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UBC's three-minute-thesis event is a cram session in the truest sense

Ph.D student Sun-Nee Tan was one of eight student finalists who distilled their complex research into a short talk.


Sun-Nee Tan has only three minutes to explain complex research that uses music and brain imaging to help patients with Parkinson's disease to walk with less pain. Naturally, she turns to Bob Marley.

"As Bob Marley sang, 'One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain,'" said Sun-Nee Tan, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, wrapping up a short public presentation to an audience of students, professors and public onlookers in the ballroom of the university's graduate studies building.

Ms. Tan evoked the famous reggae musician a number of times throughout her talk. She was among eight UBC graduate students that presented their research in the final round of UBC's third annual Three Minute Thesis competition on Thursday.

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UBC was the first North American university to embrace the idea of a three-minute-thesis competition back in 2011. Students are given three minutes – and not one second more, a single PowerPoint slide and their own expertise to cram years of research into a talk that can be digested by almost anybody, academic or not. Presentations are judged by a panel of experts from across different faculties using three criteria: comprehension, audience engagement and communication style.

"It is really important to be able to communicate what you do to the public," Ms. Tan said. "We want to get our research out to the real world, so people can understand it and benefit from it. Bob Marley helps me make my work more relatable. People know his music makes us feel good, which is really fundamental to my project."

The idea of the three-minute thesis was born in 2008 at the University of Queensland, where it quickly spread to other Australian schools.

It came to Vancouver after the former dean of graduate studies at UBC, Barbara Evans, returned from a vacation to her native Australia in 2010 and insisted that UBC start its own event.

This year, 14 universities across Canada will participate, and Queen's University will host a provincewide competition in Ontario in April.

"It's about getting students comfortable with speaking about their research in a concise way and making it accessible to a wide variety of people, both inside and outside of the university setting," said Jacqui Brinkman, manager of the Graduate Pathways to Success program at UBC.

"This is breaking down the 'ivory tower' image that academics has."

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The eight graduate students were chosen from a pool of 82 of their peers. The university held heats in each faculty, and a campus-wide semifinal with 22 competitors on Tuesday decided the eight that would move on to the final round.

Ms. Tan took home the people's choice award based on an audience vote, but the day's top prize of $1,000 and bragging rights went to political science doctoral candidate Serbulent Turan. Mr. Turan's talk, titled "Revolt, Revolution and Imagination," was the only presentation not from the natural or medical sciences.

"I didn't expect to win," said Mr. Turan.

"Trying to put all of my work into three minutes was awful. I had to figure out only what matters the most. But in doing that, I got to reflect on my work and even came up with future research questions."

Ms. Brinkman said that UBC, in partnership with Simon Fraser University and the University of Northern British Columbia, is organizing a provincewide competition in the coming months.

The university will also look to integrate students' presentations into events at UBC's downtown Robson Square campus, where it hopes members of the business community will see what kind of research is being done at UBC and possibly make connections with students, Ms. Brinkman said.

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As for Thursday's winner, Mr. Turan said he hopes to continue building on his research and would like to compete again when his doctoral project is completely finished.

In the meantime, he's already got plans for spending the $1,000 prize. "I'm going to buy a new laptop," he said without hesitation.

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