Anne-Marie Lacroix usually tells people she studies bacteria.

"It's easier that way," the McMaster University student said, with a laugh.

Her PhD research is actually far more complicated, and important, than what is summed up in a one-word explanation — she studies a type of bacteria, Streptococcus milleri, and why it can live happily in the airways of healthy people but cause difficulty in cystic fibrosis patients.

"It's a challenge for a lot of scientists that focus on the details [to explain this]," she said. "We focus a lot on our experiments, but we have to focus on the big picture."

That's why Lacroix, along with 39 other masters and PhD students, chose to be the guinea pigs in McMaster's inaugural 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition Thursday. It challenges students to present their thesis in three minutes or less. The competition requires students to compress what could be years of research and data into a short presentation understandable to a non-academic audience.

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Anne-Marie Lacroix presented her thesis: 'DNA uptake by the Streptococcus Milleri group.' (Julia Chapman/CBC)

"It used to be that [students] went into PhD programs and would go on to become professors but these days, only about 25 per cent of them end up in those career paths," said Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of grad studies at McMaster. "We're trying to figure out how can the students have the skills that they need to succeed regardless of their career path."

Sekuler learned about 3MT from a colleague at Queensland University in Australia who started 3MT in 2008. Thinking of ways to encourage affective communication for her graduate students, she brought the competition here. This year, 15 Ontario universities are involved.

Participants present their thesis to a panel of judges made up of non-academic community members. The judges select finalist to move on to the provincial competition on April 18. Judges grade students on comprehension, engagement and communication.

Students came to the competition with varying topics: anything from  'Selecting Suburban Church Sites: Why Pastors & Church Leadership Preference Greenfield Land' to 'An Investigation into the Blueness of Red Apples.'

"It's a really good exercise for students to think about their research in a different way and go into the job market and say 'this is why research matters, this is why my research matters," she said. "This will be hugely useful for them no matter what they do."

Sekuler said the public speaking aspect throws most students out of their comfort zone. Lacroix included - she joined the competition to help get over her fear of public speaking.

Lacroix won't be one of two students to go on to the provincial finals at Queen's University next Thursday, but walked away from the competition having learnt an important lesson.

"For me, it's really important to learn how to convey my message to the general public," Lacroix said. "It's something I can carry with me later on."