Three Minute Thesis recap: gripping performances by doctoral students

Eight finalists gathered on March 6 for the eighth annual Three Minute Thesis Championships, hosted by Carnegie Mellon University Libraries in the Kresge Theatre, to an enthusiastic crowd of friends and colleagues.

The tradition, which started with a competition at the University of Queensland, has since grown to be international, with individual chapters at numerous universities. The premise of the competition is to explain and make one’s research compelling to a lay audience — all within the eponymous three minutes. Key to the contest is that for the entire presentation only one slide is allowed, with no supplemental props or media, placing a premium on the speaker’s stage presence. Judging is based on comprehension, engagement, and communication style. This year, 41 doctoral students presented their research in preliminary rounds, representing all seven colleges of Carnegie Mellon. Up for grabs was a grand prize of $3,000 and people’s choice and alumni choice awards, both $500.

Durva Naik of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) took first place, and also won the People's Choice Award. Her project involves an ingestible device for medication delivery intended to stick in the small intestine — a versatile but notoriously difficult target. Naik's pill mechanically locks onto the intestinal "villi" — small hairlike structures — allowing it to stay in the small intestine for extended periods. The device’s purpose is to help encourage patients to take their prescriptions on time; the sticky pill could be taken weekly as opposed to daily. “My research is very interdisciplinary, and the applications also are quite interdisciplinary,” Naik said, citing a potential use in diabetes in her presentation.

Second place went to Maxwell Wang, who has a joint appointment within Machine Learning and Neuroscience. His presentation focused on studying brain activity in natural environments over a period of a week or more. Through an implant, Wang and his colleagues can predict behavior based on what state the brain was in. The project’s larger purpose is to figure out how the brain transitions in and out of disease states. Wang also stressed the interdisciplinary nature of his research: “This experiment really only could happen as a close collaboration between UPMC neurosurgery ... but also combined with machine learning and computational neuroscience expertise at Carnegie Mellon.”

Brendon Boldt from the Language Technologies Institute and Amaranth Karra from MSE won third and the Alumni Choice Award, respectively. Boldt’s thesis aims to interpret AI-generated “emergent” languages using the developed tools of linguistics. Solving this problem, Boldt noted, relates to the origin of language in humans. Karra, who won Alumni Choice for the second year in a row, presented on developing a tungsten-tantalum alloy with high temperature strength for space applications — he cited the Challenger disaster — using 3D printing and a “direct energy deposition” technique.

The four other contestants also gave dynamic talks. Yingqiao Wang from MSE presented on the use of light and nanomaterials to stimulate neurons as an inflammation-free alternative to implanted electronics; Kushagra Varma from Architecture demonstrated a database using Pittsburgh building energy data which can predict building performance into the future; Byron Daniel from Physics explicated ways to measure neutrino mass more accurately; Sofia Martins of Electrical and Computer Engineering spoke on improving the energy efficiency of mobile networks.

As for takeaways on the process of distillation, the competitors had much to offer. “I think a Ph.D. does a great job of training you how to become an expert in your field and become really good at specialized knowledge,” said Wang. “What it doesn't necessarily teach you is how to convey that to a general audience.” Boldt had a similar sentiment: “Whenever I get into the details, it just quickly becomes very difficult to understand'’ — and emphasized that establishing the motivation for his research was critical to communicating it. Karra stressed the need to “engage the audience” with both script and delivery.

Naik offered a message from her win. “Don’t give up,” Naik said. “I'm saying this because last time I participated I fumbled in between, and that's why I did not qualify.”

“This time,” she said she presented “only to prove to myself.” As for an effective Three Minute Thesis, Naik advised, “keep [it] short and use the easiest words possible.” With respect to next steps on her novel pill, “the next idea is to actually put this in an animal and test whether it works or not.”