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14 November 2016

Contests to communicate research gain in popularity

Graduate students are trying out Three Minute Thesis-type competitions for the soft skills, public connection – and just a tiny bit of fame.

If you think it’s hard to get a laugh when making a quip related to optometry, then you probably haven’t seen University of Waterloo PhD candidate Gah-Jone Won’ presentation that won him first place in this year’s Three Minute Thesis competition in early June.

The moment hits in the first 20 seconds of the video, setting the tone for the next 160 seconds, in which the viewer learns about a condition called presbyopia (age-related blurring of vision) and a drug that Mr. Won is developing as an alternative to the usual solutions of bifocal glasses or surgery. By the end, if you’re not quite thinking, “Optometry is fun!” then at least you’re thinking, “I sure know a lot more about the structure of my own eyes than I did three minutes ago.”

These competitions, you might say, are having their moment in Canada. Originating at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, the Three Minute Thesis competition, or 3MT, first appeared in Canada at the University of British Columbia in 2011 and went national two years later thanks to the sponsorship of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. Francophone students have their own competition, Ma thèse en 180 secondes, abbreviated as MT180, organized by l’Association francophone pour le savoir or Acfas. An early adopter, Acfas has organized a contest to popularize science for student researchers since 1993.

The granting councils have entered the ring as well: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council started its Storytellers competition in 2013, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council launched a contest called Science, Action! in 2015.

The rules differ somewhat for each competition. The 3MT, open to students in PhD or master’s programs, is a live talk that restricts competitors to one visual slide. Students compete at the department level, advance to the university level, and then each university sends one student to one of three regional (East, West and Ontario) competitions. At each of these stages students compete in front of a live audience. At the regional level, the competition is recorded and videos are evaluated by a national panel of three non-specialist judges who select first- and second-place winners. The first-place winner receives $1,500 and a paid trip to the CAGS annual conference; the second-place winner and a People’s Choice winner (the latter chosen by public vote) receive $1,000 and $500 respectively.

This year’s judges included The Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker, Canadian Institutes of Health Research director general Danika Goosney, and CBC Radio journalists Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell, who produce Ideas from the Trenches, the network’s new initiative to profile graduate student research. Students from 35 colleges and universities took part in the 3MT this year.

Canada’s francophone version of the 3MT has an additional twist: the top three finalists of the MT180 were invited to an international French language competition held at the end of September in Morocco. The three representatives from Quebec were Carine Monat of Université de Montréal, who had won both first place and the People’s Choice award in the Quebec competiton, followed by Alex Drolet-Dostaler of Université du Quebec en Outaouais and Maud Gratuze of Université Laval. Ms. Gratuze won second place in Morocco and a cash prize of $1,000.

In SSHRC’s Storytellers contest, open to all postsecondary students, competitors submit their entries in the format of their choice (video, audio, text or infographic) describing how SSHRC-funded research is making a difference in the lives of Canadians. The top 25 entries were selected as finalists and those students were invited to turn their submissions into a TED-talk-style presentation for a live audience at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, held this year at the University of Calgary in June, where five winners were chosen. The 25 finalists each received a cash prize of $3,000, and the five winners were also invited to feature their presentations at the 2016 SSHRC Impact Awards on Novembe 22. This year, students from 41 universities took part.

NSERC’s Science, Action! contest is open to all postsecondary students and the time limit for their videos is one minute. Public voting via social media selected a group of 15 finalists (who each received $5,000 in prize money), from which three winners were chosen by a jury. This year’s contest saw entries from students at approximately 30 institutions. It has proven popular enough that the agency also recently launched a photo contest called Science Exposed, which asks scientists to send in photographs alongside a short summary of the research they represent.

Darius Rackus, a PhD candidate in analytical chemistry at the University of Toronto, was the 2016 Science, Action! winner. His one-minute video, Shrinking the Lab, focuses on his lab’s work on digital microfluidics, a liquid-handling technology that allows diagnostic tests – for example, for diseases such as rubella and malaria – to be performed rapidly onsite rather than in a lab. The video has garnered more than 13,000 views on YouTube.

The contest, he says, offers participants the chance to show the public that research is interesting and important. “We’re in our labs day in and day out doing stuff that really excites us, really cool experiments, with taxpayer money. I think the big benefit is being able to share this with the general public so that they see the value in funding cutting-edge science.”

Kirk Luther, a Memorial University PhD candidate in forensic psychology, agrees: “It helps the public become active stakeholders in the research.” Mr. Luther was a 2013 winner of the SSHRC Storytellers competition and also won the 2014 3MT People’s Choice award, in both cases for videos which describe different projects within his research field of youth justice. “Rather than being published in an academic journal and sitting on a shelf getting dusty, people can access this research in a much more user-friendly manner,” he says.

The presentations can also be an important reference for another significant stakeholder. “After we made the movie, one of my colleagues said, ‘Wow, that’s great. I’m going to show it to my parents so they can finally understand what I do,’” says Mr. Rackus. He adds that postdoctoral students who join his lab now watch the video, and even his high-schoolaged cousins were impressed that a “video about science” could attract so many YouTube hits.

Connecting with the public is what motivates those who sponsor the competition as well. Brenda Brouwer, vice-provost and dean of the school of graduate studies at Queen’s University and president of CAGS, says the association had no hesitation stepping up to help take the 3MT competition national. “We said, ‘This is good for grad students.’ It’s good for public recognition of what our grad students do, and also the value of their research, not only to the discipline and to academics but more broadly to society.”

CAGS President Brenda Brouwer in a pre-competition pep talk with 3MT competitors at Queen’s University

While enthusiasm for these competitions seems to be on the rise here, back in Australia where the 3MT originates, not everyone is sold on them. Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the Australian National University and perhaps best known for her blog The Thesis Whisperer, wrote in a post this past June about the challenges of recruiting students to participate in the 3MT. Despite spending six months “marketing the hell out of this competition,” she says the “vast majority” of PhD students at her university don’t bother with it, even though the competition can attract upwards of 900 spectators from both the university and the wider public.

“I think it’s mostly cultural resistance by the old guard, those who say, ‘It’s not our role to entertain the masses,’” says Dr. Mewburn in an interview, “or snobby supervisors saying, ‘If you can say it in three minutes it’s not a thesis,’ or that it’s cheapening research.”

For Emma Vossen, an English PhD candidate at the University of Waterlo who studies feminist issues in video game culture making research accessible to an audience outside academia is so crucial that it was the topic of her presentation. A winner of the 2016 Storytellers contest, her video focuses on her work as editor of First Person Scholar, an online journal in the university’s Games Institute that publishes articles and reviews with the aim of making video game scholarship accessible beyond the academy. (The title is a play on the “first-person shooter” category of video games.)

“If we want our research to make changes to culture, industry and policy, we need our writing to be not only physicall accessible, but also understood by people without PhDs,” says Ms. Vossen in her video. In the past, she says she would hear regularly from professors that her accessible style of writing was “wrong for academia” and that she should try to change it.

Contest organizers side with Ms. Vossen. “It’s a lot of work distilling what’s often years of work into three minutes, to make it accessible and capture those key elements … but it’s a skill set that is transferable to whatever it is they’re going to do,” says Dr. Brouwer at Queen’s. Anecdotally, Dr. Brouwer says she’s also heard that a lot of international student participate in the contest for the additional benefit of practising their language skills. As well, the live competitions offer a chance to meet fellow grad students from other disciplines. “It’s an opportunity to network with other students, to find out more about what they’re doing.”

Mr. Won, this year’s 3MT winner, says meeting other students was definitely a major benefit of his participation. “I have to say it was one of the greatest experiences of my life because of the people you meet along the way. They’re very friendly, really. There’s no animosity between the contestants. They’re interested in your research and you develop an interest for their research. It’s a fantastic experience.”

Ironically, Mr. Won was a reluctant entrant to this year’s contest because he was trying to finish his dissertation in time to take up a postdoctoral position (he was scheduled to defend his thesis in October). He says it was the challenge that finally convinced him – along with his cheerleading supervisor, associate professor Vivian Choh, who encouraged him to participate and attended all his events. “I realized that it really is a fantastic opportunity to practise and polish up on your communication skills,” says Mr. Won.

Mr. Luther at Memorial concurs: “Public speaking was one of my major fears. I thought that by throwing myself out there, it would help me with the fear, which it really did.”

Beyond the advantage of having a ready elevator pitch for the rest of their careers, contest participants say they have received other tangible benefits from their wins. Mr. Luther says his videos have attracted attention from audiences to whom his youth justice work is most relevant, including non-profit, legal and police organizations. He’s also been invited to judge the Storytellers competition. Following her presentation at Congress, Ms. Vossen got the opportunity to participate on a panel about conveying complex research, the only graduate student alongside three Canada Research Chair holders and three CBC hosts. Mr. Won got to make his presentation in front of his university’s board of directors and to have dinner with them. The school of optometry also threw him a big party and he says he even got recognized in the grocery store after his win was covered on the local news.

Mr. Rackus at U of T was offered an opportunity to write a guest blog for the science website Research2Reality, something he says he’s always been interested in but never knew how to get into. He says these opportunities are not lost on him as he nears the end of his PhD. “I’m starting to learn that what separates out scientists when it comes to the job market are a lot of these soft skills. Being able to demonstrate that you’re a good communicator, for instance, is really helpful. If they’re looking at hiring two people, that could be a deciding factor,” he says.

Are you a grad student who has what it takes to compete? The next 3MT contest will happen in late March or early April; SSHRC’s Storytellers opens its competition in late November and closes on January 31, 2017; and NSERC’s Science, Action! contest opened on November 1 and closes on January 18.

This article was written by Suzanne Bowness and was first published in University Affairs.