Imagine having to explain a multi-year research project such as a PhD to a public audience in just three minutes. But more than just explaining it, you need to make it understandable, convince them of your argument, and make a lasting impression.
Sounds almost impossible. Well, Anri Human and Ruth Nekura – two UCT PhD students – recently excelled at this during the fourth national 3MT competition at the University of the Free State (UFS).
What is the 3MT competition?
Short for Three Minute Thesis, the 3MT competition gives research students the opportunity to develop academic, presentation and research communication skills by explaining the key dimensions of their thesis in a mere one-twentieth of an hour.
The concept was originally developed at the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2008. Interestingly, it came about at a time when Queensland was suffering a severe drought. In a scenario all too familiar to Capetonians right now, residents were encouraged to limit their showers to three minutes. Many people fixed egg timers to their bathroom walls to make sure they stayed within their limits. The dean of the UQ Graduate School at the time, Emeritus Professor Alan Lawson, put two and two together and the idea for the 3MT competition was born.
Since then, it has gained popularity and been adopted by universities around the world. This has also led to the establishment of a national competition in South Africa for registered PhD students from universities across the country.
Rules of a 3MT presentation
Apart from the strict time limit, 3MT presentations have a few additional rules that make them extra challenging.
Unlike normal conference presentations, where participants can illustrate their points with PowerPoint presentations, 3MT participants are limited to a single static PowerPoint slide – no animations, movements or props are allowed.
This basically means you have to remember everything you want to say without visual reminders.
“I am used to using my hands, as well as many colourful and descriptive words to explain and express my passion for my research, which made this experience particularly challenging,” Human said.
Currently working on her PhD in the Division of Physiotherapy at UCT’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Human walked away with the first prize as well as the People’s Choice Award, voted for by the audience.
Her presentation was titled ‘To train or not to train – that is the question’ and focused on the use of inspiratory muscle-training in children and adolescents with neuromuscular diseases.
“We hope to provide scientific evidence showing improvement in areas such as lung function, respiratory muscle strength and upper limb function and coordination, but most of all to determine if improved breathing can positively influence quality of life,” she explains.
Despite the challenges associated with preparing a concise speech from a substantial body of work, Human found participating in the 3MT competition exhilarating and rewarding.
“The absolute feeling of achievement when you have a speech that can summarise five years’ worth of work in three minutes is just overwhelming.
Also, the reaction of the audience and the adrenaline rush when you see that your message has had an impact and that we can change the world, one 3MT speech at a time,” Human says.
She also emphasises that she would never have been able to achieve her success without the dedication and support of her supervisors, parents and friends.
Human was not the only UCT student to achieve at the national 3MT competition.
Ruth Nekura from the Faculty of Law won third place for her presentation on 'One-Stop Centers' and State accountability for sexual violence in Kenya and how this compares to South Africa.
“It forms part of my research, which looks at how governments can improve sexual violence prevention and response interventions by joining together – integrating – legal, health and psycho-social support services,” Nekura explains.
Her thesis looks at South Africa's Thuthuzela Care Centres and Kenya's Gender Based Violence Recovery Centres, which are 'One-Stop Centres' that support rape victims seeking justice by providing all relevant services under one roof.
For Nekura, the most challenging aspect of preparing for the 3MT competition was changing the way she spoke about her subject.
“The process required me to be precise and not to speak using jargon. I realised that the jargon I had become so easily attuned to could hinder me in communicating the relevance of my work to others, outside my discipline,” she explains.
Why this exercise is so important
Both Human and Nekura agree that they’d recommend taking part in a 3MT competition to any PhD student.
“In being precise and creative, it teaches you more about your research and brings clarity to why your research matters,” says Nekura.
Human highlights the fact that it also gives you an opportunity to introduce your research to a wider audience.
“Not only does it challenge you to break down your research to its true essence – the core of the matter – but you are also provided a platform from which you can share your results with a wider audience, other than colleagues within your own fraternity,” she says.
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