“Real life vampires” win the Macdonald Campus 3MT competition

Mark Kaji, PhD candidate, has worked for three years seeking ways to combat the growing resistance of hookworms to available drugs, part of the global effort to ultimately relegate the blood-sucking intestinal parasite to history.
Winners of the 2018 Lister 3 Minute Thesis Competition (l to r): Véronique Boyer, 2nd Place and People’s Choice; Mark Kaji, 1st Place; and Karolin Dietrich 3rd Place. / Photo: Gabriel Helfant

Mark Kaji, PhD candidate, has worked for three years seeking ways to combat the growing resistance of hookworms to available drugs, part of the global effort to ultimately relegate the blood-sucking intestinal parasite to history. His riveting three-minute talk, “Real Life Vampires and How to Kill Them,” took first prize at the Macdonald Campus Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition on Jan. 11. Master’s student Véronique Boyer took second place and PhD candidate Karolin Dietrich finished third.

3MT competitions – which originated at Australia’s University of Queensland – now take place at 600 universities and institutions in 63 countries around the globe and challenge graduate students to present their work and its importance in an engaging and digestible way.

That is precisely what Kaji and 12 other graduate students in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Science (FAES) did last week. With enthusiasm and confidence, each student presented their research, in a tight 180-second slot, with only a single static PowerPoint slide, to a diverse panel of five judges and a capacity crowd (of over 75 students, researchers and community guests) in the Macdonald Faculty Lounge. Kaji is an experienced presenter, but for him, the 3MT competition was “the most difficult and reflective presentation to prepare.”

“When I present my data, it’s usually to an audience of academics who work on the same topic and I have 10 times as long to do it,” continued Kaji. “Having to take that step back and snapshot what I really do through the eyes of everyone else was a welcome challenge and a great benefit to my growth as a scientist.”

The judges were impressed with the overall quality of the presenters. “They had clearly spent time honing their presentations and overwhelmingly they met the task of effectively communicating their research to a wider audience of non-experts within the three-minute time frame.” said Ian Strachan, Associate Dean, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (Graduate Education).

Katherine Gombay from McGill’s Media Relations Office judged 3MT competitions at Mac both this and last year. She was struck by the high quality of this year’s presentations, and gave credit to the Faculty’s focus on science communication training for graduates. “Not only were the students able to present their work in lively and sometimes amusing ways, but they were also able to tell me why their research was important not just for them, but for me and all the rest of society too. I was very impressed by the quality of what I heard,” said Gombay.

The judges had the task of sifting through 13 strong presentations to select the three winners.

For Dietrich, who is researching how to make bioplastics competitively, there was additional value in participation, “Although it takes a while to craft your story, it can reconnect you with the motivation to do your research project.”

It would not be a Macdonald event without cows. Boyer secured both the First Runner Up and the People’s Choice prizes with a spirited presentation titled “Who Wouldn’t Want to Talk to a Cow?….” that made the audience sit up and focus on the welfare of dairy cows.

The Macdonald 3MT competition was supported by the Lister Family Engaged Science Initiative, which seeks to provide McGill undergraduate and graduate students in science with opportunities to develop the communication skills required to engage with various academic and non-academic audiences, and leadership competencies to improve their contribution to the workforce and society. 3MT contestants vie for cash prizes but also benefit from improved communication skills and expanded opportunities as many past participants have discovered.

The 2017 Lister 3MT winner and PhD candidate Mariam Saad who chaired last week’s event is a good example of how this type of activity can help graduate students improve confidence, take on leadership roles and increase engagement.

In true Mac fashion, the Lister 3MT was a first-rate collegial and fun event, which extended into happy hour at the Ceilidh. Competition organizers (SKILLSETS and FAES) aimed to embed the event in the community and welcomed the enthusiastic presence of Minister Geoff Kelley (MNA for Jacques-Cartier and Minister responsible for Native Affairs); Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue city councillor Dana Chevalier; and Dean of Science and Social Science at John Abbott College, Teresa Berghello- who also served as a judge.

McGill-wide 3MT activities will be held throughout this Winter semester. Registration remains open until Jan. 22, and the final competition is carded for March 20, in the Redpath Museum Auditorium. McGill will also host the Canadian Association Graduate Studies (CAGS) eastern regional 3MT competition in Montreal in late spring.