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PhD students convert years of research into three-minute talks

May 2, 2017   /   by John Hollis

Chelsie Romulo receives the first-place award for winning the 3MT™ competition from Cody W. Edwards, Associate Provost for Graduate Education and Interim Executive Director for the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. Photo provided.

Her years of sustainable conservation research had led to a nearly completed PhD thesis of nearly 200 pages.

So condensing her entire message into an oral presentation of a mere three minutes was a tall order for Chelsie Romulo, a doctoral candidate in George Mason University’s College of Science who is defending her dissertation in July, and all the other contestants who entered Mason’s inaugural Three Minute Thesis Competition.

The research communication competition, in which PhD students talk about their doctoral research to a nonspecialist audience, challenged graduate students to consider their research from an outsider’s perspective while honing their presentation skills and providing a cross-disciplinary exchange of exciting ideas and information.

Preliminary competition began in March, culminating with Romulo’s recent victory and $1,000 first prize award.

“It was a challenge,” she said. “You have to pick what stands out from your research that will be most interesting to a broad audience. It’s really hard because everything seems so important.”

Romulo’s winning presentation centered around Aguaje, a very tall palm tree bearing fruits used in the local fruit, ice cream and cold drink industries in countries like Peru. It’s also an important source of food for primates, rodents and other mammals in the South American rainforests when other fruits are scare. The tree’s great height has led to many being cut down, so Romulo’s research dwelled on methods to reap the fruit without damaging the rainforest’s carrying capacity for the species that rely on the Aguaje.

Romulo, who holds an undergraduate degree from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and a master’s degree in natural resource management from Virginia Tech, was no stranger to public speaking. But having never seen a Three Minute Thesis contest before, the Northern California native made sure to learn as much as possible. That included knowing that her delivery would be every bit as critical as her content.

“I had to work hard at standing still and keeping my hand gestures to a minimum,” said Romulo, who will start a new job this fall as an assistant professor in the University of Northern Colorado’s Environmental and Sustainability Studies program.

“Instead of gesturing with my hands at every sentence, you have to do it only where you want to make a point.”

Rachel Golden Kroner, also from the school’s College of Science, finished second and took home $750, while Erik Goepner of the Schar School of Policy and Government placed third and earned a $500 prize. Bradley Snyder of the Volgenau School of Engineering received the People’s Choice Award and $300.

Originating in 2008 at Australia’s University of Queensland, the competitions have expanded in popularity in recent years to now include more than 350 universities across 59 countries worldwide.

3MT Chelsie Romulo from GMU-TV on Vimeo.

Topics: Graduation