Cells and flashy presentations

Explain a complicated subject to an audience made up of laypeople in just three minutes. This is the basic set-up of the Three Minutes Thesis Competition. The first UG competition was held this Wednesday. Vakil Takhaveev from Russia won first prize.
By Matthijs Nieuwenhuijse / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

‘Nature is awesome!’ PhD-student Dowine de Bruijn enthuses as she begins her presentation. Her infectious, Steve Irwin-esque enthusiasm revitalises the audience in the Forum Images room. With the energy of a televangelist, she sings her bacteria’s praises: ‘Bacteria have even better chemistry skills than the average researcher with a PhD’. The three minutes she has to present her research into bacteria-friendly metal catalysts are over in the blink of an eye.

The Three Minutes Thesis Competition (3MT) originated with the University of Queensland. UG held its first competition this Wednesday. Twelve candidates (all PhD students at the UG) have three minutes to present their research, aided by a PowerPoint slide. The challenge lies in clearly, intelligibly and succinctly explaining it to an audience made up of laypeople, and to show them the beauty of their area of expertise.

Stephen Hawking

The audience is mainly made up of the contestants’ friends and colleagues. After the jury introduction and a moment of silence for the recently deceased Stephen Hawking (‘Let us all use a bit of his light’), Jaap Waverijn gets the ball rolling.

Looking dapper in his suit, the PhD student of law talks about how, as a little boy, he would ask his mother all kinds of questions. He is motivated by trying to answer these questions now. Jaap is working on ‘today’s biggest issue’: climate change. He is trying to find judicial ways to make solving this problem easier. He confidently talks about how the possibilities that he has come up with are feasible.

Rapidly

The candidates come and go in rapid succession, presenting on a wide variety of subjects, from the relationship between emotions, the brain, and suicidal behaviour, to measuring stress in cells using minuscule diamonds. Or a presentation about the effectiveness of programmes that try to combat childhood obesity, tastefully accompanied by a slide showing a heavy-set toddler ogling a plate of doughnuts.

Some studies are so complex that three minutes is hardly enough to explain them. But that’s okay, says contestant Yori Ong. ‘It’s difficult to properly explain what I’m working on. So I figured I’d talk about what makes my job as a researcher so great.’ Yori has a double degree in physics and dentistry. He has a part-time position as a dentist at a nursing home, and works part-time as a researcher.

Biology and quantum mechanics

Yori studies the behaviour of bacteria that have been injected with diamonds and then irradiated with lasers. In order to understand it properly, most of the audience would probably have to brush up on their knowledge of biology and quantum mechanics. Yori’s message is clear: he’s not just motivated by ‘coffee and biscuits’ at work; he is working on truly ‘cool stuff’.

In spite of his enthusiasm, Yori was not among the winners. The audience prize (a 250-euro cheque) was awarded to Jaap. First prize went to Russian Vakil Takhaveev (see photo), for his flashy presentation on luminescent cells during the metabolic process. The jury rewarded his natural style of presenting with a cheque for 1,250 euros. The jury was also charmed by Dowine’s enthusiasm: the bacteria aficionado ends up in second place and is awarded a 500-euro cheque.

 

Nederlands

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