One slide and three minutes: How PhD students are trying to explain their life’s work to the masses

One slide and three minutes: How PhD students are trying to explain their life’s work to the masses

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Ain Kim’s exploration of neurodegenerative proteinopathies has taken three years of research and nearly 15,000 words — so far. She likely has another two years and 30,000 words to go.

But recently, it all came down to a moment. Well, three minutes to be exact.

That’s the amount of time the University of Toronto PhD student had to explain the complexity of the work that could quite well define her career.

In the U of T preliminary rounds of the 3-Minute Thesis — an internally recognized competition in which graduate students have three minutes and one static slide to present their scholarly work to the public — Kim described how artificial intelligence can help scientists understand the pathological subtypes of a rare and terminal neurological disorder called multiple system atrophy.

It’s a complicated topic, requiring references to such terminology as “misfolded alpha synuclein,” but when Kim presented on March 14, she began by verbally painting a portrait of “James,” a brilliant jazz musician who had lost the ability to perform. Kim, inspired by her own love of playing the trumpet, immediately set the scene of what was at stake and the role her research could have in further discoveries potentially leading to early diagnosis.

“Graduate students get opportunities to present their research, but they’re limited to academic conferences: You have to give a professional presentation, and that’s what we’re trained to do,” said Kim. But “when I talked about my research to my friends, they would just be, like, I don’t really understand what you’re saying.”

And that she found shocking: “What’s the point if the general audience doesn’t understand what we’re doing or what’s going on in the lab … and how it is benefitting (them)?”

Which is how the 26-year-old found herself in front of a panel of judges explaining the relevance of her field of study in the time it takes to boil an egg. Kim is moving on to U of T’s semifinals this week.

Beyond seeming like a bit of fun, there’s real purpose to this competition, which began in Australia in 2008 and is now held in 900 post-secondary institutions in 85 countries. Currently across Canada, graduate students are making their way through 3MT campus competitions with an eye to regionals this spring, nationals in late fall, and perhaps even to the North American showcase, which a Canadian-based researcher won for the first time last year.

It is part of a broader effort to break down the myth of the ivory tower — one that posited the academic researcher as someone disconnected from real life, cloistered behind ivy-covered walls. Be it video-based competitions (Gradflix or SSHRC’s Storytellers Challenge) or a student who has turned their thesis into a coffee-table book or a social media community that is sharing research in bite-sized ways, there is a move afoot in academic circles to synthesize and make accessible what once may have seemed incomprehensible.

The public often doesn’t understand how much of the knowledge and innovation they use on a daily basis has been developed by graduate students, said Ian Wereley, executive director for the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, which has run 3MT nationally since 2014 (there is also a French-language version). “I think there’s this misunderstanding that (they) are somehow aimless or unproductive or haven’t figured it all out or haven’t got a job yet, when in reality they’re actually contributing a great deal.”

The shift in thinking over the last decade is that research shouldn’t be locked up in universities, but rather mobilized and shared with the public, said Wereley. It’s an idea reinforced by grant agencies who now strongly encourage funding applicants to explain not only why their research is important but also how it is going to engage the community and improve society.

“The 3MT and other kinds of research communication efforts are a way of translating research for a general audience, and that’s a real important soft skill.”

It’s something students can take with them wherever they go, including outside of academia, said Kelly Lyons, acting vice-dean, Research and Program Innovation at U of T’s School of Graduate Studies. The 3MT competition, now in its 10th year at U of T, creates a buzz, she added, with department faculty encouraging students to participate. This year, 76 presented.

“The ability to express in a short amount of time with not a lot of visuals is a skill set that is extremely valuable. And that’s why it’s exciting.”

Making research accessible

There are almost 280,000 graduate students in Canada, with 59,000 studying for a doctorate, and enrolment is growing. Those pursuing professional degrees in law or medicine don’t have to explain much to their parents. But what if you spent five years studying glacierized basins?

If you are Caroline Aubry-Wake, you turn your 84,618-word thesis (on how mountain snow, and ice, supply water to downstream rivers) into a self-published coffee-table book, complete with photos from your Instagram account and a breezily written narrative at a fraction of the length.

Then you share it with loved ones.

“My parents are not scientists,” said the 32-year-old who successfully defended her dissertation and will convocate from the University of Saskatchewan in June. “They’ve been trying to support me, and they’re trying to be interested in my work … They even try to read my scientific articles, but they are not the easiest things to read.”

So her parents were pleased to receive their copy of the book, which has pride of place in the family living room in Rimouski, Que.

After tweeting a video of herself flipping through the finished product last year, Aubry-Wake, who is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, was inundated by inquiries from scientists interested in following her lead. She understands why.

“It is hard when you spend all of your mental energy and all of your time working on this very, very specific question. It is all-consuming … And it makes it a little bit difficult not to be able to explain it all to the people who are in your life.”

Graduate student Nathan H. Clarke challenges his peers to try to do so in three words or less. As founder of The PhD Place, an online support community for doctoral students, he often prompts his 77,000 Twitter followers, which include Canadian-based researchers.

“The ‘three-word challenge’ is a particular favourite of mine because it encourages you to present your research topic in an accessible way,” said the 25-year-old PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. “We like to encourage silliness, and although this might seem like another fun internet challenge, it has led to collaborations which might otherwise have been missed.”

Clarke, who launched his network a year ago after experiencing the isolation of academic life, often finds the humour in his journey: “I’m quietly comforted by the fact that only three people will read my PhD thesis,” he recently tweeted.

But graduate students face serious challenges, notes Wereley, from mental health to financial struggles. Even once they finish their thesis and get their degree, they “are usually about 35 years old, don’t have a house, often aren’t married and need to find a job.”

As a graduate student, you really have to have a passion for your subject, noted Lyons. “You have to have it in your heart as much as in your head because it takes so long.”

Finding the ‘sweet point’

McGill University graduate student Atia Amin has it in both.

That’s likely why the 29-year-old, who is studying insect-borne diseases with an eye to contributing to the development of vaccines, claimed the North American 3MT title in San Francisco last December.

“When you explain a four-year, five-year-long research project within three minutes, you need to get rid of a lot of complex terms, but that doesn’t mean that you have to oversimplify it,” Amin said, sharing her strategy. “You have to find the sweet point, a balance, so that the audience can see the scholarly value of your research.”

So in her presentation, for example, Amin referred to “exosomes” as “tiny bubbles.” And to get to the heart of her research, she shared the personal story of a teenage girl afflicted with leishmaniasis — a parasitic disease common in Amin’s homeland of Bangladesh.

Besides bragging rights and modest cash prizes ($8,000 in total), Amin’s success has snagged her an invite to speak at Qatar University this May.

But her ultimate hope is to inspire others to participate, especially those like her for whom English is not a first language.

In fact, besides attracting STEM students in droves (only a small fraction come from the humanities), the 3MT competition draws a significant cohort of international students and, Wereley noted, they have historically made up half of the national winners.

“A challenge for a lot of graduate students, and especially those that are first generation, is they have to explain to family members who may have never done university, why they’re doing it, why they’re taking time, why they’re costing money or perhaps moving away and seemingly spinning their wheels,” said Wereley.

“If you read the dissertation, that’s going to help, but if you watch the 3MT presentation and look at all the people clapping, that will go a long way.”

Janet Hurley is a Toronto Star journalist and senior writer covering culture, education and societal trends. She is based in Toronto. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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