communication science communication 3mt 3 minute thesis

Distilling Complexity in Three Minutes - The UMass 3MT Competition

The UMass 3-Minute Thesis is back! During 3MT competition, grad students explain their research in 180 seconds. Find out more, plus insights from a finalist last year!

Imagine yourself at friend’s party – tiny hotdogs, fruit salad, the works! Someone asks what you do or what you’re studying in school. You can tell they’re about 75% interested – too much for a vague “don’t want to talk about it” answer but not enough for an extended monologue. In less than, say, three minutes, how do you express that you’re doing something interesting and important? This basic exchange confronts everyone in some form, whether we’re taking an amazing US History class in high school, selling lamps at a furniture store, or doing research about radio-astronomy.

Distilling complex research topics into digestible messages can be particularly challenging, but the task is critical. This is especially true today, when both scientific literacy and trust in universities are on shaky ground and cuts to federal funding for research are ramping up. At That’s Life [Science], graduate student researchers strive to share advances in science through reader-friendly blog posts. Other UMass graduate students work with schools and community organizations to either communicate their research, collaborate in the discovery process, or both. Effectively communicating research takes practice, for graduate students and well seasoned scholars alike.

Fortunately, the 3-Minute Thesis (or “3MT”) competition provides graduate students with a stage to practice communicating the significance of their research to a general audience in three minutes or less. Originally founded by the University of Queensland, 3MT competitions have taken place at over 600 universities across 63 countries.

This year, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate School will host its second annual 3MT Competition. The first-place finisher wins $1,000 and the runner-up wins $500, as determined by a panel of judges hailing from departments across the university. A “People’s Choice” winner, determined by audience vote, also wins $500.

We caught up with Shirin Montazeri, the runner-up at last year’s competition, to find out what her experience was like with 3MT. Shirin is a PhD candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering. She develops devices to improve the field of radio-astronomy, which uses radio waves emitted by celestial objects to better understand their properties.

Evan: Can you tell me in simple terms about your research?

Shirin: My research has been focused on developing low-power electronics circuits for radio-astronomy applications… I was able to implement a circuit that dissipates approximately 10 times lower power compared to the ones that are commercially available for this application (Figure 1, right). The implementation of low-power electronics could help us to develop large-scale radio-telescopes which could provide astronomers with valuable information about the stars, galaxies and the universe.

Evan: What was the most challenging aspect of communicating your research in just three minutes?

Shirin: The challenging part was describing the science behind this research and applications of my work in a way that general audience with no technical background could understand.

But Shirin was not alone on stage with her words. Each 3MT participant can project a single slide as they give their talk (Figure 1).

Fig 1 Shirin Slide

Figure 1. Shirin’s 3MT slide. Shirin’s circuit is displayed on the right (image credit: Shirin Montazeri).

Evan: How would you describe “Shirin the communicator” before 3MT and what is different now?

Shirin: The 3MT competition helped me come up with an interesting 3-minute description of my 5-years of PhD work in a way that people can understand, get excited about, and even ask questions. This is very exciting as I can communicate my work and my passion to other people much easier now… And I am much more confident when talking to people about my research now, even in conferences or networking events.

This past summer, Shirin competed in a second 3MT at the 2017 International Microwave Symposium in Hawaii and won 2nd place! See the video of her presentation here.

Fig 2 Shirin Presenting

Figure 2. Shirin presenting her 3MT at the 2017 International Microwave Symposium in Hawaii (photo credit: Shirin Montazeri).

Evan: What advice do you have for graduate students participating in 3MT?

Shirin: I would encourage them to spend time preparing an engaging talk. The key is to practice, practice, and practice until they are fully confident to present it in front of the audience. This is definitely not easy and needs a lot of effort to go outside of the comfort zone, but, in the end, you will definitely be happy with the results. Participating in this competition was a turning point in developing my communication skills and I am sure it will be the same for the students competing this year as well.

Preliminary rounds for this year’s 3MT will take place February 14-22. Sign ups for this year are now closed, but you can see the finalists compete on March 2nd from 1-3pm in the Campus Center Auditorium. Check out the UMass 3MT website for more information!

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