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Biochemistry, molecular and cell biology Ph.D. candidate wins Three Minute Thesis competition

“My thesis explores the blueprint behind building a small intestine. I call it ‘to be or “knot” to be’,” began Bhargav Sanketi, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, at the sixth Cornell University Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Alongside seven other finalists, Sanketi presented his dissertation research in just three minutes to a panel of judges and an audience from across campus. Presentations were judged by how clearly and compellingly they summarized their research using only one static slide to a general audience.

His presentation, “To be or ‘knot’ to be: Blueprint for a small intestine,” earned him first place and $1,500. Second place and $1,000 was awarded to food science and technology doctoral candidate Rachel Allison for her presentation, “What CAN we do about stinky wine?”

After nearly 200 audience members cast their ballots, votes were tallied and the People’s Choice Award and $300 were presented to entomology doctoral candidate Kara Fikrig for her presentation, “Are mosquitoes picky eaters?”

Having enjoyed the 3MT as an audience member in the past, Sanketi appreciated the opportunity to participate in – and win – this year’s competition.

“I think as scientists, we get so lost in our work that it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important,” he said. “I had attended previous editions of 3MT and always found them really entertaining. The idea of getting a diverse audience excited about a pretty heavy academic topic forces you to zoom out and see the big picture.”

Rachel Allison

For Allison, undertaking the challenge of distilling a dense topic into accessible and engaging content was a primary motivator for her participation.

“Going through the job interview process, I realized how challenging it could be to communicate my research experience to a non-specialist audience,” she said. “My career goal is to one day combine technical and business consulting in the wine industry, and adaptable communication skills will be essential. As a result, I have been trying to practice by taking advantage of more speaking opportunities.”

The 3MT competition was first held in 2008 at the University of Queensland and has since been adopted by over 600 graduate schools in over 65 countries. 3MT challenges research degree students to present a compelling story on their dissertation or thesis and its significance in just three minutes, in language appropriate to a non-specialist audience.

Cornell’s Graduate School first hosted a 3MT competition in 2015. The event has grown steadily since that time and this year, Cornell’s winner will compete in the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools regional competition next month, and the top two winners from that event will showcase their research at the Council of Graduate Schools annual meeting in December 2021.

“I am so impressed with each and every one of this year’s competitors,” said Jan Allen, associate dean for academic and student affairs. “They are all to be recognized for their successful presentations. In addition to presenting their complex research in just three minutes, everyone rose to the challenge of doing so in a virtual format. These skills will prove beneficial in academic work as well as in future careers.”

Kara Fikrig

Understanding the importance of communicating scientific topics clearly, Fikrig looked at the 3MT as a way to learn techniques for getting and holding listeners’ attention when sharing her research broadly.

“I value science communication and recognize the importance of being able to explain my science in a way that is both comprehensible and interesting to the public. This is especially true since I study mosquitoes – the threat of disease transmission underscores the need to effectively communicate about my study system,” she said. “After watching videos of past 3MT presenters, I thought that the competition would be a great opportunity to learn and practice science communication skills. And I was not disappointed!”

Cornell’s sixth 3MT final round competition was held on Thursday, March 18, 2021 at 4:15 p.m. on Zoom. For more information on 3MT and videos of past competitors, visit the Graduate School's Three Minute Thesis webpage.

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