3 Minute Thesis and a Commitment to Story Telling

A large crowed of people stares expectantly waiting for me to begin; my heart races, I breath deeply in an attempt to calm myself but my nerves give me away because my eye starts to twitch and I shiver.  I’m terrified of public speaking!

The truth is it never gets any easier for me.  I’m one of those people that have hidden in the back of the class rooms for years but, as a Phd candidate, I can’t hide anymore.  I’m expected to present material at lab meetings, conferences, and in classrooms.  The honest truth is that I don’t want to hide anymore!  I have fascinating research that I want to be able to share with everyone.  So, while it may not get easier, I can always improve how I communicate and, hopefully, boost my confidence as a public speaker.  To help myself improve, and with a little help from colleagues, I entered the 3 Minute Thesis Competition on campus!

The 3 Minute Thesis is a competition that originated in Australasia and has now spread to North America.  Competitors need to describe their research (or thesis) in 180 seconds in an engaging form that can be understood by an audience with no background in the research area.  (For example, I pretend I’m talking to my mother or neighbour about my work.)  The rules stipulate that participates may not use media or props, have only one static PowerPoint slide and use spoken word only (no poems, song, or rap).

I attended an orientation on how to present a 3 minute thesis offered by Dr. George Agnes, Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of Academics.  A 3 Minute Thesis is the equivalent to an elevator pitch.  It is important to have a prepared elevator pitch any time you find your self bumping into someone (let’s say Bill Gates) and converting the chance into an opportunity and deepen the interaction into (hopefully) a collaboration. The idea being, that you should be able to clearly communicate your work in the amount it takes an elevator to reach its destination.  At the orientation, I learned how to hook the attention of my audience with my first sentence, keep their attention with the drama of my research, and close the story with a complete ending (i.e. everyone lived happily ever or… how my research applies to YOU).

I worked very hard on my presentation but I also had a lot of help.  George Anges made the mistake of inviting people from the orientation to stop by for additional help.  So, once I had an outline for my presentation, I went back to George Agnes for fine tuning and then practiced in a lab meeting.  The lab meeting was controversial, everyone was in disagreement about the “hook”; was it pest management, food safety, food science, or forensic science.  …I left the lab meeting worse off than I started.  With the help of my husband and John Borden, Scientist at Scotts Canada, I finally got my presentation back on course.  I settled on Pest Science as my “hook”, a short story about how to control blow flies or “keeping maggots of your meal”.

Finally it was time to put my hard work to the challenge! I competed with 9 other graduate students in the faculty of sciences heat… and I won!  I was awarded both first place and peoples choice (determined by audience vote)!    I did have one of my lab-mates strong arming votes for me but, it turned out, I didn’t need it!

Next I will be competing in the University-wide finals against 12 other graduate students in 10 different faculties, Including but not limited to, Geography, Communication, Archaeology, computing science, engineering and education. The finals are on Monday, March 10th at 5:45 PST, and you can reserve a seat or watch it live!

While working on my 3 Minute thesis I learned about some of my strengths and, although it was hard to hear, my weaknesses too.  I learned that I have great ideas, I’m always reading and asking novel research questions.  I’m sarcastic, witty and maybe, at times (I hope) even funny.  What I also learned, is that those strengths are worthless if I can’t communicate effectively and tell a good story.

Story telling may seem common sense but for me it was difficult.  In my defence, I can’t even remember the last time I wrote a story (not including scientific manuscripts).  Maybe fall semester of my freshmen year in 1999.  (1999! Yikes!)  After which, scientific writing has been drilled into me.  I deal with facts and not emotion. After re-reading my last two blogs I noticed I had no drama.  Just a list of the facts.

This blog is not just about flies, science, feminism, and motherhood.  It’s also about self improvement and development.  I promise, from this point forward, that there will be change! Improved story telling on this blog!

While it may not ever get any easier, I can always improve how I communicate and, hopefully, boost my confidence as a public speaker.  Wish me luck next week.  Or, even better, watch me compete with the best of Simon Fraser University!


Presenting my 3 Minute Thesis: Multi-modal foraging and communication in Blow flies.


…and answering questions form the audience.


Peoples Choice Award with Dr. George Agnes, Associate Dean of academics in the department of Chemistry.


Competitors for the 3 Minute Thesis- faculty of science heat.

March 25th UPDATE: Results for SFU’s 3 MT finals

First Place- Aviva Finkelstein (Canada), Archaeology: Trace Elements in Human Skeletal Remains: Determining Place Origin Through Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) Analysis.

Second Place- Allison Cornell (United States), Biology: Predictive Cues and Fitness Consequences of Breeding Phenology.

Third Place- Bekka Brodie (United States), Biology: Multi-modal Foraging and Communication in Blow Flies.

Peoples Choice- Pradeep Reddy Raamana (India), Engineering Science: Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease.

3min thesis_4

Congratulations to the winners of SFU’s 3 MT competition!

From left to right: Pradeep Reddy Raamana (Peoples Choice), Bekka Brodie (Third Place), Allison Cornell (Second Place), Aviva Finkelstein (First Place).

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