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Competition Challenges Grad Students to Make Their Research Accessible

Graduate students might seem to live in some sort of parallel existence, immersed in esoteric research that the person on the street can’t understand.

by University of Virginia
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But that research can often have great benefits for the public at large, so learning to summarize and explain it can go a long way toward winning friends and influencing people.

Summarizing one’s research quickly and coherently was the focus of the second annual Three Minute Thesis competition, hosted recently by the University of Virginia’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.

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The competitors included eight U.Va. graduate students from an array of disciplines, and judges awarded first-, second- and third-place prizes, along with an audience choice award. The competition, held Sept. 25, drew a crowd of academics and community members interested in learning about research at U.Va.

Judges awarded first place to graduate chemistry student Stacy Malaker’s explanation of her research, “Stopping Cancer Before it Starts: Development of a Groundbreaking Vaccine”; she took home a $1,000 prize and advanced to Universitas 21’s worldwide “3MT” competition. Christine Hardigree of the Curry School of Education took second and a $500 prize, and physics student Ajinkya Kamat was third, winning $250. Eric Greenwald, a biomedical engineering student, won the Audience Choice Award.

For Amy Clobes, associate director of professional development in the Office of the Vice President for Research, one of the primary benefits of the event is that competitors must figure out how to communicate their research to a general audience.

“Graduate students often become entrenched in the highly specific expertise and jargon of the field they spend many years mastering,” she said. “The complex research topics these students address can greatly benefit society, if only the work and its significance can be clearly and compellingly communicated.

“Beyond the technical expertise that graduate students develop in their fields of study, we also would like for employers to know that with the Ph.D. degree comes a package of skills and competencies that no other training can provide. Our hope is to use events like the 3MT competition to add functional communication skills to that package, thus making our Ph.D.s extremely marketable in virtually any employment sector,” she said.

Malaker said she is used to simplifying her profession for her parents, who have a limited scientific background, and for a brother with Down syndrome and a sister is who is seven years younger than her. “I’m used to breaking down what I do into simpler terms. This was an exercise that forced me to structure the simplicity,” she said. “The most nerve-wracking part is making sure you’re going to be under three minutes.”

Malaker’s approach to a cancer vaccine follows a similar track as other vaccines, such as those for chicken pox and polio, which train the immune system to fight off the disease before it fully develops. “Imagine we can do the same thing, but with cancer,” said Malaker, who in 2013 found a sugar molecule modification that fights cancer, expanding the field of vaccine research.

She said she enjoys the chance to share her research publicly. “I hope the audience was introduced to the groundbreaking research at U.Va. I hope [my research is] something they’ll talk about with their family and friends, saying, ‘There’s this girl I heard about who’s working on a cancer vaccine,’” she said. “The more knowledge that’s out there about this research, the better.”

Malaker’s 3MT video was sent to the international competition. She did not win, but found the experience valuable.

“No one likes cancer, so I know my research sells itself,” Malaker said. “But it’s a great feeling to know people find your research interesting. I pour my heart and soul into it. I spend every waking minute working on it, so to know there are people are also interested in it is rewarding.”

The other competitors were:

  • Francesca Tripodi, Sociology: “Media-in-interaction”
  • Niranjan Sridhar, Physics: “A Quantum Leap for Computing”
  • Juhi Ranjan, Computer Science: “Enabling Energy Conservation via a Personal Energy Metering System”
  • Ajinkya Kamat, Physics: “Can We Solve the Mystery of 'Neutrinos' at Large Hadron Collider?”
  • Jennifer Barlow, Spanish: “Iberian Daughters of Sappho: Female Friendship in Early Modern Spain”
  • Eric Greenwald, Biomedical Engineering: “Scaffold Proteins: (Un)leashing Efficient Communication”
  • Christine Hardigree, Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education: “The Secret Super Powers of Students”