Second annual Three Minute Thesis contest a success

Gradzette_3MT1-BEIBEI LU-Mar2014

The Robert B. Schultz Lecture Theatre at St John’s College hosted the U of M’s second annual Three-Minute Thesis competition for graduate students on Feb. 25.

Judging the event was Patricia Bovey, chair of the U of M’s board of governors; the honourable Theresa Oswald, Minister of Jobs and the Economy for the province; and Fiona Odlum, assignment editor with Breakfast Television for CITY-TV Winnipeg.

The goal of the contest is simple: graduate students must sum up their thesis research into just three minutes and present it to an audience.

In many cases this means the difficult task of whittling down years of research into this short format. The competitors were allowed a single, static PowerPoint slide to go along with their presentation, and had to meet a number of criteria upon which they were being evaluated. Scoring was based on how enthusiastic the students were, along with how clearly contestants communicated the significance of their research, and whether they were careful not to “trivialise or dumb down” their explanations.

In an evening that was equal parts entertaining and educational, the audience had the opportunity to hear from a cast of finalists that included nine doctoral and master’s students weeded out from three prior heat events.

Paul Samyn, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, was the emcee for the night and kept the tone of the competition light with jokes between each presentation. The real stars of the show, though, were the contestants themselves.

The graduates—enrolled in the programs of interior design; physiology; food sciences; immunology; community health sciences; the National Resources Institute; and English, film, and theatre—presented on topics ranging from the redesign of fitness clubs to be more inclusive to non-binary identities, to the construction of bio-prosthetic heart valves.

The food sciences doctoral student Havva Filiz Koksel’s thesis on the perfect loaf of bread won her the “People’s Choice,” an award voted on by the audience that comes with a $1,000 prize. Koksel’s delivery was fun and energetic as she explained how X-rays make the bubbles in dough yeast “dance,” accompanying the explanation with a little shimmy of her own.

Having worked on the subject of bread for three and a half years as her PhD project, Koksel says compiling those years of research into just three minutes was both the most difficult and the most fun part about the process.

“Because it isn’t only summing it up to three minutes, but it’s also summing it up for the general public; we’re not allowed to use the scientific jargon [that] we’re very comfortable with everyday.”

Two thousand dollars went to finalist Olivia Sylvester. The doctoral student, enrolled in the Natural Resources Institute, talked about protecting the rights of indigenous peoples’ access to their cultural foods in terms of managing rainforest biodiversity.

“Often, forest-managers don’t know how [to do this] because the people that manage forests are rarely the people that rely on them. In fact, only recently have some policies even recognized the need to balance the right to food with the goal of protecting nature,” said Sylvester.

Sylvester’s research took her to Costa Rica where she lived with the Bribri people for eight months in the forest to learn about their way of life when it came to accessing their food.

With content that needed to be cut for length, Sylvester says the most important aspect of her research that she would have liked to add to her presentation was the rich cultural history of the people and the fact that they “had been living in their lands for thousands of years managing their own resources for thousands of years.”

First place and the prize of $5,000 went to Andrea Edel, a physiology doctoral student who looked at flaxseed and how it works in lowering high blood pressure and cholesterol – a thesis she has been working on for four years.

“I started a draft [waiting in] a doctor’s office with my daughter [and I] started writing—didn’t even know I was accepted yet to even do this and I just started [jotting] ideas down—and this [was] probably a month before it started, just in case,” said Edel. “Because you just cannot rush something like this; you have to really think it through carefully and put it down on paper. As you think things and change things, a work of art comes out of it, I guess.”

The experiments of Edel’s research, touched upon in her presentation, showed “the largest reduction in blood pressure that has ever been observed using a nutritional product [and] a significant decrease in cholesterol.”

Edel’s performance also had a very personal touch to it. During her presentation she mentioned how her grandparents’ deaths were caused by a heart attack and stroke, respectively – both linked to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Edel’s mother is another person close to her who has recently been diagnosed with elevated blood pressure.

“I fear, based upon our genetic history, she may suffer the same fate as her parents. What does this mean for me, and my children?” Edel asked the audience.

“When I did my heat competition I was actually very emotional,” she said on the topic of her grandparents. “When I look at their pictures, and when I look at their faces, that’s when it becomes really tender to the heart. So I try to separate that a little bit, but it’s my family, so I can’t completely walk away from that.”

Upon being asked what she plans to do with the winnings, Edel says she’s “definitely a big supporter of the Heart & Stroke Foundation, so [contributing to that cause] is something I am definitely going to consider.”

Edel will go on to compete in the Western Regional on May 2 at the University of Calgary. Should she win there, Edel will have the opportunity to challenge other graduate students across the country at the National competition, held via virtual platform, later that month.

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