Competition puts student researchers ‘on the clock’

Consider it an academic elevator pitch.

Following faculty-specific preliminary heats, student researchers across campus gathered recently for the annual 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, an exercise in communication during which students must translate the significance of their work to a non-specialist audience – all before the clock ticks to 180 seconds.

The campus competition, hosted by the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS), aims to develop academic, presentation and research communication skills.

This year, Jenna Butler, Science; Ryan Armstrong, Engineering; and Androu Abdalmalak, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, took home top honours.

Butler took home first place at Western, then went on to place second in 3MT Ontario 2015, hosted by Western April 23 at the Ivey Business School. As a result, she is one of five participants from Ontario, and among 11 nationwide, competing for the national top prize. Her videotaped presentation will be voted on by a panel of national judges, as well as viewers for a People’s Choice award. Visit the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies website to see the presentations and vote for your favourite. The national winner will be announced June 5.



Jenna Butler
PhD Computer Science
First place

Cancer is not only varied (with more than 200 distinct variants), but a clever disease with a host of mechanisms at its disposal for survival. That means one drug or one treatment may not be enough to stop its progress.

Butler has created a computer model of a general form of cancer that can be ‘treated’ virtually by adding elements into the simulation.

The simulation allows researchers to watch the cancer grow from a single cell to a fully detectable tumour, and then see what impact treatment combinations have. Thus far, she has tested more than 120 combinations of treatments by modelling their combined effects.

Simulations such as this allow researchers to narrow the field of what combinations need to be tested in actual patients – saving time, money and, most importantly, patients’ lives.


Ryan Armstrong
PhD, Engineering
Second place

Armstrong is developing virtual reality surgical simulators that recreate a number of neurosurgical procedures as a platform for surgeons to practice complex procedures in a safe environment. In addition to training, these simulators allow researchers to create metrics to evaluate surgical performance.

Armstrong is particularly interested in patient-specific surgical simulations, where researchers take actual clinical cases and create virtual scenarios using medical imaging data.


Androu Abdalmalak
MSc, Medical Biophysics and Psychology
Third place

Abdalmalak looks to create an alternative method of detecting brain activity in unconscious patients using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIR or fNIRS) – or lasers. His alternative would be a more cost-effective, more portable option to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG) currently used by researchers, including Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen.

Abdalmalak and his team have conducted an initial experiment on two healthy subjects, detecting activity in the primary motor cortex. The team is moving on the supplementary motor areas and, once the method is validated on healthy subjects, on to actual unconscious patients.