A&S scholars emerge victorious at this year’s U of T Three Minute Thesis competition

April 26, 2021 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

Two graduate students from the Faculty of Arts & Science recently placed among the top finishers at this year’s U of T Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT). PhD students Faraz Alidina and Julie Sato finished first and third, respectively.

The competition is one of U of T’s beloved new traditions, but it actually got a rather soapy start some 15,000 kilometres away.

In 2008, the Australian state of Queensland was experiencing a severe drought, and locals were asked to limit their daily showers by using three-minute egg timers. This led the University of Queensland’s dean of graduate studies to wonder: what if thesis defenses could be this short, too?

So was born 3MT, an event that is now held in over 900 universities across the world, including U of T. Using only one PowerPoint slide, graduate student contestants are given a mere 180 seconds to explain their research to a non-specialist audience.

U of T’s version started six years ago, and initially attracted some 300 spectators to a live presentation at the Isabel Bader Theatre. But since the pandemic forced it online last year, the audience has ballooned, with hundreds more watching it live and thousands of subsequent views on YouTube. Student enrolment has increased by 30 per cent.

“Everyone tells me how hopeful they feel about the world after they watch the 3MT competition,” says Liam O’Leary, who is the graduate programming coordinator at the School of Graduate Studies and runs the event along with PhD student Paula Karger. “You just listen to one amazing, inspiring presentation after another.”

Faraz Alidina is a third-year PhD student in Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations. He triumphed over 12 finalists this year with a presentation focused on how storytelling was used as a means of political persuasion in the medieval Arabic tradition, with specific reference to the Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar. And last week, he also won an international honour: top prize at the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools competition.

Because he’s an expert in what scholars in his field call “the science of rhetoric,” Alidina was in an excellent position to make his case before the judges. But he affirms that watching other researchers —in areas ranging from music to physiology to engineering — was of great value as he continues working toward his actual thesis defense.

“The competition allows you to see something in a totally separate or different field, analogize that to your own field and gain inspiration,” he says. “Learning about some of the other research that’s going on enabled me to say, how can I apply that to my own research? What lessons am I learning here, what parallels might there be, what methods are people using, how are people looking at different issues? That’s one way in which a competition like this really has a unique place in the University.”

O’Leary says that, while students work their way through a series of heats — then on to the finals, and a series of competitions within and outside Canada — they are given the opportunity to refine their talk with help from the School of Graduate Studies.

“One of the reasons U of T is so successful is that we offer workshops,” he says. “We have these viewing parties where we watch videos and we see what works and what doesn’t work, and students get feedback after each one. We see talks change from the first time people do them to the last time.”

Psychology student Julie Sato says that her own prize-winning talk evolved for the better the more she practiced it. Her research focuses on how proper nutritional intervention can assist in the development of children born prematurely. She is preparing to defend her thesis this year and says 3MT was a perfect practice run for the main event.

“It was such a good challenge for me to be able to communicate my research findings to a broader audience, but also to be able to practice my communication skills. I think those skills are critical to science, but are often missing in a lot of presentations, and in the way science is portrayed in the media. So if anything could get me prepared for my defense and thesis-ready, this would be it,” she says.

While students derive obvious benefit from the 3MT experience, O’Leary says the public is equally enriched by it.

“These are brilliant people who are just starting their careers; as an audience member, it makes you feel hopeful for the future,” he says. “And in terms of public scholarship, it’s just so important that the University share the wonderful things that are happening here.”

Typically, the U of T champion advances to the Ontario Provincial 3MT competition where a winner, runner-up, people's choice winner and honourable mentions are named and advance to the Canadian National 3MT competition.

This year, the National 3MT Competitionhas been cancelled and replaced with a non-competitive showcase of 3MT videos produced across Canada. The 2021 National 3MT Showcase will take place at the 59th Annual CAGS Conference, to be held in a virtual format in November 2021.