On Your Mark, Get Set: Students Sprint through Speed-Thesis

Ph.D. students had just 180 seconds to present years of research at the annual Three Minute Thesis Competition.

March 2, 2023

3MT Winners

The 3MT winners included (from left) Engineering's Ryan Welch (first place), Biology’s Jacob Medina (second place), Economics' Nate Harris (third place) and Engineering's Anastasia Sarmakeeva (People’s Choice). (William Atkins/GW Today)

A Ph.D. thesis is the culmination of years of intense research and hundreds of carefully written pages. The projects can be so vast that an 80,000-word Ph.D. dissertation would take about nine hours to present orally.

So why not try to do it in three minutes?

That was the seemingly impossible task taken up by 12 George Washington University Ph.D. students participating in the fifth annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition on Feb. 22. The fast-paced contest challenges students to swiftly summarize their research in language that is engaging and appropriate to a non-specialist audience.

“We are proud to have brought to GW this competition, which showcases the research and presentation skills of our doctoral students,” said Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) Dean Paul Wahlbeck, who also served as a judge for this year’s competition. “This year’s winners reflect engaged scholarship at its best.” 

The 3MT contest, first launched in 2008 by the University of Queensland, is now held in over 900 academic institutions across more than 85 countries worldwide. CCAS brought the contest to GW in 2019, with participation exclusive to CCAS Ph.D. students. In 2022, 3MT expanded to include the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with six student contestants from each school participating this year.

The winner this year was Ryan Welch, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, whose project was titled “Linking the Process, Structure and Performance of 3D Printed Thermoelectric Materials.” He received $1,000 in prize money and will have the opportunity to compete in the Northeastern Association of Graduate School’s regional tournament in April. 

The other 3MT winners and their thesis topics were:

  • Second place and a $750 prize: Jacob Medina (Cancer Biology), “Photothermal Therapy of SM1 Melanoma Utilizing Anti-CD137 Coated Prussian Blue Nanoparticles.”
  • Third place and a $500 prize: Nate Harris (Economics), “Do Building Height Restrictions Increase or Decrease Welfare in a City?”
  • People’s Choice and a $500 prize: Anastasia Sarmakeeva (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), “Landslide Simulations to Save Lives.”

A fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, Medina’s research combines photothermal therapy and immunotherapy to treat late-stage cancers. Using laser-heated nanoparticles in antibodies, he devised a method to kill a single tumor while activating immune cells that migrate throughout the body to kill other tumors. “I see my work as a bridge between the worlds of chemistry and biomedicine,” he said.

In his thesis, Harris, a fifth-year Ph.D. student, constructed land-value estimates for 138 cities to determine whether land-use planning restrictions lower or raise aggregate welfare. His research was inspired by living in Washington, D.C., a city, he noted, with building height restrictions and green space dedications dating back to the early 1900s. “It is fascinating to consider whether these restrictions have been helpful or harmful for the city,” he said. “I don’t like paying high rent, but I do love green spaces, plenty of sunshine and good air quality.”

Sarmakeeva, a third-year student, used supercomputers to design landslide simulations. The hardest part of compressing years of research into three minutes, she said, was describing her complex models in just 180 seconds. “I needed to explain that simulations are not magic,” she said. “They are hundreds of millions of computer operations solving a huge system of differential equations.”

Presentations were judged on criteria such as whether students clearly described their results and conclusions, and if they conveyed enthusiasm for the topic, captured the audience’s attention and exhibited sufficient stage presence. Under contest rules, participants can display a single static PowerPoint slide but are prohibited from using sound, video or props of any kind. All presentations must be in spoken word, with no raps, poems or songs allowed. Competitors who exceed the strict three-minute time limit are automatically disqualified. 

Other participants in the contest were: Anthony Cade II (History); Claire Charpentier (Genomics and Bioinformatics); Elizabeth Gregorio (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering); Lingchen Kong (Civil and Environmental Engineering); Rully Prassetya (Economics); Parisa Rafiee (Electrical Engineering); Mansi Wadhwa (Public Policy and Administration); and Sara Youssoufi (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering).

In addition to Wahlbeck, this year’s panel of judges were Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies Holly Dugan; Professor of Physics Harald W. Griesshammer; and Professor and Associate Dean for Research Grace Zhang.