An 80,000-word thesis built on years of research would normally take a PhD student about nine hours to present.
At a national final in Dublin on Wednesday, some of Ireland’s brightest students had an even greater challenge: communicate their findings in just three minutes.
Oh, and they weren’t allowed to use any notes – and just a single PowerPoint slide.
“If you go one second over, you are disqualified,” warned Jonathan McCrea, science broadcaster and master of ceremonies at Ireland’s first ever Three Minute Thesis National Final, just in case finalists’ nerves weren’t jangling enough.
The event, organised by the Irish Universities Association (IUA), is based on a concept originally devised by the University of Queensland and has become an event that has since been replicated around the globe.
The idea is to make research more accessible for general audiences without any specialist knowledge, as well as boosting students’ communications skills.
The eight PhD researchers at Wednesday’s final at the Royal Irish Academy – winners of their respective university competitions – were asked to inform and entertain without dumbing down their findings.
In her presentation on “healing hearts with hyaluronic acid hydrogels”, Victoria Ward, a student at University of Galway’s school of medicine, painted striking images as she explained how her work involves strengthening the walls of the heart.
“Feel your heart,” she said. “Steady beating, constantly active, always responsible: our biological engine. Over my 26 years, my heart has clocked over nine million beats – and I hope for many more. However, after a heart attack, each beat becomes precious and blocked blood vessels lose oxygen ... causing death, damage and weakness ... the engine fails,”
Astrid Dedieu, a marine ecology researcher at University College Cork, outlined the risks facing seabirds trying to adjust to the presence of growing numbers of offshore wind farms.
“Imagine you feel peckish at home and head to the fridge for a wee snack, but in between you and the fridge stands a giant turbine with the potential to grind you into mush. What do you do? Try your luck, ninja warrior-style, or try to go around it, wasting time and energy having to circle around the house? Tough decision to make, right?”
Patrick Dolan, a researcher with University of Limerick’s school of education and health science, presented on the imbalance in strength and conditioning resources available to thousands of community players compared to a tiny number of elite teams.
“The boys in green. Your Six Nations champions. Number one team in the world...okay, so my speech hasn’t aged as well as I’d like,” he said, to some bitter laughter.
His research focused on a programme aimed at reducing the injury rate among the “thousands of mums and dads” trying to keep up their full-time jobs and raise their children.
After Bill Calvey of Maynooth University completed his presentation on the “identification of health optimistic and pessimistic older adults”, the judging panel retired to vote on a winner. The online audience was invited to vote as well, as a reel of short video highlights of the presenters.
“This is like the green room in the Eurovision,” Calvey joked. “It’s been great to get a platform for research, other than journals and something very rooted in academia...It’s such an adrenaline rush.”
Other competitors included Mairead Gallagher (TU Dublin), Sergey Katsuba (UCD) and Meabh Kennedy (DCU).
When the panel - which included Ibec chief Danny McCoy; director general of Science Foundation Ireland Prof Philip Nolan; Dr Orlaigh Quinn and Silicon Republic editor Jenny Darmody - delivered its verdict, there was regret only one overall winner and runner-up could be named. IUA director general Jim Miley, chair of the judging panel, congratulated everyone involved in the final.
“Irish universities boast a diverse variety of talented researchers,” he said. “I hope the experience gives each and every one the inspiration to continue to confidentially communicate your research.”
Lianne Shanley of Trinity College Dublin scooped the overall prize for her nerveless presentation on “teaching your Immune system to grow a new you” as well as audience winner, while Victoria Ward was named runner-up.
Shanley’s presentation focused on how to use bio-materials – that is, any material intended to be used in the human body such as hip replacements or nanoparticles – to engineer an immune response.
Afterwards, she said it had been a fantastic experience and taking part had allowed her to think of her research in a new and creative way.
“What is the point of conducting any research if it can’t be communicated effectively in an accessible manner to a wide range of audiences,” said Shanley, a 28-year-old from Dumcliffe in Co Sligo. “The public are the ones who fund it, the public are the ones who benefit from it. They are most important people in the context of what we do.”