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A thesis in three minutes

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Spring


The poster plastered around the Yale campus was succinct: Three Minutes, One Slide, Big Ideas.

This was the three-minute thesis competition. Graduate students and postdocs would have just 180 seconds to boil their research down to its basics, with just one slide to illustrate their thesis.

On April 13 the 11 finalists in the first such competition at Yale made their elevator pitches before about 50 people in The Anlyan Center auditorium. Their research ranged from building artificial lungs, to the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, to conservation issues in China, to the origins of the notion of corruption.

“The skills you have perfected today will be very valuable going forward. Just being able to explain what you study to your parents, to your friends, to your taxi driver will help people understand the excitement and value of academic research,” said Lynn Cooley, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the C.N.H. Long Professor of Genetics, and professor of cell biology and of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.

Cooley led a panel of judges that included Eileen O’Connor, vice president for communications at Yale; Angelika Hofmann, who teaches a course in scientific writing for postdocs; and Kyle Gibson, a producer for ABC News Nightline and winner of several Emmy Awards. They ranked the students based on criteria including the clarity of their presentation, the accessibility of their language, and their stage presence.

The first student on deck, Alexander Engler, who studies biomedical engineering, got right to the point. “I am here to tell you how we can grow you a new lung,” he said.

Engler was one of 11 finalists in the competition’s third and final day. Previous rounds had reduced the field from 30 students and postdocs. A tie led to 11 instead of 10 finalists.

The process started weeks earlier with proposals from 40 students and postdocs. The 30 students who made that first cut then went on to prepare their pitches with one-on-one help from staff at the Office of Career Strategy, which sponsored the competition. Matthew Piva, a graduate student in neuroscience and a McDougal Graduate Career Fellow, organized the event with four other McDougal Fellows.

The idea for the three-minute (3MT) competition emerged from the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008. Over the next two years it spread to other universities in Australia and New Zealand, and since 2011, 3MT competitions have been held at more than 350 universities in 59 countries. This was the first time one has been held at Yale.

Daniel Jones, the only humanities student in the finals, said that his first draft clocked in at 15 minutes. “It wasn’t going to work,” he said. “I had to take out all the stuff I thought was the best stuff.” The history student argued that corruption and democracy were born at the same time, along with the concept that a public position is not for private gain. His slide included a red Make America Great Again cap, the symbol of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Being able to communicate your research in a short amount of time before a non-specialist audience is important,” said Lily Zeng, a student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Her presentation was about reconciling conservation efforts with social benefits for indigenous communities when protecting sacred forests in China. “It forces you to have a better understanding of your own work. It’s really easy to hide behind jargon and buzzwords.”

Lindsey Stavola, who’s completing her Ph.D. this year in cellular and molecular physiology, found herself rehearsing everywhere. While she cooked her morning oatmeal in her microwave—set to three minutes—she ran through her presentation.

Stavola took first prize, an Apple Watch, for her presentation on finding ways to prevent cyst growth in kidneys that can enlarge the organ from the size of a fist to the size of a football. “Imagine if you had to spend the rest of your life attached to a machine,” she said. Polycystic kidney disease, she said, can be fatal, requires dialysis, and can only be cured through transplantation. Her solution involves controlling polycystin, a channel in kidneys that normally sends electrical signals but can go awry. “I am searching for the key to open the polycystin channel in order to send a message,” she said.

Levi Smith, a student in cell biology, won second place for his research on Alzheimer’s disease. The disease, he said, leads to a “dying brain poisoned by amyloid beta.”

Yangqi Gu, a student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, took third place for his study of how bacteria defy the laws of physics to attach themselves to human skin.

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