Stony Brook Hosts Three Minute Thesis Competition

By Francisco Delgado

Raja Pillai STONY BROOK, NY -- Stony Brook University hosted a 3 Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) on March 31, with 15 graduate students across the university participating. The competition, designed to help students develop as communicators, required participants to present their dissertation research findings to a general audience in three minutes, using only one slide.

Zoya Vallari (Physics and Astronomy) won the competition with Rajapillai Pillai (Neuroscience) taking second place; third place went to Elizabeth Trimber (Psychology). The People’s Choice Award, voted on by the audience, was a three-way tie involving Trimber, Vallari, and Pratik Kumar (Chemistry).

Planning for the event began this past summer. The committee consisted of Katy Flint Ehm, director of the Office for the Integration of Research, Education, and Professional Development (IREP), Alfreda James, assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the Career Center, and Vahideh Rasekhi, president of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO). “We worked together on everything,” Rasekhi said, “from getting judges to booking rooms, to getting catering and determining the judging criteria.”

Despite their careful planning, there were still some anxieties regarding student involvement. “Getting students from the humanities and social sciences to participate was a challenge. They primarily work in an independent setting, and that disciplinary culture means you’re by yourself,” said James, who worked with 3MT in 2014, the last time the university hosted the event.  Luckily, departmental support was strong. “We relied a lot on the programs,” Ehm said. “And we ended up having more competitors than slots!”

The 3MT contest was a chance for students from all disciplines to come together to improve their public speaking skills. The three-minute format is designed to help contestants “consolidate their ideas, not to trivialize the research,” Rasekhi said. In preparation for the event, competitors were treated to three coaching sessions at the Alda Center for Communicating Science. The purpose of these sessions was to teach students how to communicate the main questions, the methodology, and the major findings of their research projects to a general audience.  

Competitors were also introduced to the fundamentals of improvisation. “Improv is about understanding your audience, not necessarily making them laugh,” she said. “It’s about having a conversation with the audience.” Contestants were thus strongly discouraged from using jargon.

“Communicating complex ideas to a general audience is an essential skill,” James said. “And heavily relying on jargon is not an appropriate way to communicate.”

The Alumni Association sponsored the prizes. Matthew Colson, Academic Director of Alumni Relations, said 3MT is an opportunity to show alumni some of the interesting research that current graduate students are doing. “Alumni want to know what current students are working on,” Colson said. “This event helps show them.”

Plans are in place to make 3MT an annual event at the university.

Francisco Delgado is a PhD candidate in English. His dissertation examines how multi-ethnic American writers use the dystopian genre to address racism, classism, and misogyny. He is also a 2016-17 Humanities New York Public Humanities Fellow.