communication covid-19 graduate school research

Three Minute Thesis…But Make It Virtual

Put a bunch of graduate students in a room to give three minute talks about their research. Then, put them on a Zoom call and see how it changes. What did I learn from one year to the next?

Scientists love to talk about their research. Give them a microphone and one scientist will usually go on for an hour. On March 18th, we took that hour and filled it with 10 different researchers. Talk about bang for your buck (especially because it was free)!

So, if it was a free event, what was the currency? Time. Time is our most valuable commodity. Because we are so guarded of our time, it is even more important to use every minute of a talk intentionally. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) is an excellent forum to accomplish that goal.

In the 3MT, graduate students are challenged to outline their research in three minutes or less, with only one static slide as a visual aid. This presentation is judged by a panel of non-academics, so we need to ensure that whatever we say is as understandable as possible to people who don’t work in our field. It all started at the University of Queensland in 2008, and today there are over 900 universities across 85 countries holding 3MTs [1]. But why has this competition grown to be the world-renowned event that it is today?

Because science communication is so important! I can make a million discoveries in the lab. But if I keep them to myself, or if I am unsuccessful at conveying the meaning of these discoveries, they will fall by the wayside and likely have minimal-to-no impact in our local or global community. Therefore, as scientists we need to learn how to talk about our research in ways that inform AND engage any audience.

As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), I competed in the 3MT for the last two years. My first competition was in person, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, my second competition was virtual. Here’s how the experiences compared:

In my first competition, I learned a lot about the balance between engagement and content. I went into this competition thinking the most engaging story I could tell would be one with the most exciting research conclusion. This was not true. By attempting to tell a complete research story with as many twists and turns as I could fit into three minutes, I wound up rushing through the talk. I thought that consistent enthusiasm would keep everyone on board. In reality, this translated to me essentially shouting for three minutes without much inflection. I was speaking so quickly and taking very few breaks for the audience to soak up the information (Figure 1).

Source: Emma Dauster

Figure 1. In my first 3MT, I focused on the chemical components of my research. This is the slide that I made to outline the creation of sex-specific ADHD medication. (Source: Emma Dauster)

The winner of my preliminary round that year went on to win the runner-up award for the entire UMass competition. I learned a lot by comparing my presentation with theirs. They presented at a slower pace, giving breaks throughout the talk. They showed excitement in their voice only at certain points in the talk, so the audience knew when to focus and soak in what was said. In the end, I knew why they thought their research was important, but I was still unsure of what they did to accomplish this goal.

I took all of this observation with me when creating my presentation for the next year’s competition. This time around, I spoke slowly, quietly, and intentionally. I added pauses after key statements. I told a story about the impact more than the minutiae of my daily experiments. But I made sure to keep some of the experimental design in my talk so that the audience would understand how I explored my research question. Of course, I still had to focus on just a small sample of the work that I do to fit within the three minute restriction. In the first year, I focused on the chemical underpinnings of my research [Figure 1]. Then in the second year, I focused on the behavioral component of my work [Figure 2], because I saw that more technical descriptions were harder to follow.

Source: Emma Dauster

Figure 2. In my second 3MT competition, I gave a virtual talk. I positioned myself in the top corner and focused the slide on more relatable content. (Source: Emma Dauster)

But the biggest shift from my first year to my second year of 3MT was the format. The virtual competition actually allowed us to be more creative. We had to figure out how we wanted to display both ourselves and our slides on a screen, and none of the presenters chose the same approach. My format was intuitive to me, but I’m sure others felt the same way. I put my video in the top corner and designed a slide with blank space to accommodate it [Figure 2]. Others cut to their slide part way through their presentation so the audience could focus on their talk the rest of the time. Another format was to input the slide next to the video so that they could gesture to it without losing much of their engagement. The list goes on…

All said, I actually preferred the virtual format. I know it might sound odd, but I felt like there was more of a community created in the virtual environment than we might have had in person. We were able to see each other’s faces throughout the entire competition and communicate with each other through zoom chat. After my video played, I received an influx of messages congratulating me on a job well done and pointing out specific phrases that resonated with the other presenters. This would not have been possible in person. Out of respect for the next person to present, we wouldn’t have wanted to converse out loud. But in the virtual environment I was able to get that real-time feedback to take with me in my next presentation. Another great aspect of virtual competitions is the lack of nerves. It was still nerve-wracking, don’t get me wrong! But having my talk pre-recorded meant that we were able to listen to each other’s talks without rehearsing in our heads.

I enjoyed both the in-person and the virtual competitions and I can’t wait to see what changes from the virtual format stick in next year’s competition.

I was honored to win the People’s Choice Award at this year’s competition! Watch the recording here:

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[1] Three Minute Thesis. University of Queensland Australia, updated January 11, 2021

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