Grad students deliver quickfire research summaries at 3MT competition
At the all-day event, 24 students had three minutes each to present their research findings
A graduate student’s final project represents years of hard work, backed by a full understanding of their academic discipline. For many, that final project is the crowning achievement of their early academic careers.
But each year, a select group of UND graduate students takes it a step further by breaking their work down, eliminating the jargon and distilling their research to its most essential elements. Then there’s the kicker: they deliver the results in three minutes flat.
This idea is the hook behind the Three Minute Thesis competition held annually by UND’s School of Graduate Studies. The competition offers prizes of up to $500 and, for the first-prize winner, a trip to Portland, Ore., to compete in the regional 3MT event.
Families, faculty and peers filled the large Memorial Union ballroom last Wednesday, facing the stage and projector where in-person and remote graduate students delivered their 3MT talks. The first few rows were filled with nervous graduate students, waiting for their turn.
No wonder they were anxious, said Joe Useldinger-Hoefs, a Civil Engineering graduate student and one of the event’s six finalists. That’s because despite their bite-sized nature, these presentations were the product of months of hard work.
“It was a lot of preparation,” he said. “We had monthly meetings with our supervisors, who helped us with our visuals and our speeches. The end of December alone, we put in 10 hours in two weeks, and this last week was easily 10 hours by itself. Last night I was up until 4 a.m., rehearsing my presentation.”
In total, 24 graduate students presented, representing disciplines ranging from English and Data Science to Public Health and Aerospace Sciences. This breadth of topics offered the audience an expansive view of UND’s academically diverse graduate programs.
The broad spectrum of material was a real point of interest for the students, too, said Taylor Dolan, an Atmospheric Sciences graduate student who felt enriched seeing the work of her peers.
“It was really great just to see what everyone else is doing on campus,” said Dolan, who nabbed third place in the final round. “When you’re really involved in your own departments, there’s some insulation from what’s going on with everyone else. It was really nice just to get together and celebrate everyone’s work here.”
A rotating panel of judges from across the UND and Greater Grand Forks deliberated at the end of each round, determining which two students would progress to the final round. A total of six students were honored with this distinction, each earning a chance to present their speeches one last time and vie for the top three awards.
Although the honors were enticing, that’s far from the only thing that attracted students to the competition, said Julie Bean, director of graduate student engagement and Three Minute Thesis organizer. For example, one big reason why UND hosts the event is to help students develop skills that will help them in their careers.
“These students are dealing with a lot of complex terms and concepts,” Bean said. “So, one of the main goals of this competition is for students to learn how to communicate to a non-specialist audience, so that anybody would be able to hear about their research and understand it. That brings their research to life for the majority of folks.”
Joe Useldinger-Hoefs agreed, saying that the experience has helped him in his Civil Engineering education.
“This type of stuff can be very difficult to communicate with people outside of the field,” he said. But learning how to do so is vital: “Right now, I’m doing a project with the City of Grand Forks, and I have to be able to communicate this complex stuff with them. So, these skills we’re working on are transferrable there.”
Bean was delighted with the results of this year’s event. “We’ve been holding the competition annually for seven years now, and this year has been our best attended,” she said.
First place this year went to Danielle Germundson-Hermanson, a doctoral student in Clinical and Translational Sciences who presented research on food allergens and their connection to mental health.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes,” said Germundson-Hermanson, speaking of the judges who had to choose between presenters. “There are so many different projects here, and they were all so great. How can you even begin to judge these? I can only imagine how difficult that was, like comparing apples to oranges.”
“I feel honored to be the one competing,” she added. “It really could have been any of us, but I greatly appreciate the chance to be able to continue.” Germundson-Hermanson said she’ll soon reach out to Soojung Kim, 3MT’s lead trainer and director of UND’s Communication graduate program, to start prepping for the event in Portland in March.
The event was an entertaining and digestible showcase for the graduate research happening at UND right now. Chris Nelson, Dean of the Graduate School, says that this synthesis between approachability and high-level research is what makes the event special.
“I love that this competition gives us a forum, a showcase for the community. Our graduate students are working hard to advance UND’s research mission with very cool research, but a lot people don’t see it. And you don’t want to have people scratching their heads at six-syllable words when you’re exposing this great research to them, so what we’re doing here is important to facilitating that conversation.”
The top three students at this year’s 3MT determined by the judges were: In third place, master’s student in Atmospheric Science Taylor Dolan for “The El Nino Southern Oscillation & Climate Change in the Northern Great Plains;” in second place, master’s student in Biology Lydia Kantonen for “How does soil bacteria change during grassland restoration?;” and in first place, doctoral student Danielle Germundson-Hermanson in Clinical and Translational Science for “Food for Thought: Depression, Food Allergy, and the Histamine Hypothesis.”