Scholarly Storytelling in One-Hundred and Eighty Seconds with Meghan McGee
by Jake Hogan, PhD and Meghan McGee, U of T 3MT 2018 winner
“It was a great experience and everyone should go into it.”Meghan McGee, winner of the U of T 3MT Competition 2018
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock. The tyranny of time is a high priority for serious minds. Giving a compelling research presentation in one-hundred and eighty seconds (or less!) is quite a challenge. Just ask Meghan McGee, a PhD candidate in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and winner of last year’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition at the University of Toronto. Focusing on how donor breastmilk can improve the health outcomes of babies born pre-term, Meghan’s winning presentation is definitely worth watching. Meghan’s experience from last year is noteworthy for all participants in this year’s upcoming competition. She contends that there are three strategies to keep in mind for creating and giving a compelling 3MT presentation.
First, participants in the 3MT competition are presented with a unique opportunity to share their research and learn from other graduate students. Meghan embraces the thrilling challenge of competition and, perhaps more importantly, also enjoys challenging herself. She had absolutely “no reservations” upon entering the competition, commenting that she had “nothing to lose” from sharing her research with a broader audience. Her primary goal in entering the 3MT was to have “fun” and “try new things in a learning environment.” These two objectives were definitely achieved! After making it through the first round, the preliminary heat, Meghan received worthwhile feedback from judges and past participants in the competition, which she used to adapt her presentation for the next round.
The second ingredient in an effective 3MT presentation is obvious: giving a compelling presentation with a single slide and no notes. The 3MT competitors must captivate their audience using only their voice and one static PowerPoint slide. Meghan attributes her success, in part, to tirelessly practising her presentation. Her preparation strategy helps explain why she won the competition. Meghan did not simply memorize her talk, allowing her to pivot seamlessly from one theme to another, she also practised delivering her presentation with Amy Cuddy’s power pose, her go-to confidence booster and stress reducer. Meghan also emphasizes the importance of practising in challenging and stressful situations. Once comfortable giving her talk alone in front of the mirror, Meghan tried to stimulate the body’s natural fight-or-flight reaction to stressful situations by practising during her training runs. She focused on ignoring the sound of her beating heart and tried to keep her voice sounding calm and effortless.
Moreover, it is almost certain that the 3MT judges will have little knowledge of a given presenter’s research focus. To combat this, Meghan only practised her talk in front of individuals outside of her field of study. This approach helped Meghan eliminate confusing jargon, such as the “gold standard of research,” from her talk. This is often a significant challenge for many graduate students, who are experts in their respective fields, but is critical to capturing and holding the attention of the audience.
Having an original and relevant research project is the final ingredient in a compelling 3MT presentation. The opening two lines of Meghan’s 3MT talk are incredibly gripping: “Very low birth weight infants account for one percent of live births in Canada. That’s 400 babies born ever year weighing less than 1500 grams or 3.3 pounds.” Meghan stated that she added the second sentence for extra emphasis to capture her audience at the outset. She also made a point of using “Canada” twice in her talk to reiterate that her research warrants a national conversation. In addition to a specific research question, 3MT participants should also think about why and how their research is positively shaping our society. What is the overarching goal of your research? What impact will it have? Why should we care? Meghan thinks answering these high-level questions are not only key to stimulating interest in the 3MT competition, but also important for understanding the greater implications of your own research.
The 3MT competition provides immense value in testing and improving the researcher’s communication skills by challenging them to explain their complex research projects in clear and understandable terms. Meghan thinks that public speaking is an “overlooked” skill in the sciences. The 3MT competition helped Meghan realize her desire to bridge the communication gap between academia and industry in her field and encouraged her to speak science to non-academics, business professionals, and policymakers. At all levels of the competition, both at the University of Toronto and at the Ontario finals, Meghan was impressed with the research taking place across the province. “The talent pool and scientific impact is deep and the 3MT competition underscores this,” says Meghan. All graduate students can benefit from sharpening their ability to communicate the saliency of their research to broader audiences, she adds. “Everyone should go into it.”
For the first time at the University of Toronto, this year’s 3MT competition will be open to both Master’s and PhD students with a major research project. The heats for the 3MT competition will run from March 18 to 28. The semi-finals will be held on April 2 and 3. The finals for the competition will be held on Thursday, April 4.
To register for this year’s 3MT and to learn more, visit uoft.me/3MT.
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