March 25, 2019

Three Minutes of Genius

UMass Amherst grad students present their high-caliber research in an exciting timed competition

Graduate student Karl Lyn struggled with how to start talking about his research at the finals of the UMass Amherst Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT), held in March.

He ultimately decided to grab the judges and audience with a vivid picture. He began: “I want everybody to imagine a place with armed security guards at every entrance, where you’re always watched and severely punished for not complying with the rules and regulations. While It’s true that this place reflects a prison, I’m actually describing predominantly black middle schools in South Los Angeles, California.”

Lyn, a master’s student in higher education, went on to describe his research on surveillance and disciplinary practices at these schools and the effect these practices have on students’ sense of self and well-being. His powerful presentation won first place in the 3MT competition.

Organized by the Graduate School’s Office of Professional Development, the annual three-week-long contest tests the research communication skills of 40 doctoral and master’s students by challenging them to explain the significance of their academic projects in accessible and compelling presentations of three minutes or less. Ten students advanced to the 2019 final.

A digital timer reads three minutes

The 3MT time limit is daunting.

For Lyn and many other entrants, the strict time limit posed the toughest challenge of the competition. “There was so much that was important to me that I had to leave out,” he said. “But I learned to condense my research for other scholars and the public in a way that’s concise.”

Riddha Das, a doctoral student in chemistry, won the 3MT People’s Choice Award. She agrees with Lyn. “It was very difficult to condense five or six years of research into three minutes,” she said, “but now if I’m at an interview or a conference, I don’t have to stumble or wonder where to begin.” Das’s research focuses on using nanoparticles to fight cancer.

The contestants were grateful for the feedback on their content and presentation skills that they received from the UMass Amherst Office of Professional Development and staff of the Graduate School. Das, who tends to speak quickly, learned where to pause to allow listeners to process her ideas. Lyn eliminated jargon from his talk and simplified his presentation slide.

Lyn entered the 3MT competition to bring attention to the problems of black youth, a population that is often invisible in an academic context. He was surprised to win, as scientists often dominate such events. “Now others who follow me in humanities and social science can realize that research competitions are for them, too.” he said. This year’s 3MT finalists represented 10 different academic departments in six schools or colleges. Lian Guo, a doctoral student in organismic and evolutionary biology, took second place.

The finalists presented their three minute talks again at a public event at Amherst’s Jones Library on March 23. The audience members selected two People’s Choice recipients: 3MT first-place winner Karl Lyn and Destenie Nock, a doctoral student in industrial engineering whose presentation was titled “The Path Towards Universal Electricity Access.”