT competition is just one way grad students can practice distilling their work into a tangential and time-limited genre for the purposes of (a) professional development and (b) fun. For 10 years, AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers) has hosted its annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest, in which science Ph.D. students shake their respective groove thangs for money. But, like, in a wholesome and nerdy way. (This year’s deadline is 29 September, so it is recommended that you imminently get down and/or funky with your bad self.)

But why stop there? As contests like these increase in popularity, I propose a few additions:

  • Fingerpaint Your Ph.D.: Grab a smock and a sheet of glossy paper; it’s time to render your complicated research topic in washable primary colors. Just make sure to wash your hands before snack time! (Honestly, there are probably days when it feels like this would be more productive than your actual work, aren’t there?)
  • Eat Your Ph.D.: Contestants learn valuable lessons about conciseness as they’re forced to, well, eat their words. Enjoy some thought-for-food as this competition puts the dessert in “dissertation”!
  • Poster Contest: In this already-popular event, you display your research on a poster while professors select a winner from among your classmates. Judges will consider the following criteria: whether you submitted your poster to the university print shop on time; whether your lab had funds to pay the university print shop; whether you ran, sweating, into FedEx Office at 10:55 p.m.; whether the computer there could read your flash drive; and whether you successfully mollified the frightened employee in front of whom you cried like a toddler.
  • The One-Second Thesis: Within the time allotted, can you—oh it’s done.

Most importantly, whether dancing your Ph.D. or 3-minuting your thesis, these contests remind us of something it’s easy to forget: that at its most essential level, science is fun. Maybe even more fun than a music festival.

Because we have LASERS!

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