On the clock: Competition places graduate research centre stage

While their complex research projects could – and often, do – fill hundreds of pages, Western graduate students had only three minutes to explain their work and its impact to a diverse audience as the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS) hosted 3MT, a three-minute thesis competition developed at The University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia.

“We wanted to provide students with an avenue to disseminate their research to a broad audience,” said Wesley Moir, SGPS web coordinator, who organized the event. “The point of the event wasn’t to compete; it was to encourage students to refine their presentation skills surrounding their work.”

The goal of 3MT, according to organizers at UQ, is to foster communication and academic skills by building students’ capacity to effectively translate their work to an intelligent, non-specialist audience – all within a three-minute timeframe.

The first competition at UQ, four years ago, drew 160 graduate students. Since, universities around the globe have adopted the concept. Western’s competition – among the first of its kind in Canada – saw more than 100 students present their work to a panel of judges that included a broad selection of staff and faculty members. Five heats were held during the last week of April, and from them, 21 students moved on to the finals on April 24.

Masters of Clinical Anatomy student Laura Von Hagen won first place for her presentation focusing on determining the best clinical outcomes from diet and exercise in obese pregnant women.

The competition, she said, benefits her and the other participants in a number of ways.

“A lot of (academics) are bad at explaining their research, so this helps with that ‘elevator speech’ at a conference and it will help me be an engaging professor,” she noted.

Second place was a tie between Fuli Xiang, a physiology PhD student, and Jenna Butler, a masters of Computer Science student. Both noted learning how to effectively summarize their research and its impact in a short time can go a long way in furthering their work.

“If you can’t effectively communicate your research to someone, your research is effectively useless. As my supervisor told me, if you’re somewhere and you happen to bump into someone who could give you a grant, and you only have two minutes of their time to make them realize how important you are in the field, it’s really good to have that (explanation) on the ready,” Butler explained, adding she also enjoyed having the opportunity to hear what a wide variety of Western’s graduate students are working on.

“In that (competition) setting, you didn’t need to know all the background but could still understand it.”

Xiang agreed. “I think it’s very beneficial to introduce knowledge to the public and to listen to different projects and learning what people are doing in different departments is really interesting. Actually, we learned a lot from the presentation,” she said.

In third place was Yin Liu, a pharmacology PhD student. Liu echoed Butler and Xiang ‘s appreciation of hearing a wide array of research topics in a short time.

“Because you only have three minutes, you can sit there for an hour and listen to what many other people are doing. Every three minutes you hear a new idea, and that’s excellent,” he said, adding he liked the time and presentation aide constraints – one, non-animated slide – because it taught him to see presentations in a new, non-formulaic light.

He also said in the future, he hopes more students, staff and faculty come out to watch the competition, an interesting and educational experience for all – not just the presenters.

Given this year’s success and positive feedback, Moir said the competition will continue at Western.

“3MT will definitely be an annual event. Our goal next year is for individual faculties to host their own heats and SGPS will host the finals,” he said.

“We are hoping that this form of organization will encourage greater participation from all disciplines and allow the finals to be a great representation of the variety of research being conducted across campus. We are also hopeful that the event catches on with other Ontario universities, too, so one day, there might be a province-wide or national event (similar to what’s currently done in Australia and New Zealand).”

Laura Von Hagen, MSc, Clinical Anatomy, 1st Place
Exercise, Diet or Both: Determining the Best Method to Improve Clinical Outcomes in Obese Pregnant Women


 “Obesity in pregnancy is on the rise in Canada and when children are born, they’re more likely to have high birth weight and other complications. This suggests that fetuses in obese women have a different environment than those in normal weight women, so we think they are programmed to have metabolic issues. …

“As these babies grow up, (they’re) more likely to grow up to be obese and have physiological issues as they become adults, lifestyle problems and diseases such as diabetes hypertension and a lower quality of life. We want to break the cycle and target right where obesity begins – which is with mom. We have groups of women with diet intervention and a dietician, groups in an exercise walking program on a treadmill and groups that get both. We think all of the groups will improve but we really want to know what works best – diet, exercise or both.”

Fuli Xiang, PhD, Physiology, 2nd Place
Mending the Broken Heart by Attracting Stem Cells


 “I used the ‘broken heart’ to describe the situation when a heart attack happens. When a heart attack happens, the area surrounding the atria will die. A lot of people suddenly die because of this – functional heart failure. And 50 per cent (of people) will die of heart failure. …

“My study tried to improve heart repair after a heart attack. We know stem cells inside a human body are able to repair tissue with neo-generated tissue but the problem is how (do we) attract stem cells to the area and get them to do the job? My study is putting a special protein in the heart that can attract stem cells and keep them alive so they can do a better job inside the ‘broken heart.’ I found that the mouse with stem cells in the heart, (with) more of them in the damaged area has better heart function and survives longer. More (mice) survived after a heart attack. This reveals stem cells as factor in therapy after a heart attack.”

Jenna Butler, MSc, Computer Science (Bioinformatics), 2nd Place
Simulating a Silent Killer


“We’re modeling the switch from avascular growth to vascular growth – from before (the tumour) has its own set of blood supply and after. Right now, we’re modeling individual aspects of tumour cells, so we’re looking at how much oxygen does each cell need, when does it die, divide and mutate. Using all of those individual components, we say ‘go’ and watch them grow. We’re trying to see how the impact of the environment affects the tumour. …

“Cancer study now is very archaic – really the best thing to do is to cut you open and dig it out. That’s our best option. Chemo and radiation are damaging to the body and often don’t target the right cells. We really don’t have good means of stopping this disease still, so the traditional reductionist methods of studying it are starting to accept that this model where I can show a hundred different things at once may actually be better, or at least be really good, in conjunction with what we’re doing now.”

Yin Liu, PhD, Pharmacology, 3rd Place
NOing the Heart


“I looked at heart development and how the heart is formed. Heart malformation is the most common birth defect in humans and can be caused by genetic cues and other cues. I’m focusing on the genetic cue. …

“I noticed this one enzyme that produces nitric oxide is important in heart development. So, we decided to look at why (it’s important) and what step (in development) is the most important, so why do we have a malformed heart? We noticed that when you don’t have this enzyme – called ENos – it causes malformation with a defect being that you have a hole between the ventricle and the atria. The result is reduced coronary artery volume, a lack of blood supply and valves that are malformed.”