Rapid-fire research

UND grad students pull out best ‘elevator pitches’ at Three-Minute Thesis Competition

Ian Foerster

Ian Foerster, a native of Pisek, N.D., and a doctoral student in chemical engineering, is working to convert waste products from soybeans into high-value carbon fiber, which is stronger and more stiff than steel, yet lighter. It’s used in planes, cars, and even golf clubs. He took first place in the recent Three Minute Thesis competition at UND. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Ian Foerster wants to turn soybeans into bicycle frames, helicopter blades, cars and planes.

And he can tell you all about it in just three minutes.

Foerster and seven other finalists took part in the Three Minute Thesis competition on Jan. 25, where he took home first place and the people’s choice award. He also won a trip to the regional competition in Las Vegas in March.

Foerster, a doctoral student in chemical engineering, is working to convert waste products from soybeans into high-value carbon fiber, which is stronger and more stiff than steel, yet lighter. It’s used in planes, cars, and even golf clubs.

“I spent years raising soybeans,” said Foerster, who grew up on a farm near Pisek, N.D. “There’s more to them than meets the eye. I want to turn them into a high-value product.”

Three Minute Thesis Competition 2018

Founded in 2008 by the University of Queensland in Australia, the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition gives graduate students just three minutes and one slide to clearly and simply explain their research to judges and the public. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Take it public

Founded in 2008 by the University of Queensland in Australia, the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition gives graduate students just three minutes and one slide to clearly and simply explain their research.

It’s an opportunity to engage in public scholarship, said Grant McGimpsey, vice president for research and dean of graduate studies.

“This competition gives students a chance to showcase their work to the public,” McGimpsey said. “It’s really important to be able to communicate your work in an understandable way to a lay audience. We haven’t emphasized that as much as we should.”

The eight finalists, all graduate students, explained their research in just three minutes to a packed room and five judges from the community and university. Topics included speeding up simulations to develop cleaner energy, child abuse and the brain, classifying galaxies, how to define infidelity, how the Solar System formed, and using detergents to recover petroleum from rock.

Relevant history

Ryan Menath, a doctoral student in history, took second place with his work on making history relevant.

An Air Force combat pilot who flew KC10s over Iraq and Afghanistan, Menath said that during one deployment, he read a book about the American Revolution in his spare time.

“I was flying combat over Afghanistan, and thought that if you remove the names and dates, the British strategy for the American Revolution was eerily similar to what I was experiencing in Afghanistan,” Menath said. “I wondered why leadership doesn’t know this.” That kick-started his academic career, and Menath earned his master’s degree in history from another university and also taught at the Air Force Academy. He was transferred to the Grand Forks Air Force Base so he could earn his doctoral degree in history at UND.

Menath said he was pleased and surprised to take second place.

“All the finalists had strong research and presentations,” Menath said.

Ryan Menath, Chris Nelson and Ian Foerester

UND Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Chris Nelson (center with clock) honors UND Three Minute Thesis Competition finalists Ryan Menath (left), an Air Force combat pilot and history doctoral student at UND, and Foerster. Menath took second place for his research pitch. Foerster moves on to the next round of the competition in March in Las Vegas. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Pitch perfect

This is the second year the 3MT competition has been held at UND. It was brought to campus by Matt Gilmore, associate professor of atmospheric sciences.

“It’s so important for graduate students to know how to present what they’re doing to the public,” Gilmore said. “We owe it to the taxpayers. And it’s a great skill as students enter the job market. Your future boss may not understand what you do without an ‘elevator speech.’”

We are a public university that serves the public,” said emcee Chris Nelson, associate dean of graduate studies and associate professor of English. “We need to let people know what we’re doing and why research matters. When dad asks at Thanksgiving what you’re doing at school, you should be able to answer.”

“It’s so important to tell our communities about research,” said Thomas DiLorenzo, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “It’s really important to be succinct, short and clear, and to think of the audience.”

“I never expected to win an award, much less the people’s choice and first place,” said Foerster. “It was unexpected. There were a lot of great presentations. This is an opportunity to justify what I’ve been doing. I want to make the world a better place.”