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April 10, 2023

Ayla Cordell | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

On April 4, 2023, The Shapiro Theater hummed with nervous energy as the finalists for the second annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition filed inside. These ten graduate students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) had made it through a preliminary round with twenty-five students, and now got to present their research one more time to a panel of judges and a new audience.

The 3MT Competition originated at the University of Queensland in 2008 and has since been spread to over 200 universities worldwide. The Brandeis 3MT Competition is sponsored by GSAS, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), the Mandel Center for the Humanities, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, and the Division of Science. Jon Anjaria and Marika McCann of the Professional Development Office at GSAS, Anahita Zare of MRSEC, and Becky Prigge, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at GSAS, spearheaded the event, and were prominent figures during the 3MT final–McCann at the podium MCing, Anjaria operating the timer and slides, Zare collecting and calculating the judges’ scores, and Prigge transitioning the clip-on microphone from finalist to finalist as they presented on the stage.

The judges for this year’s competition represented diverse positions and disciplines within the Brandeis community, with Ulka Anjaria, Professor of English and Director of Mandel Center for the Humanities; Paul Fennelly PhD '72 Chemistry, an Environmental executive who is a member of the GSAS Dean's Cabinet; Sarah Lamb, Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences; Charles Mc Neal, Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education and Learning Initiatives; Suzanne Paradis, Professor of Biology; and Aneil Tripathy,  PhD '21 Anthropology, Impact Fellow at MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium.

With just three minutes and one slide allotted to communicate your research, 3MT presents a unique challenge to graduate students. As Dean of GSAS Wendy Cadge said in opening remarks, this opportunity for the community to collaborate across disciplines and learn from each other makes 3MT one of her favorite events of the year.

Joe Yauch, a PhD student in History, talked about navigating this process. “It was hard to decide, this piece of information is important but this one isn't– because I think all of it's important. But obviously when I'm talking to a large audience, you have to cut and choose.”

Discovering what is tangibly understood across a wide audience and effectively distilling the broader intents and outcomes of a project is no easy task, but clearly Yauch rose to the challenge, as he took home First Place in the Social Sciences/Humanities/Arts.

Another finalist, Naren Sundararajan, PhD student in Physics, spoke to how the competition has no room for the myopia that emerges when you’re steeped in your dissertation research and how preparing for it was transformative for his communication skills: “I started understanding what listeners expect, I started trying to anticipate where they might struggle to register what I’m trying to say, trying to listen to myself without a science brain to see if I can still understand what I’m saying.”

Sundararajan’s final presentation was dynamic and playful, the language of viruses, capsids, and self-assembly made accessible through his clever “Keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and your frenemies in airtight vials so that they don’t kill you before they teach you something” which earned him Third Place for the Sciences.

3MT was “transformative” for Sundararajan, and the competition emphasized how critical responsible science communication is: “This competition puts a burden on you to communicate accurately and responsibly in what is a natural attention span of a human.” With the complexity of scientific concepts, the risk of miscommunication is high–and the stakes of that are often higher, considering Sundararajan’s research on viruses. It’s imperative, Sundararajan expressed, to communicate carefully and intentionally, and he credits 3MT with making him a more attentive reader and better student overall.

Organizers Anjaria, McCann, and Zare were witness to all the preparation students put into their presentations, and lauded the hard work, creativity, and courage that was evident in their final talks– “It was amazing watching the progress throughout the last few months, particularly from the preliminary rounds to the final.” While this year’s competition is over, McCann emphasized that the communication and presentation skills that are the focus of 3MT are infinitely translatable, as “regardless of their career path, they will need to be able to talk about their research to a ‘prospective’ employer and general audience.”

And while it is certainly nerve-wracking to engage an audience who isn’t explicitly invested in your research, being able to listen and hear about other students’ research proved to be one of the most valuable and enriching aspects of 3MT. As Yauch expressed, “You don’t know that people are doing fascinating research about Alzheimer’s. It’s mind blowing, right? So, it’s really great to connect to the larger community.”

Said researcher on Alzheimer’s, Liz Mahon, PhD student in Psychology, ended the night with First Place for the Sciences, the People’s Choice Award, and the overall highest score, qualifying her to move on to Regionals. While initially believing the competition would be about the nerves of practicing, memorizing, and presenting, her biggest takeaway has been the exposure to “such fantastic talks and really interesting people that I would’ve never heard if I hadn’t been part of this competition.”

Mahon is “so stoked” to go to Regionals, and expressed immense gratitude to her undergraduate Research Assistants and advisor and professor, Dr. Margie Lachman. She’s planning to meet with Emiliano Gutierrez Popoca, a PhD candidate in English who advanced all the way to Nationals after his Brandeis 3MT win last year.

The jittery energy turned jovial as the 3MT crew moved to Solea on Moody Street, the crowd filled with this year’s finalists, judges, participants from last year, and many participants from this year’s preliminary rounds, who came out to support their friends and colleagues. No longer limited to three minutes, conversations and laughter abounded, signaling the success of another 3MT and the continued creation of bonds in the GSAS community. Here’s to 3MT 2024!

This year’s winners include:


First Place - Liz Mahon (overall winner), Psychology, Armed Against Alzheimer’s: How Your Voice Could Save Your Mind
Second Place - Jillian Franks, Psychology, Neural Resonance and Empathy Among Political Ingroup and Outgroup Members
Third Place - Naren Sundararajan, Physics, Self-Assembly and Compartments: Learning Control Strategies from Viruses

Humanities/Social Sciences/Creative Arts

First Place - Joseph Yauch, History, Felling Native Forests, Reclaiming Indigenous Power
Second Place - Julie Scesney, Anthropology and WGSS, Pleasure and Obligation: Detours at the Shopping Mall
Third Place - Danielle Wallner, History, Building Cybernetics: Early Soviet Programming and Cold War Collaboration

People’s Choice: Liz Mahon