Graduate School Hosts Three Minute Thesis Competition

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Kate McLellan, a graduate student in Environmental Conservation and overall winner of the 2017 3MT Competition, presents her research to more than 250 spectators.

Ten graduate students will distill their doctoral or master’s theses into accessible three-minute oral presentations as they contend for a $1,000 first prize in the final round of the university’s second annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition on Friday, March 2 at 1 p.m. in the Campus Center Auditorium.

The culmination of a three-week-long contest designed to test participants’ research communication skills, the competition was organized by the Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development (OPD). The 3MT Competition attracted 50 entrants from eight of the university’s colleges and 28 academic departments. Contestants participated in a preliminary round to vie for a spot in the finals and were evaluated based on their ability to explain the significance of their research to a general audience in three minutes or less.

During the competition, speakers have addressed a wide array of subjects, including the development of biodegradable packaging, reversing muscle fatigue in older adults, interactions between water pollutants and pharmaceuticals, and the evolution of human sweating. In addition to the $1,000 first prize, $500 awards will be given to the contest runner-up and the audience’s choice for best speaker.

“The Three Minute Thesis Competition is simply a remarkable event,” says Barbara Krauthamer, dean of the Graduate School. “In the preliminary rounds of this contest, our students showcased the enormous creativity and expertise animating their research while compressing the complex ideas underlying this work into succinct, compelling and readily understood narratives. I am greatly looking forward to the 3MT finals, which will feature an array of talented research communicators performing at the highest level possible.

Because the competition develops the fundamentally important skill of communicating specialized ideas to a general audience, the challenging work required to create a 3MT presentation will, Krauthamer says, reap significant dividends for participants. “The central concern of most academic training is the discovery of new knowledge rather than the communication of that knowledge to a broad audience,” she says. “Consequently, academic researchers usually thrive at conveying their ideas to colleagues with whom they share a common language but often face steep challenges in explaining their research to non-specialists. Yet professional advancement—beginning with conducting a successful job search or securing research funding from a government agency—often hinges on the ability to explain the overarching purpose and importance of technical research to disparate groups. And it is precisely this skill that the Three Minute Thesis Competition helps students acquire.”

Ultimately, the 3MT Competition may also play an important role in elevating the image of the university and academia more broadly. “When researchers equip themselves to convey the relevance of their work across multiple disciplines and professions, they are also better positioning themselves for success within and beyond the academy,” says Heidi Bauer-Clapp, assistant director of the Office of Professional Development and lead organizer of the 3MT Competition. “But they are also positioning themselves to enhance the image of the university by illustrating how research undertaken at UMass benefits society by helping solve some of the most urgent problems confronting humanity today. Through the development of strong research communication skills, scholars can more easily participate in ongoing public dialogue on a wide range of topics and elevate the reputation of the university while doing so. Consequently, improving the ways in which scholars talk or write about their work serves as one key to improving the public perception of academic work.”

The 3MT Competition serves as a cornerstone event in the Graduate School’s larger effort to strengthen student research communication skills. In addition to organizing a series of preparatory workshops for the competition, OPD has also previously sponsored high-profile presentations by the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication, the Spoken Science communications consulting firm, and other specialists in the field of research communication. Attracting more than 400 student participants, this programming has been well received across campus.

“Over the past several years, the academy has increasingly come to understand the considerable value of research communication skills, a trend that is reflected in the growing popularity of Three Minute Thesis Competitions on multiple continents,” Bauer-Clapp says. “Since the first 3MT contest was organized in 2008 at the University of Queensland, more than 350 other universities have held similar competitions. Internationally, we are witnessing a cultural shift in the way academics perceive the importance of research communication to scholarly work. Here at UMass, the Office of Professional Development is attempting to initiate a similar cultural shift among graduate students. We want them to understand that their ability to connect with many different kinds of audiences about the nature of their research will benefit themselves, their profession, the university, and academia itself.”

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