3 minutes and counting

You pull off your badge from around your neck as you descend a few hundred feet to the South Waterfront and place it in the top of your bag; it’s the first thing coming out tomorrow. Your face is contorted in a slight, but chronic grin and you scan around the other tram riders to see if anyone else’s day produced a similar level of excitement. Most look tired; one looks annoyed at the guy in the corner unnecessarily yelling into his phone. But you’re not fazed; it’s been a good day. The data are falling into place, and a story is developing. It’s been a grueling process with fewer ups than downs. Your patience has been tested, your motivation and energy strained. Yet, you love it in the same way you love a downpour when you’re already wet. You learn to find the humor in failure and the thrill (often in the form of relief) in success. This is your passion and you’ve devoted yourself to this project. It’s been a cognitive endurance test and while the summit still remains dauntingly high, you are becoming an expert; no one knows YOUR project better than you.

It is with this passion that paints your face as you return home, and that gets you to an early tram as the sun rises. Despite spending the majority of our waking hours thinking about and practicing science, we curiously want to discuss it further outside of the lab. On the streetcar, you point out to the sweet looking old woman that the branching pattern of the tree ahead looks oddly similar to the dendritic arborization of the pyramidal neuron you just saw in a recent Nature paper. During dinner, you cut into broccoli and excitedly mention to your future mother-in-law how closely it resembles the Purkinje cells you’ve been recording from all day. You reluctantly turn down a free beer offered at your barbershop but gladly share that the increased inhibition of your cerebellum won’t make your afternoon run any easier. We’re all familiar with the roll of the eyes, the quick change of the subject, the focused straight-ahead stair of someone trying to ignore you. Research Week 2013 was the refreshing platform where our passion for scientific inquiry and our personal projects, our “babies” could be shared without the blank smile-and-nod that we all too often witness.

And so I found myself, hand slightly trembling, awaiting to present my thesis work in 180 seconds. For those hoping to capture the essence of student research at OHSU from across the research disciplines, the three minute thesis competition was it, and I knew from the very first informational email, I was in. Nonetheless, I found it odd that, despite only two days prior I had participated in the alcohol abuse symposium at Research Week where I delivered a 10 minute presentation and responded to questions from the audience, which was on top of 4 months of biweekly 1.5 hour lectures to an undergraduate audience, this three minute competition induced severe sympathetic nervous system activation on an order I haven’t experienced since the early days of having to give oral presentations back in college. Synthesizing a half a decade of work into three minutes for a non-specific audience presents itself with unique challenges, in part because you’re consistently wondering, “could my grandma understand this?” I don’t write scripts for my talks because I believe they blind you to real-time feedback from the audience, but there’s no way to present 12,000 hours worth of work in three minutes without a carefully orchestrated game plan (sigh… a script). With my heart rate elevated, pupils dilated, sweating a bit, I took the stage.

The clock loomed overhead, ticking faster for me than for my audience. Intro…tick tick tick, methods… tick tick tick. Whatever came out of my mouth was not being processed as other thoughts jumped through my head: ‘am I going faster or slower than when I practiced? Slower! Okay, cut out the joke, it’s not needed, but don’t awkwardly pause, make it look natural. Oh no, was it awkward? Probably. Don’t dwell on it, move on. Stop dwelling on not dwelling!’ Results… tick tick. Time is running out. Importance… 0:04, 0:03…. One sentence left. Going over time is an automatic disqualification from the competition. ‘Quick assessment, cut it off, or sacrifice the competition and end on a high note?’ 0:02. ‘Finish this.’ 0:01, 0:00, STOP. “…identifies a heritable trait that enhances risk for developing alcoholism.” In the end, I was disqualified.

Let’s face it, I wasn’t going to win anyway. Of course, the extra effort I poured into this talk was motivated in large part by the chance to win. But after hearing about ninja motor neurons, Pacman enzymes, and the mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation in treating Parkinson’s disease symptoms, I knew I never stood a chance. At least I got in my final word and walked away feeling good about the effort. Yet, this competition, and the week as a whole, wasn’t about me, or her, or the guy up front. It was about us, and our collective passion for science and research. We often define ourselves by our occupations, but don’t our passions better describe us? On credit card applications, government documents, insurance forms, I’m defined as a student. On the most macroscopic level, that is true, as I believe as long as our eyes are open and our ears receptive we are all students and will forever be. But throughout the auditorium that evening and across the entire week, passions precipitated in a manner that helped expose our true identities. While we are all students of the scientific method, the passion for hypothesis-driven research cannot be taught but only perpetuated through communicating our projects with “students,” young and old, novice and expert. Many consider journals to be the platform of choice as publications lead to grants and longevity in the field. But it’s platforms such as Research Week that facilitate the dynamic environment through which ideas aren’t just shared, but are developed. I was grateful to take part.

One response to “3 minutes and counting

  1. Thanks for the great post. I was there, and you and everyone who participated in 3MT did a tremendous job. I can only imagine how difficult it was. I appreciate your efforts to share your work with other “students” — I loved learning about all the projects going on and left feeling enlightened and inspired. There is great hope for the future of science!

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