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Three Minute Thesis
October 17, 2011 2:00 AM   Subscribe

The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition challenges higher degree students (PhD and MPhil) from Australia and New Zealand to communicate their research in three minutes to a non-specialist audience. Contestants are judged according to communication style, comprehension and engagement criteria. Here's the 2011 Winner, Matthew Thompson (University of Queensland): Suspects, science and CSI.

3MT was established in 2008 by the University of Queensland, and extended to other Australian and New Zealander universities in 2010.

The 2011 finals were recently held at the University of Western Australia. In addition to winner Matthew Thompson, there were ten other finalists:

Runner-up: Suzie Ferrie (University of Sydney): Measuring nutrition in ICU
People’s Choice: Jack Rivers (University of Otago): Synthetic cannabinoids could save lives: The future of medicinal marijuana

Toni Aburime (Deakin University): Should limits be placed on the tenure of bank CEOs?: Evidence from Nigeria
Will Bignell (University of Tasmania): Enhancing the good omega-3s in Tasmanian lamb meat through genetics and diet
Kate Cantrell (Queensland University of Technology): Thoughts while travelling: the wandering trend in the travel stories of Australian women
Jamie Flynn (University of Newcastle): Propriospinal neurons and their role in recovery from spinal cord injury
Ryan Kempster (University of Western Australia): Survival of the stillest: predator avoidance strategies of shark embryos
Shervi Lie (University of South Australia): Nutrition around conception determines the baby’s metabolic health
Tanuja Raja (Monash University): Caspases: More than just killers
Penny Tok (Victoria University of Wellington): Do children with autism have an inner voice?
posted by paleyellowwithorange (31 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Three minute fiction takes up too much too time. I'm pretty bored after one minute.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:39 AM on October 17, 2011


I absolutely love this. Thanks for putting together a fantastic post!
posted by iamkimiam at 2:45 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've only watched the winner so far and now I have to put kids to bed, but then I'll be back to watch the finalists. I can't decide which to watch first, though.

Spectacular post, paleyellowwithorange, thank you.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:04 AM on October 17, 2011


The very last link is fascinating. I should look into her research a lot more. Thanks a lot.
posted by cthuljew at 3:27 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


They're matched by individuals? Why, I never...
posted by flippant at 3:43 AM on October 17, 2011


These look fantastic, although in terms of pure concision dissertation haiku has them beat.
posted by whir at 3:44 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


As someone who has received numerous emails to participate in this thing I have mixed feelings about it.

Sure, I could reduce a ~90,000 word document that took 5 years to research and write to a 3 minute take way, in fact I do it all the time when people ask me what my research is about. In fact I did it this afternoon.

And I even think that it has good points in several ways, from getting candidates to think about how to communicate what it is they research to people that don't have a background in their field, to encouraging reflection about what is really significant or interesting about their work, to increasing dissemination of research to the wider public

But something about it still sets my teeth on edge, and I'm not sure why.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 5:10 AM on October 17, 2011


Hello, Hello, I'm David McGahan -- working at a university, I have to say that I love this for all the reasons you list in your third paragraph. It encourages academics to think outside their specialty and try to convey what is exciting about the work they are doing. Which, I am sad to say, many academics basically suck at. Which is not helping our reputation any with the wider public. We cannot clearly explain what we do even to our fellow academics....

Really, this isn't that much different from poster sessions, is it? Most students at poster sessions give the same canned speech a bunch of times; this just eliminates the walking around for the audience.

I want to do this with faculty as well. I want to see them get up in front of a mixed audience of students and faculty and give short presentations on their research and their passion for it. I think it would make our University stronger and more like a university than a multiversity. I have been working on a couple of plans for events like this, so I am pretty excited by this site.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:00 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Though I'll give dissertation haiku a crack, even though I'll probably stuff up the formal elements:


Virtual images on screen
Experienced bodily, affectively:
How to explain this?
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:00 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Meh. Give me the annual "Dance Your Ph.D!" contest!

2011 Winner and Runners-Up
2011 Dance Your Ph.D Contest Announcement
posted by magstheaxe at 6:15 AM on October 17, 2011


Rats! Meant to write "2010 Winner and Runners-Up"
posted by magstheaxe at 6:16 AM on October 17, 2011


I know what you mean, David. So I say this with utmost respect, but maybe it's your ego? Personally, that and my insecurity are the main sources of unease about my research. I have been struggling to get my thesis explanation down to 3 minutes and coherent (hell, if I could shut up about it near the 10-minute mark, that'd be an achievement) and sometimes I'm left with this feeling of 'not doing the work justice'. Like, "WHY AREN'T YOU AS FASCINATED BY THIS AS MUCH AS I AM???" I don't know, so maybe it's some sort of validation/ego/am-I-wasting-my-life? thing. But all of this is part of why I find these 3 minute talks so inspiring. They're little models of how I need to recognize my hurdles and to get over them so that I can build a bridge from this obscurity to the rest of the world out there. Not to say that watching them isn't also intimidating as hell. These people are younger and much slicker than I at this gig, yiiikes, catching up to do.

But here's my dissertation haiku (short, silly poems?...this is just to say...that's where I'm a viking!*):

How you say MeFi?
Like WiFi? SciFi? Semi?
Enregisterment!

(It's funny because it rhymes. Or not.)

*There's clearly some impenetrable force field between 17 syllables and 10 minutes.

posted by iamkimiam at 6:18 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


GenjiandProust, I see it as an extension of the 'elevator pitch', but yes a lot like poster sessions as well.

The more I try to work out what it is about this program and others like it that bother me I think it largely has to do with my profound dislike and unease with marketing myself and my ideas - not really sure if there is any justifiable reason anyway.

Of course to make something like this work amongst faculty you'd need to have the academic ego equivalent of peace-bonding in effect
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:19 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dance your PhD! Yes, my friend entered her dancing research video this year. She's studying Forensic Phonetics...our brainstorming session was wee ridiculous and absolutely hilarious...I haven't seen the vid yet though. (And I was out of town during filming, so no bad dancing by me in there...y'all been spared that.)
posted by iamkimiam at 6:23 AM on October 17, 2011


iamkimiam, yes I'm pretty ego and insecurity are involved in my case as well, though in my experience you need unhealthy and wildly changing amounts of both at times to get through a PhD anyway.

Mixed into that is a fairly wary suspicion of whatever the hell it is university management in Australia is up to regarding research outputs.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:28 AM on October 17, 2011


I think "I'm pretty ego" is my new favorite phrase.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:30 AM on October 17, 2011


Of course to make something like this work amongst faculty you'd need to have the academic ego equivalent of peace-bonding in effect

Yeah, that is what is holding us up...

Of course, I think administrators should do this too -- 3 minutes to say "this is what I do to deliver the main mission of the university." The low scorer would get sent off to the private sector to try and find work.

Another problem is that, obviously, people with less interesting work but more extroverted personalities might do better than they ought (which you allude to). Still, I see this as a way to get undergraduates interested in scholarship.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:32 AM on October 17, 2011


I think "I'm pretty ego" is my new favorite phrase.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:30 AM on October 17 [+] [!]


The inevitable cultural response to emo perhaps ;)

Anyway that typo suggests to me, as much as the time and the fact I have to teach in the morning, that I should abandon my intended half serious analysis of the normative expectations of Australian academic practices drawing upon Foucault and go to bed.

Of course, I think administrators should do this too -- 3 minutes to say "this is what I do to deliver the main mission of the university." The low scorer would get sent off to the private sector to try and find work.

Now that would be interesting.

Another problem is that, obviously, people with less interesting work but more extroverted personalities might do better than they ought (which you allude to). Still, I see this as a way to get undergraduates interested in scholarship.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:32 AM on October 17


Perhaps this is another version of the inter-disciplinary problem - what's needed is style and substance
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:41 AM on October 17, 2011


Hello, I'm David McGahan:

Virtual images on screen
Experienced bodily, affectively:
How to explain this?


I want to read this dissertation. MeMail me?
posted by yeolcoatl at 6:42 AM on October 17, 2011


I want to do this with faculty as well. I want to see them get up in front of a mixed audience of students and faculty and give short presentations on their research and their passion for it. I think it would make our University stronger and more like a university than a multiversity. I have been working on a couple of plans for events like this, so I am pretty excited by this site.

One thing we've started doing in our department is a 4-minute madness session at the beginning of each new academic year. The basic idea is to have faculty do a 4-minute summary of their current research. The goal is to let all the Masters' and PhD students see the breadth of work that the faculty are doing, as well as helping with matchmaking of students to advisers. It's worked out really well and is a lot of fun. We sometimes arm some of the senior PhD students with gongs or waterguns, though none of them have dared try the watergun yet.

The 4-minute madness idea came from the Madness sessions which are really popular at the CHI conference and Ubicomp conference. All speakers have between 30-60 seconds to make a pitch as to why you should see their talk. Madness is especially useful at the CHI conference because there are often 7-8 tracks going on simultaneously. It's a lot of fun, and people are really creative in how they get their ideas across. I'd highly recommend it for any large conference.
posted by jasonhong at 6:52 AM on October 17, 2011


Hmmm. I get that it can be painful to reduce to three minutes a complex, nuanced and exciting research project that has consumed your life for the past few years. There's a feeling of treating the project or the field with disrespect, and of throwing out so much information that you're committing the same crime as all the laziest, most inept science journalists and editors that we rant about a few times a week.

But on the other hand, I do strongly believe that, as researchers, we have a duty to educate those around us. Even apart from my hippy-ish "knowledge makes the world beautiful and must be shared!" tendencies, the fact is that a lot of us are at least partly funded by a mixture of government and charitable grants: the public deserve to be told what we're up to and why they should care. Even those few with the time and inclination don't have the educational background to read our research in full, so I feel that the onus is on us to make the effort and put these short, lay-oriented pitches out there.

Good science communication is hard, as any good teacher or science journo can tell you. Simply gauging the background knowledge of your audience is a skill in itself. For example, my audience for a short cancer biology talk I'm giving this Sunday probably hasn't studied science since they were 16, a decade or two ago, and possibly didn't care about it even then: they've heard of a gene, but do they know what it is? DNA? Can they picture a virus? Then against this background, you have to brutally cut your talk to its carefully identified key points and communicate those using background knowledge, analogies and concepts that your audience already has access to, without distorting or abandoning the key message. It's an art, and a difficult one: some people are gifted (I'm not!), but all of us have to practice our arses off to get anywhere with this stuff.

A competition that encourages people to start practicing this set of skill early in our careers, and holds up the most successful to serve as inspiration for the rest of us, can only be a good thing IMO. We'll never deliver the nuance that we find so beautiful, but hopefully we can learn to convey some of the wonder of the world that we're working in, and instill some of the enthusiasm that we feel every day.

One thing we've started doing in our department is a 4-minute madness session at the beginning of each new academic year.

That's a great idea! I tried pitching a similar idea after giving a public talk in which we got 20 slides which auto-advance every 20 seconds, but I'm far too lowly and the idea didn't gain any traction.
posted by metaBugs at 7:02 AM on October 17, 2011


Of course, one, of, my, big challenges in science, communication is my tendency to use baroque sentence structures and to pepper my sentences, with totally, unnecessary commas. Sorry.
posted by metaBugs at 7:04 AM on October 17, 2011


I want to read this dissertation. MeMail me?
posted by yeolcoatl at 6:42 AM on October 17 [+] [!]


Check your MeMail
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 7:05 AM on October 17, 2011


Should limits be placed on the tenure of bank CEOs?: Evidence from Nigeria
Enhancing the good omega-3s in Tasmanian lamb meat through genetics and diet
Thoughts while travelling: the wandering trend in the travel stories of Australian women
Propriospinal neurons and their role in recovery from spinal cord injury
Survival of the stillest: predator avoidance strategies of shark embryos


These are supposed to be hard to explain? I get them after reading the titles.

Give me a 3-minute layman's explanation of Local Universal Deformation Lifting Spaces Of Mod L Galois Representations. Then I'll be impressed.
posted by CaseyB at 7:25 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


My one-sentence explanation of my math work is:
"We take gnarly algebraic problems that come out of physics and turn them into things that look like sudoku."

If pressed, I then try to feel out the person's background and spout nonsense accordingly.
posted by kaibutsu at 7:43 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


These are supposed to be hard to explain? I get them after reading the titles.

These are, almost without a doubt, not the actual titles of their theses. If you want to compare apples to apples, take a browse through the table of contents of something like Molecular Cell. If I had a nickel for every time I had to wade through some "XYZ verbs JKL during PQR-dependent LMNO signaling in primary VW cells" headache I would never have to worry about parking again.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:59 AM on October 17, 2011


I won't have time to view the vids any time soon, but I would like to go on record generally supporting this idea.

Meanwhile, I have a friend who's PhD is in Optical Physics. For years he worked on processes and technologies that can filter out the distortion caused by the constant motion of the earth's atmosphere to improve the resolution of instruments that use the positions of specific stars for navigation, positioning, etc.

When asked, "So, what do you do?" he'd answer, "I take the twinkle out of stars."
 
posted by Herodios at 8:40 AM on October 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


These aren't too different from the lightning talks at various tech conferences. When videos are available from a conference, that's where I usually start.

GenjiandProust: "Of course, I think administrators should do this too -- 3 minutes to say "this is what I do to deliver the main mission of the university." The low scorer would get sent off to the private sector to try and find work."

As a member of the administration in IT, that seems a bit dicey (I'm sure I could survive though). This seems like a recipe for firing the computer security and legal compliance teams. And for firing the competent but socially awkward techies while preserving the boisterous but clueless ones. And then there's the can of worms that is spousal hiring that swells the ranks of IT and other spaces in administration.
posted by pwnguin at 9:08 AM on October 17, 2011


From the videos I've watched so far, the presenters do a good job suppressing their "ums" and "ahs", so from a purely spoken point of view they're doing well.

However, the body language is riddled with basic mistakes: defensive hand clasping, directionless pacing around the stage, distracting hand waving completely unrelated to any rhetorical point being made, and turning to address the projections behind them instead of continually engaging the audience with eye contact. Even a short course of Toastmasters or similar public speaking training would help the presenters recognise & eliminate these avoidable distractions.

Overall, though, it's a very good showing for people probably unaccustomed to public speaking under pressure, and the presenters have a strong base from which to improve.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:14 PM on October 17, 2011


These are supposed to be hard to explain? I get them after reading the titles.

These are, almost without a doubt, not the actual titles of their theses.


This is, in fact, beyond doubt. At the beginning of each video, the facilitator in her introduction reads out the contestant's actual thesis title.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:04 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it got exported here to UBC.

A lot of the talks were *very* gimmicky - projects that were "sexy" but didn't have any actual content got judged higher than "interesting" projects that were complicated and hard to explain to a general audience.

A super great presentation by a friend of mine in my department got the "viewer's choice" award (he has a patent on that discovery, has multiple job offers from mainland China/Taiwan Universities); the actual winner went to someone who was ok at speaking, *amazing* at self promotion, but ultimately completely BS in whether it could lead to a real-world application/solution.

It's an interesting concept, and encourages people to condense their work... but... a lot of basic research can't be distilled down to a 3 minute talk to a general audience. A 3 minute talk to a specific audience? Ok. A general audience? <expletive> An audience of university students, MAYBE. A general-general audience? No way.

The competition is interesting, got lots of interest, and got some legs.

As an outreach to the general public? I see it as a massive failure.
posted by porpoise at 10:19 PM on October 17, 2011


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