Three-minute victory in Vegas

UND research competition champ hits jackpot at regional communication contest in City of Lights

Ian Foerster

Ian Foerster, a native of Pisek, N.D., and a doctoral student in chemical engineering, took first place in UND’s Three Minute Thesis Competition, before moving on to take the regional title in Las Vegas. His research pitch involves converting 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. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

One of UND’s own has been crowned the best research communicator in the region.

Ian Foerster, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Engineering who originally hails from Pisek, N.D., recently won first place at the Western Association of Graduate Schools Regional Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition. The contest, held March 21 in Las Vegas, brought together the best-of-the-best graduate research presenters from 12 universities.

Foerster punched his ticket to the competition by taking first place at UND’s local 3MT contest in January, where he simply and effectively described his research and its potential impacts to a panel of judges.

As a farm kid who grew up growing soybeans, Foerster has been looking into an efficient and potentially renewable way to convert waste from soybean-based fuel and chemical production into high-value carbon fiber. This fiber is lighter than steel, yet stronger, and can be found in transportation vessels like planes and cars, as well as items like golf clubs.

The benefits are clear – and so is Foerster’s explanation of them.

“There is really no downside to participating in this kind of contest,” he said of his journey to the championship. “It is an excellent way to develop and practice key communication skills.”

Ryan Menath, an Air Force combat pilot who will wrap up his history doctoral work this month, was awarded second place at the UND 3MT competition for his presentation on making history relevant.

“These two individuals are great representatives of the research opportunities available at UND – one from engineering, one from the humanities,” said UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo. “When you combine our varied disciplines with skills to communicate that work in a succinct, understandable and attention-grabbing way, there are no limits to the success our students will find.”

Ryan Menath, Ian Foerster and Grant McGimpsey

UND’s most recent Three Minute Thesis Competition runner-up and champion, Ryan Menath (left) and Ian Foerster (middle), respectively, have lunch with UND Vice President for Research & Economic Development Grant McGimpsey (right), during an occasion to honor the students for their innovative research. UND President Mark Kennedy and Provost Tom DiLorenzo also were in attendance. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Competitive communicators

A 3MT contest has a strict set of rules – only one static PowerPoint slide, no props, and, of course, the contestants are racing a three-minute timer. The “elevator pitches” are judged on comprehension, content, engagement and communication.

It can be a lot of pressure, but Foerster didn’t let it get to him on that Las Vegas stage.

“I had managed to make it through my presentation without going over three minutes or making any real mistakes. I had done my best and was feeling pretty satisfied,” he recalled. “Everyone had done very well and there was really no way to say who would be the winners. I was proud to have been associated with such talented individuals, and winning was very exciting.”

Ian brought home a $500 cash prize, but the bragging rights may be even more valuable. Today’s employers are looking for those who can communicate ideas effectively, and UND provides those skills with its liberal arts foundation.

“The ability to explain ones’ work succinctly will increase the chances that others will understand the significant nature of their research and help fund it for the future,” said UND President Mark Kennedy. “One of the goals of the One UND Strategic Plan is providing students with more high-impact opportunities to hone those skills, so that they are prepared for those conversations later in their careers.”

Now that he’s a titleholder, Foerster’s immediate goals are to finish his research and graduate later this year. From there, he’ll go wherever his experiences lead him.

“I would be perfectly happy continuing with academic and research work,” he said, “but there is a certain allure to gaining experience working in industry.”

See for yourself

If you’re curious to see how the contest works, clear your afternoon schedule.

Today (April 17), Foerster will join other student researchers from UND and North Dakota State University for a Three Minute Thesis Showcase at the Alerus Center. The event runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. with a reception to follow.

It is free and open to the public.