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

PGR Stories: Suzannah Young and researching the homeless

Suzannah Young is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Modern Languages. Her research aims to find out where help with language is needed in homelessness services in Bristol and Cardiff, and what support is already available to people who need it. She wrote a post for us discussing her research, its value and impact, and what her PhD process has entailed so far. 

Before starting at Bristol in September 2015, I worked for FEANTSA, the federation of homelessness services in Europe, for six years.  I am also a translator and have an interest in migration. My research project aims to find out where help with language is needed in Bristol and Cardiff homelessness services and what support is available to people who need help.

When people move to a new country, they can become vulnerable to poverty, isolation and discrimination.  If people who move country do not have access to employment or government help, or cannot find a place to live because landlords discriminate against them, they might end up homeless.  

Homeless people need to use services that give advice, defend their rights and provide material support like food, clothes and showers.  It can be difficult for people with low levels of English to use these services.  The services might not feel able to talk to these people either.  An interpreter (someone who translates a spoken message from one language into another) can help them interact with each other.  

When I was working at FEANTSA, I often came across research or reports on practice that said that language difference was a problem for homeless service providers.  It was a problem because they couldn’t communicate effectively with homeless people who spoke another language.  There wasn’t any discussion of what was done to solve this problem, though.  As I am passionate about languages and believe that everyone should have the right to a decent home, I wanted to set about finding out what was being done to help homeless people who speak other languages.

My research therefore looks at what is being done on the ground, in a context of squeezed budgets: whether people using homelessness services have access to interpreters or other types of language support, like staff who speak other languages, internet translation tools or peers (other service users) who act as interpreters.  The study compares the situations in Bristol and Cardiff.  It may discover good ways of working that services can copy from each other.

I would like to interview homelessness service users, homelessness service providers and language professionals to ask them about their experiences in this area – of accessing language support or of providing it.  The plan is also to ask service users to produce (anonymous if wished) video diaries in which they can say in their own language what they would have liked to have said if they had had access to an interpreter when using a service.  This would reflect their direct voice.  Asking participants to use visual representations also diffuses the tension of language – if they wish, they can ‘speak without words’.  

This project is multilingual because I will be interviewing people who speak a variety of languages.  This will mean that preparation and data collection will involve various time-consuming and expensive language-related tasks.  I will translate materials myself or through translators.  I will employ interpreters to mediate interviews.  I will use external transcribers to transcribe interview data and video diary entries in languages I do not understand.  I will use translators to check the accuracy of the interpreting for languages I do not understand and I will employ subtitlers to translate the video diaries for the languages I do not understand.

The results should reflect the multilingualism of the project itself.  I would like to provide a series of narratives for service users to take away, which can act as a guide to using language support services.  I will need to make this available in other languages (which would require money, time and proofreading).  The video diaries should be subtitled, and I hope the subtitles will be available in all the languages involved, not just in English.

The results of the study could be made available in a usable format to services for homeless people.  They could be made into a briefing document that gives examples of how to work with an interpreter or translator or how to deal with a communication problem.  Another briefing document for language professionals working for homelessness services can give specific guidelines about language requirements in homelessness services.