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Biosciences PhD student wins Mason’s Three Minute Thesis competition

May 15, 2019   /   by John Hollis

Cody Edwards (right), Associate Provost for Graduate Education and Executive Director, Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, congratulates Stephen Kassinger (left) on winning the Three Minute Thesis competition. Photo provided.

The hard choices are what George Mason University graduate student Stephen Kassinger will remember most from the Three Minute Thesis competition.

Explaining a complicated subject in the most basic terms in three minutes isn’t easy. But Kassinger used the skills he honed as a stand-up comedian while an undergraduate at Binghamton University to wow the crowd, and he took home the $1,000 first prize after describing his work using toxin and antitoxin systems to kill multidrug-resistant bacteria.

“You have to get past your ego a little bit,” said Kassinger, a biosciences PhD student in the School of Systems Biology within Mason’s College of Science. “So, you think this really technical aspect is super important and you’d love to talk about it, but you can’t. You can’t get the audience from zero to 5,000 in three minutes. You settle for zero to 100, which is fine.”

Mason is among more than 600 universities from 67 countries worldwide that host these competitions for their students, who are charged with communicating their research in a clear and concise manner to wide audiences. The fun and challenging academic competition is designed to help contestants increase their success in job searches, funding proposals and professional networking.

Every word counts.

“You have three minutes,” Kassinger said, “so all those things you care very strongly about and that took you a long time, you can’t talk about. You have to pick and choose what the story is about and leave out other important details.”

As part of his research, Kassinger regularly studies dangerous bacteria along with Monique van Hoek, his mentor and advisor. One main focus is toxin-antitoxin systems, which bacteria use to kill off some of their cells in the population due to some input signal, such as nutritional or antibiotic stress.

“The significance of Stephen’s work is understanding [that] these kinds of regulatory systems in bacteria might allow us to discover a new target to study for antibacterial drug development,” van Hoek said. “As antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more and more of a medical problem, new targets for antibiotic discovery become ever more critical.”

Trying to condense that kind of detail into three minutes or less might be daunting to others, but not Kassinger. The 26-year-old Long Island native founded a comedy club while in college. He also worked as a chief scientist for a local brewery in Austin, Texas, for a year.

He’s met far bigger challenges.

“Plus, I was the only person who knew what I was going to say,” he said, laughing.