Only Three Minutes

Let’s pretend you’ve signed up for the Three Minute Thesis.

What that means is you’ve got three minutes to explain your thesis—both the results and significance of your project—to a non-scientific audience.

Why did you do it? First, it’s good public speaking practice. Second, it’s a great opportunity to express your creativity. While you know that science is wonderfully, elegantly creative, it’s hard to convey that creativity to people outside of science. The crux of your research project is buried under six feet of complex jargon.

Even the simple things take lots of description. Although you’ve explained it a dozen times at the dinner table, whenever your parents hear the phrase “Western blot,” they can’t help but imagine a Rorschach test in a cowboy hat.

For the Three Minute Thesis (3MT), you’ve got to think outside the box.

Now that you’ve chained yourself to this radiator of an event, you’ve got to think of an idea. How are you going to present your research?

You should wrap your presentation in a metaphor, you think. Have an overall theme and a metaphor compelling enough to capture attention, but simple enough to be immediately understood.

You sit at your desk, dramatically crack your fingers and hunker down in front of your computer to compose the Next Great American Presentation. What’s the main underlying theme behind your project? What’s the important take-home message?

After a while, you identify that core concept you want to illustrate. It could be, for example, that cancer is aggressive and avaricious but also sneaky and unpredictable. That Core Concept is something that your own project might only tangentially address but ultimately something new, something your audience probably never considered before.

Congratulations, you’re making progress! You’ve nailed down the Core Concept. And after some procrastination—Netflix-ing and calling your parents (not telling them they’re on the receiving end of a procrastination binge)—you begin constructing The Metaphor.

Like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, your Metaphor requires a delicate balance of precision and dedication. At first, your analogies are a little, well, outlandish. Your project is like a chameleon crawling on a Jackson Pollock painting. Or, it’s like two brothers fighting over a strawberry RingPop.

But you begin circling back to your Core Concept. Perhaps, as a cancer researcher, you’re like a father grounding his daughter (cancer) and preventing her from meeting with her new boyfriend (uncontrolled growth). Even though you remove her computer, internet and cell phone privileges (target main cancer pathways), if she’s determined enough, she’ll covertly circumvent your best efforts in order to achieve her objective.

For cancer, it’s finding another biological pathway to become Jeff, the boyfriend, an uncontrolled disease that threatens overall health and well-being (Sorry Jeff—nothing against you personally, but no one’s good enough for my daughter).

Ultimately, despite the elaborate nature of this father-daughter metaphor, it isn’t right. It might be close—although there’s more than a whiff of Leave-It-To-Beaver patriarchy embedded in it—but it’s not right. You glumly delete the whole thing, start over again.

Eventually, it comes to you, strikes you like a bolt of white-hot inspiration hurled down from the heavens. It’s the mob. Cancer is the mob—or the mob is cancer, depending on your perspective (and hatred of Cosa Nostra).

Here’s The Metaphor: As a cancer researcher, you’re like an FBI agent hunting down the mob (cancer) and preventing them from, you know, gamblin’ and loan sharkin’ and murderin’ (uncontrolled growth). Even though you tap their phone lines and bug their houses and businesses (target main cancer pathways), if they’re determined enough, they’ll covertly circumvent your best efforts—through burner phones, primarily—to achieve their objective.

Once you write The Metaphor down, it loses a significant amount of its luster, but you proceed anyway, fleshing out the metaphor, tying in your research, emphasizing how important the results can be for improving the lives of patients.

You realize, somewhat surprisingly, that this is the super fun part. You’re working on an elaborate puzzle with multiple instructions: it must be presentable under three minutes, compelling and engaging, and emphasize the Core Concept.

But you’re goal isn’t simply to complete the puzzle. It’s to encourage other people to care about your research as much as you do. And you want the vehicle of that encouragement to be amazing. You want your presentation to sparkle with compassion and fascination and a dash of panache, all topped with a soupçon of awesome.

It’s a tall order, to be sure. But it’s an order you’ve spent days in the kitchen practicing and preparing, and one that you’re proud and even excited to serve to hungry customers.

Once your presentation is written, the hulking presence of 3MT shrinks considerably. You can do this, you realize almost deliriously. Everything will be okay.

Right now, it’s all about practice and confidence, practice and confidence. And days later as they’re announcing your name, as you’re walking onto the stage and adjusting the microphone, you pause for a moment.

You realize, squinting out into the scattered crowd, that doing 3MT is an incredible privilege. You’re about to present a concentrated, user-friendly version of your research to an audience that couldn’t be more excited to listen to it.

Perhaps most importantly, you’ve inviting them to participate in the greatest parts of graduate school: they’re joining in the conversation between you and your colleagues as you babble excitedly about your latest experiments; they’re listening with you, enraptured, at a scientific conference; and, of course, they’re high-fiving and jumping around the room with you at the unexpected appearance of good data.

But remember, you’ve only got three minutes. Make them count.

2 responses to “Only Three Minutes

  1. Kudos on a valiant effort on 3MT this year, David! Also, congrats to the winners – I always gain so much respect for all the participants. Indeed, three minutes is merely a breath in the grand scheme of things and it’s simply remarkable to watch everyone’s talks.

  2. Wonderful post- thanks. I may quote your approach- and will definitely describe your enthusiasm next year when I give the ‘How to give a talk in 3 minutes’ talk!

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