How the 3MT reminded me why my research matters

Alfie Wearn won the Bristol 3MT final last month for his presentation on predicting Alzheimer’s disease. Here he shares his experience of taking part; from almost pulling out of the competition to winning the Bristol 2017 finals in Colston Hall.

Step out of your comfort zone. Comfort zones are the enemies of achievement.” – Roy T Bennett

I’m not normally a fan of inspirational quotes like these, but I make an exception for this one. I like it because I heard it just as I was about to pull out of the Three Minute Thesis ® (3MT) competition just a couple of days after applying. I told myself that because I was at such an early stage of my PhD, attempting to present a kind of “thesis” summary would be a bit fraudulent – in truth however I think I was wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself in for, and was looking for a good excuse to run away back to the safety of my comfort zone. I lost that excuse pretty swiftly when I was told that plenty of people had taken part in 3MT in their first year. So I bit the bullet and continued with the process. In hindsight – a good decision!   

Training & Practice

I was enticed, in part, to participate in the 3MT competition and Research without Borders because of the various public engagement training courses that were available for all successful applicants. During one course a communications expert at the University taught a group of us 3MT hopefuls the importance of creating a story, and using relatable analogies to engage audiences in our research. I also got a chance to practice a very early draft of my talk to this group during that training course. I got some really helpful feedback which helped shape the final version of the talk.

In the days leading up to the semifinals, I practiced it every time I had a spare 3 minutes. I practiced in front of the mirror, in front of friends, I even videoed myself on my phone to see how I sounded to others, and to see if I was doing anything stupid with my hands (still not sure I’d sorted that by the final…). I probably practiced it about 50 times more than necessary, but it gave me confidence, which, I have learned, is all important in something like this.

Actually doing the talk

Eventually the semi-finals came about and I finally got to perform what I had been practicing so much for the past month. Despite all this practice, I spent the 10 minutes before my turn wondering why I had not gone over the talk ‘just one more time’ – so much so that I completely missed the previous couple of speakers. But when it came down to it, I realised that actually doing the talk wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting and thinking about it. I immediately forgot all the worries and worst-case scenarios I had constructed for myself and just spoke about what I knew, and what I had practiced. And honestly, I really enjoyed it. Of course, by the time the finals came in May, as part of the Research without Borders showcase day in Colston Hall, I had completely forgotten this lesson, and once again spent the 10 minutes beforehand wishing for that one more chance to practice…   

Thoughts, feelings, and lessons learned

I’ve learned that condensing a PhD-sized amount of work into 3 minutes is, if nothing else, a great way of making sure you know exactly what it is you’re doing. Now I realise that sounds like a stupid thing to say. But when you spend so many hours, days and weeks with your head buried in your PhD work, and have little contact with the outside world, as often happens during a PhD, it’s easy to lose touch with the bigger picture. You forget that not everyone knows a lot about Alzheimer’s disease, or the role of the hippocampus in the consolidation of memories. It helps to focus your work, and when you’re having a bad week it is sometimes helpful to be able to remind yourself as to why your work matters.

I urge everyone to have a go at the 3MT and taking part in Research without Borders. You get a snapshot of all the research at the university that you might never even have realised is happening; from ageing kidneys and forest ecosystems, to noise-reducing materials in aeroplanes and the evolution of invertebrate vision, to name but a few. Lifting your head above the water every now and again to see what is going on around you is a habit we should all get into – and what better way, than these two fantastic celebrations of research at the University of Bristol.

You can listen to Alfie talking more about his research, alongside other 3MT finalists, on this Speakezee podcast.

Alfie’s presentation will be judged at a Vitae hosted (virtual) national semi-final next month. Six finalists will then be selected to perform live at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference during the gala dinner on Monday 11 September 2017. We’ve got our fingers crossed, Alfie! 

Find out more about Alfie’s research:

Twitter: @AlfieWearn

Speakezee: https://www.speakezee.org/speaker/profile/2646/alfie-wearn

University research page: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/neural-dynamics/people/alfie-r-wearn/index.html

10 Questions with Keri McNamara: from 3MT to RwB, and why you should get involved

In case you hadn’t heard yet, sign ups are open for Research without Borders 2017, our flagship festival of postgraduate research where we put your work front and centre. This year’s festival is bigger and better than ever, including an evening discussion series, a showcase exhibition at Colston Hall, and the finals of the 3MT competition. Why should you get involved? We spoke to Keri McNamara, who took part in last year’s festival and presented in the 3MT finals (catch her video on our YouTube channel!), to offer you an insider’s perspective on what’s great, what’s challenging and why it’s important to take part.

  1. Which faculty are you in? Can you tell me a bit about your research? Maybe, instead of three minutes, you could tell us in three words…?

I’m in the school of Earth Sciences in the Faculty of Science. To describe my research in three words: Volcanoes, Ash, Ethiopia.

  1. Why did you decided to sign up last year – what persuaded you, or what were you hoping to get from taking part?

I had heard about it from a friend in the year above and it thought it would be a good opportunity to practise my public speaking. I’ve always found presenting rather daunting but felt that the more I pushed myself to do it the easier it got. This just seemed like a fun opportunity. I also enjoy outreach so seemed like a good way to combine both.

  1. What was the hardest, or scariest part of the 3MT? Is it what you expected it to be before you went onstage, or did that change?

I think the scariest bit is sitting waiting for your turn. Once I opened my mouth to speak I felt much calmer and more confident. Towards the end I even started to enjoy myself (something I never thought I’d be able to say about public speaking!)

  1. How did you prepare?

I love writing so I found the easiest thing was to write it out first like I was writing an article and perfect it on paper. I then basically learnt it like a script and then made minor tweaks so it flowed better. I know a lot of people prefer to improvise but I felt much more confident learning what I was going to say.

  1. What is your funnest memory from taking part last year?

I think during the first heat- everyone taking part was so friendly and it was fun to get to know people from completely different parts of the university studying a huge range of topics. It made it a very relaxed environment- not threatening or intimidating at all.

  1. And what made you get involved with Research without Borders?

I liked the fact it was multidisciplinary with opportunities to meet people from other research areas as well as people from industry.

  1. What was the funnest bit?

Making a display to go along with my poster- it was a bit more interesting than preparing for a traditional conference.

  1. Any pearls of wisdom to share for people considering taking part in this year’s 3MT?

I would recommend spending more time at the beginning sketching out the ‘story’ of what you’re going to say to make sure the content flows well in a strong framework. Also practise as much as you can be bothered to right before; being prepared was the only thing that saved me from being too nervous. Also definitely take part– even if (or especially if!) public speaking scares you. It’s a great way to improve!

  1. Has the 3MT been helpful to you in anyway? Why should students to get involved?

It has helped no end with my confidence in public speaking. In my PhD I have to give quite a lot of talks and I think it was a real turning point for me. I went from just rushing to get to the end of a presentation to actually thinking about what I was saying and being conscious of how I was presenting. I also put it on my CV as an example of public speaking and outreach skills.

  1. What about Research without Borders? Did it change how you think or view your research/PhD?

I’m not sure it helped me in one particular way but it was really great to talk to people working in other areas to challenge me to get ‘outside the bubble’ of my research areas and think about the bigger picture.

Fancy showcasing or presenting in this year’s Research without Borders? Sign up by 28 February! Want to take part in the 3MT competition? It’s as simple as this application form

This could be you, if you signed up to take part in this year’s Research without Borders!

How to stop worrying and learn to love the 3MT

The Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) 2017 competition is open for sign-ups! We asked last year’s winner, Sam Briggs, for some of his top tips.

So you’re thinking of doing the 3MT – well, stop fretting about strutting your stuff on stage in front of people and just do it! Applications for the 3MT 2017 are now open, so you should throw caution to the wind and go for it! It’s a wonderful time with some of the warmest and most attentive audiences you are ever likely to present to, and you meet the most interesting people along the way!. Here are some of the things that I’ve thought a little bit about since taking part last year, and would like to pass on to any other aspiring postgraduate research communicators:

1. Limit the jargon
We use jargon in our fields of research because it is precise, concise, and highly descriptive. When participating in a competition that values those things you can use jargon but make sure you can explain it with a short rider, caveat, or example!

2. Start with the big picture — and end with it too
Your area of work is likely to be highly specialised, which means your average layperson isn’t going to have a clue as to why you’re so interested in what you do, or why it matters. Contextualise. Pose a big question that you’ll try to answer in your 3 minutes. Wrap up with that question too, so you can answer with what you’ve learnt so far during your research.

3. Use humour to your advantage
Research isn’t all peaches and cream and has certainly, for me, had its moments of humour and/or despair – but maybe this isn’t your experience! Audiences love hearing about some of the struggles of research, as it humanises you and makes your work relatable. It’s also a good reminder that research is about the generation and discovery of new knowledge, which doesn’t happen without a few hiccups or missteps along the way. A backdrop of healthy self-awareness and critique goes a long way.

4. Don’t try to pack too much in
You only have 3 minutes. I know that’s obvious — but seriously, it’s not that long. Don’t try and do your entire thesis! Stick to only one project, or one concept that you are exploring. Pick one thing and do that thing well. If you can give someone a new perspective on something, or new knowledge about just one tiny aspect of your work, then you’ll have done a good job.

5. Practice makes perfect
Practice! To your colleagues, to your mates, to your family, to yourself in the bathroom mirror. How you stand, how you project your voice, and how you time your vocal cues -, these are all crucial to coming across confidently, clearly, and effectively. The only way to do this is to become comfortable with the material you prepare, to trust that it will fit within 3 minutes, and then to practice, practice, practice.

The 3MT is a bit of a whirlwind: the experience is one that carries you along at a terrific pace. Before you know it you can be stood on a stage performing to the general public, but remember – you are human, they are humans. Take a deep breath and speak – it’s only for 3 minutes. It goes without saying that to get the benefits of taking part, you need to apply. Just do it! You won’t regret it.

Applications for the 3MT 2017 are open until midday on March 15th: apply now! For information, key dates, and to learn more about our previous 3MT competitions, visit our website.

7 things all Bristol PGRs should do in 2017

Make sure you start the year as you mean to go on by getting involved in the thriving research community here in Bristol. Here are some of the highlights coming up in 2017 that our postgraduate research students should watch out for:

1. Look after yourself by prioritising your self-care

We bet you didn’t expect to see this as number 1 on the list, but looking after yourself shouldn’t be forgotten. Life as a researcher can take its toll on your mental and physical health. In the depths of research – whether in the lab, the archives, or the field – it’s all too easy to get sucked away from the wider world. Take a quick look at our virtual resource hub for activities, events, information and news about mental health and general wellbeing.

http://www.bris.ac.uk/doctoral-college/healthy/

2. Celebrate the start of your research at our special inauguration event in February

If you’ve started your research degree on or after 1 August 2016 then come along to our special Researcher Inauguration event on Monday 6 February, 2017. Receive your official welcome from the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University, Professor Hugh Brady, and introduce yourself to the University’s rich and vibrant research community over a glass of wine and some nibbles. Sign up for your free ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/researcher-inauguration-event-tickets-30551567561

3. Showcase your research at the BDC festival of research: Research without Borders 2017

Our flagship Research without Borders festival provides an interactive space for Bristol postgraduate researchers across all disciplines to come together and showcase their work to a broad audience from within and outside of the University. This year’s festival will include a whole week of interactive showcase events: an evening seminar series, the finals of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and an afternoon showcase exhibition at Colston Hall on Friday 12 May. More than 100 PGRs shared their work at last year’s exhibition, through research posters, hands-on demonstrations, innovative research displays and lively discussions. Take a look at last year’s event to get a sense of just how special the event was – and help us make this year’s event bigger and better than ever! Keep an eye on the Bristol Doctoral College website to find out how you can sign up.

4. Sign up for personal and professional development training  

In an increasingly competitive environment there is a growing demand on postgraduate researchers not just to be qualified experts in their subject area, but to be highly accomplished individuals with the skills and attitude to communicate, innovate and adapt within a continually changing landscape. The Bristol Doctoral College runs a Personal and Professional Development programme with more than 150 workshops, seminars and online resources designed specifically for postgraduate research  students. Take a look at the full catalogue and sign up today!

5. Join the Bristol SU Postgraduate Network

The PG Network is a student-led initiative for all postgraduate students (both research and taught) that seeks to develop an active, strong and vibrant postgraduate community here at the University of Bristol. The PG Network organises events in Bristol and provides a real chance for students to work together to shape and develop Bristol postgraduate community life. Get involved and keep up to date by joining the group on Facebook.

6. Learn something new and see where it takes you

Keep your mind active even when you need a break from your research by going to a public lecture, talk or debate about something completely different to your main study area. There are numerous public talks and lectures in Bristol, and many of them are free to attend. The Bristol Festival of Ideas attracts experts from around the world to Bristol with an inspiring programme of debate and discussion throughout the year. The Arnolfini also organises regular talks and the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed holds a free lunchtime talk every Friday.

7. And finally, make the most of being in Bristol

Bristol has a wealth of cultural treasures and historic places to explore – from museums, art galleries and theatres, pop-up cafes, festivals and world-renowned graffiti. Make sure you make the most of studying in such a vibrant city and take some time out of your research to explore. Keep up to speed with what’s going by keeping an eye on Bristol 247 and Bristol Museums.

Meet the 2014 3MT winner, Dominika Bijos

dominika

Dominika Bijos, a third-year postgraduate researcher in the School of Clinical Sciences, won the 2014 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition with her presentation entitled, ‘To Pee or not to Pee’. 

One year on, we asked Dominika 3 questions about her 3MT experience.

1. What has winning the 3MT meant for you? 

3 minutes of fame 🙂 –  I didn’t expect the recognition.

People recognised me from Bristol Uni website and watching my 3MT video, and suddenly I heard congrats in the school corridor. Profs who I was sure hadn’t noticed me for years, suddenly knew my name. I was invited to give a talk at the Clinical Sciences School Meeting and then at Science Quarter NHS North Bristol Clinical Trials Day.

The 3MT built my confidence and I took part in Bristol Bright Night and FameLab. There, I made even more friends and was invited to take part in Bath’s Science Stand Up.

So a year later, my 3MT talk has over 3000 views on YouTube, I have given 10 more talks and get more and more involved with research dissemination and science communication. The 3MT catapulted forward my dissemination of research to a general audience.

2. How did taking part in the 3MT support or impact on your research?

It is now the coolest video explaining over-active bladder out there!

Thanks to the 3MT I have made, refined and improved my research pitch, which proved very useful in all sorts of occasions from parties to job interviews. Last year, I teamed up with an International Continence Society to promote Bladder Diary, a worldwide initiative to discover what is “normal” in a daily peeing routine. It is surprising that we still don’t know that and in order to explain this I borrowed my 3MT talk and added a Bladder Diary story at the end.

3. What would you say to anyone thinking about entering next year?

Do it!

You don’t have to win, just from taking part you gain a lot! So don’t think you don’t have enough data (even better, you see the bigger picture!) or you don’t have time cause you are writing up (best to regain the bigger picture) – just do it. Because you will gain your amazing research pitch explaining what you do so everyone can understand and relate to it. Not only WHAT you research but also WHY it matters is the key to research dissemination. Being able to clearly, concisely and enthusiastically communicate helps every early career researcher.

Also, I gained friends among fellow 3MT finalists. It was super exciting to hear about research from all corners of the University – I still remember Laura’s magnetic gears and Olivia changing the law with her psychology research. So take part, practice talking and meet people 🙂