3-Minute Thesis competition: Because no one wants a nine-hour elevator pitch

For grad students, it’s the ultimate translation challenge: turn research and jargon into plain language with impact. Then deliver it in a three-minute speech.

Plain-language presentations make PhD research accessible to all, says U of A dean

Kleinberg Fernandez, second from right, with other University of Alberta students who participated in the semi-final round of the Three-Minute Thesis competition. (University of Alberta Faculty of Graduate Studies & Research)

For grad students, it's the ultimate translation challenge: turn research jargon into plain language with impact. Then deliver it in a three-minute speech.

"The research we're doing is a public good," said Debby Burshtyn, interim dean at the University of Alberta's faculty of graduate studies and research.

But it's not a good that is easily consumed by the public, in large part because academic research is hard to understand, Burshtyn said.

Enter the Three-Minute Thesis, a public-speaking competition that started a decade ago at Queensland University in Australia and has since spread to 86 countries and 600 universities, including the University of Alberta.

Presenting a PhD thesis in three minutes, accompanied by one visual graphic, is no small feat, given that some research papers could be 80,000 words and take nine hours to present.

On Tuesday evening, 15 U of A students who have made it through to the 3MT finals will give their elevator pitches — "the how and the what," as Burshtyn described it — to more than 200 audience members gathered at Convocation Hall, and hundreds more watching online.

For Burshtyn, it's one of the highlights of the year.

"I come away from their presentations on this evening not just inspired but incredibly humbled," Burshtyn told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Tuesday.

For Kleinberg Fernandez, a chemistry masters student, it's a nerve-racking exercise in anxiety but also really good practice for the real world.

"It took me a while," Fernandez said about his preparations for the presentation. "Most of my experience of telling people about my thesis was through the science community, specifically the chemistry community.

"It has given me a lot of experience to being able to put it into layman terms, to be able to communicate with people from very different backgrounds."

The research that Fernandez intends to pursue as a PhD candidate focuses on a naturally occurring peptide in the body called apelin. Apelin has properties that could help fight heart disease, but the peptide itself is constantly under attack by enzymes in the body, he said.

The research has major implications, given that more than 17 million people each year die of cardiovascular heart disease. There is also a personal aspect for Fernandez, whose grandfather had a stroke and has been living with its after-effects.

Promotional graphic for the Three-Minute Thesis challenge. (Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, University of Alberta)

For his presentation, Fernandez uses a Lego castle analogy — "or in my case a peptide castle" — that even includes a Game of Thrones reference to help him connect with the audience.

"You make a mega-castle because you might have soldiers or White Walkers … attacking your castle," he said.

"My research is basically improving their functionality, their protection and stability, to have a mega-apelin peptide. Our end goal is to come up with a new drug target for possible treatment of heart diseases, to help many people around the world, just like my grandfather."

Burshtyn noted that the ability to talk about research in plain language is becoming increasingly important, especially in conversations with fundraising stakeholders.

"The granting agencies and the public have said, 'We want to see in, we want to know.' "

The field of 15 students who will present at the Tuesday evening competition have been winnowed down from an original field of more than 50. The winner of today's 3-Minute Thesis competition will compete in the western regional finals.

The presentations, which take place between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., will be livestreamed

Burshtyn said a "smorgasbord" of topics are up for discussion, reeling off titles such as Powering the Top of the World, The Silence of the Cars, and Bilingualism in Children with Autism.

"It really does come back to being able to share what you're really trying to accomplish."