Graduate Students Win UNC Charlotte Three-Minute Thesis Contest

Squeezing years of work and thousands of words into a three-minute talk, graduate students Shayan Nazari and Danny Yonto earned first and second place in UNC Charlotte’s inaugural Three-Minute Thesis competition.

Nazari, who is pursuing her doctoral degree in Biological Sciences and won first place accolades, also earned the People’s Choice Award for her talk on “Breast Density: The Double-Edged Sword.” She earned $550 for the two awards and the opportunity to represent UNC Charlotte in the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools’ regional competition in Annapolis, Md. on March 2-5.

Yonto, who is pursuing his doctorate in the Geography and Urban Regional Analysis program, took second place and earned $300 for his 3-minute presentation on “What are the Characteristics of Contemporary Gentrification? A Case Study of Charlotte, NC.”

The 3MT® event is part of a worldwide initiative aimed at sharpening students’ academic, presentation and communication skills. Founded by The University of Queensland, it celebrates research conducted by PhD students, helping them learn to effectively explain their research in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience.

Other College of Liberal Arts & Sciences participants in the 2017 competition were: Neha Mittal, Biological Sciences, with “Metabolomics and Genomics Integrative Approach for Genetic Dissection of Wild Soybean Complex Traits”; and Robert Bickmeier, Organizational Science, with “Differentiating Dirty Work.”

Nazari and Yonto shared their thoughts on the experience:

What motivated you to participate?

Nazari: I had previously heard about the 3MT® competitions that were being held in other universities and I thought it was a great opportunity for us, graduate students, to practice our communication skills with a diverse audience. I watched a lot of 3MT® videos and realized that the graduate students were genuinely excited to share information about their work. So naturally, I wanted to see it for myself. I think it is fun to do research in the laboratory and conduct experiments; I even love to troubleshoot when things go wrong. But one of my favorite parts about being a scientist is sharing my research with others in a way that everyone can relate to it and understand it. And that is exactly what I experienced with the 3MT® competition.

Yonto: For me, social science research impacts the most people when it answers the “so what” question. In order to get to that point, social scientists have to be able to communicate their ideas in a clear and concise way. Therefore, I used this competition to see if I can take all the work I have done and ask myself “so what”, what does my dissertation research really mean? Putting my research in that context allowed me to present gentrification in a dynamic and interesting way, which was quite a challenge for fewer than 3 minutes.

What did you learn from this experience?

Nazari: Through this experience, I learned how to effectively highlight the significance of my research and be able to communicate the main goal of my thesis in a very short amount of time. In graduate studies, we take a lot of classes and we conduct our own research and we become sort of experts in this one small area. I think learning how to communicate my work in a way that everyone can relate to and get excited about is a very valuable skill that I will take with me into the professional world.

Yonto: Communicating complex ideas in a clear and concise manner takes time and practice. Even though I can talk about gentrification for hours, the time limitation forced me to develop an outline that honed in on the most important points of my research. A struggle at first, viewing research through this lens allowed me to develop a narrative that best suited my audience.

How will you use what you learned?

Nazari: Sometimes 3 minutes’ time or less is all we have in an interview or while networking, to catch someone’s attention about our work. So I think learning and practicing to effectively communicate my PhD research to an audience from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions is a skill that is crucial to my future success as a scientist.

Yonto: In a few months I have a proposal and dissertation defense to present. Expanding on the 3MT® competition, I want to bring the same level of enthusiasm and determination that helped me focus on the most important points of my research. In doing so, I can clearly tell my audience what I have done, how I did it, and why it is important.

Image: Courtesy of Daniel Jones. Shown (l to r): Shayan Nazari, Graduate School Dean Tom Reynolds, Danny Yonto