Like ‘Ted Talks’ for theses

UND ‘3MT’ national finalist Ian Foerster set bar high; new crop of students compete Jan. 23

Ian Foerster

Ian Foerster, a native of Pisek, N.D., and a doctoral student in chemical engineering, was UND’s Three-minute Thesis (3MT) champion in 2018. He would go on all the way to the national 3MT showcase in Washington D.C. Among other projects, Foerster is working to convert waste products from soybeans into high-value carbon fiber, which is stronger and more stiff than steel, yet lighter. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

If you go:
Third Annual Three Minute Thesis Competition
9 am. – 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 23
Memorial Union Ballroom
Open to all with reception to follow
Also available on Zoom 

Three minutes. One slide. That’s what it took for Ian Foerster to earn a trip to Las Vegas last year, where he won big – a trip to Washington, D.C.

Described as “Ted Talks for Scholars,” the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) features students who present their research in just three minutes to judges and the public.

The third annual contest at UND is set for Jan. 23 on campus.

“It’s really important for students to learn how to communicate their research to the general public,” said Matt Gilmore, associate professor of atmospheric sciences and the driving force behind bringing the competition to UND.

“A lot of us get asked at Thanksgiving dinner what we do, and we often see glazed eyes,” Gilmore continued. “We just don’t get enough practice explaining it in a way that anyone can understand.”

That’s where 3MT comes in.

The competition, which begins with workshops for graduate students in the fall, helps student researchers hone their presentation and learn to explain complicated topics.

“It’s a multi-step process with a lot of practice, peer and trainer feedback and revision,” said Gilmore.

Foerster agrees.

“3MT is structured to be a learning experience,” said Foerster, who tied for first place in Las Vegas and earned a trip to Washington D.C. for a 3MT showcase. “You build on your skills in organization, editing, presentation. I enjoyed the competitions and meeting students who are passionate about what they do and interested in what others do.”

Matthew Gilmore

Matt Gilmore, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, was a driving force behind bringing the 3MT competition to UND. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today.

Farm to fiber

Foerster, a doctoral student in chemical engineering who grew up on a farm near Pisek, N.D., is working on three projects. For 3MT, he chose to focus on his research converting waste products from soybean biofuel manufacturing into high-value carbon fiber, which is stronger than steel, yet lighter, and used in planes, cars and golf clubs. Currently, carbon fiber is made from petroleum products and is expensive. He hopes to cut costs and use renewable sources, such as soybeans, to make the fiber. That adds value to the soybeans.

Foerster is also doing research in cooperation with the University of Leeds in the U.K., which involves extracting oils from pond scum, which has a similar oil to soybeans. They’re working on ways to crack the cell wall and extract the oils for biofuels.

“It’s a third-generation biofuel,” Foerster said. “You can harvest a lot of it very quickly, and grow it in a tank, which is a non-traditional setting.”

His third project, in cooperation with NDSU, uses similar techniques to extract sugars from sorghum, a forage crop and cattle feed. Those sugars can be fermented to make ethanol, but Foerster and his collaborators are working to find ways to skip the fermentation and re-form the sugars into upgraded fuels and chemicals that are more useful than ethanol.

Ryan Menath, Chris Nelson and Ian Foerester

UND Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Chris Nelson (center with clock) honors UND’s 2018 3MT Competition runner-up, Ryan Menath (left), an Air Force combat pilot and history major at UND, and champion, Foerster. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Taking part in 3MT

Regardless of the research, Foerster appreciates the opportunity to take part in 3MT.

“UND does important research,” he said. “I find my research very rewarding and challenging. Very few people get to do it. The 3MT competition shows that I’m able to be concise and explain my research to audiences.”

Preparing for 3MT takes practice, Foerster said.

“You need to hold peoples’ attention for three minutes,” he said. “If people aren’t interested for the first minute, there is no reason to keep listening. You need to hook them in the beginning and make people think your work is as interesting as you know it is. That’s the trick.”

“At last year’s 3MT event, an audience member approached a student at the reception to discuss connecting them with a company that would be interested in their research idea,” said Chris Nelson, associate dean for graduate studies. “3MT provides students with exciting opportunities to publicize their research, prepare them to succeed in finding employment, and become aware of and pursue potential interdisciplinary research collaborations with other participants.”

Another benefit, added Nelson, is that 3MT lets the public know what UND is doing.

“Speaking in language accessible to all about the kinds of exciting, groundbreaking research that goes on behind the bricks and mortar, its value and relevance to our local and regional communities, as in the case of Ian’s soybean research, not only cultivates an important, lifelong skill in our students, but also helps to cultivate stronger relationships with the public that supports UND,” said Nelson.

“These skills transfer to the job market,” said Gilmore. “You have to be able to interact with people and explain what you’re doing. That’s what employers are looking for.”