Caltech: Three Minute Thesis Competition Aims to Help Graduate Students Become Better Science Communicators

An audience of more than 500 people from 15 countries—among them, Argentina, India, New Zealand, and Singapore—watched recently as 12 Caltech graduate students presented short descriptions of their thesis research projects as part of the Institute’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) event.

A panel of five judges deliberated on the presentations while members of the audience voted for their own favorite presentation. In the end, the two groups bestowed their top honors on the same graduate student: Mia de los Reyes (Astrophysics), who gave a presentation titled “A (Galactic) Archeological Dig.” De los Reyes, who studies the history of galaxies by measuring their properties, won both the $3,000 grand prize and $500 People’s Choice Award.

Organized by the Caltech Library and the Graduate Studies Office, the competition challenged graduate students to speak about their research to a nonspecialist audience, providing an important opportunity for graduate students to practice communicating their science in ways that will resonate and inspire.

“I was blown away by the presentations,” University Librarian Kara Whatley says of the finalists. “I knew they would be good—they are Caltech grad students, after all—but, wow, they did such a good job of breaking down their very complex research into accessible pieces for all of us.”

In addition to their oral presentation and PowerPoint slides, each participant was also judged on their ability to provide, in three minutes or less, adequate background on the research topic, a clear statement about their thesis and its significance, and enough information to pique general curiosity about the topic.

The panel of judges included David Chan, dean of graduate studies and professor of biology; Brian Stoltz, professor of chemistry; Donna Wrublewski, chemistry and chemical engineering librarian; Susanne Hall, teaching professor of writing and director of the Hixon Writing Center; and Robyn Javier, STEM communication specialist and lecturer in EAS.

“I’m beyond grateful that my work was able to connect with people,” says de los Reyes, who received 24 percent of the audience vote. “I’m at a stage in my thesis work where it often feels like I’m not making much progress, so it means so much that other people find my work interesting. It’s helped remind me why I love what I do!”

The $2,000 second prize went to Anand Muthusamy (Chemistry) for his presentation on “Biosensors for Addictive Drugs.” The $1,000 third prize went to Shane Shahrestani (Medical Engineering) for a presentation on the “Eddy Current Damping Stroke Sensor.”

3MT is the creation of the University of Queensland in Australia and was designed as an exercise that “cultivates students’ academic, presentation, and research communication skills.” Caltech previously held the competition in 2016 and 2018; this was the first virtual undertaking. It was produced with the cooperation and co-sponsorship of ACS Publications, EBSCO Information Services, Elsevier, Science of Synthesis/Thieme Chemistry, and Wiley.

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