The Three Minute Thesis (3MT) is a national competition that challenges Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students to ‘pitch’ their (sometimes complex) research to a non-specialist audience. The key to success is a compelling presentation that is clear, succinct and easy to understand for those who are unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Can you imagine presenting your 90,000 word document in just three minutes? It sounds impossible, but not for Phuong Tran – a PhD student from Deakin’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment.
This year, Phuong was crowned the Overall and People’s Choice Award winner of Deakin’s 3MT competition. Phuong’s engaging presentation on Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion secured her the winning spot at Deakin and a place in the Asia-Pacific Finals which were held on Thursday 1 October.
We were lucky enough to speak with Phuong and learnt a bit more about her research and the benefits of competing in the 3MT competition.
Congratulations on your 3MT win at Deakin! Can you tell us a bit about your research topic?
My area of research is microbiologically influenced corrosion, a type of material deterioration under the influence of microbes, the most well-known of which is bacteria. In simple terms, I study how some bacteria can accelerate corrosion on steel. I apply one of the latest developments in gene sequencing called transcriptomics to track down the smallest changes in bacteria’s response to steel, and thus find out more about how they ‘consume’ steel. I hope that once the mechanism of bacterial influence is better understood, inhibitors can be acutely designed to target this mechanism, hence, be more specific and environmentally friendly than the current nasty chemicals with a broad range of biocidal activity.
What do you think are the benefits of taking part in the 3MT competition for PhD candidates?
In the 3MT competition, HDR students have to present their research topic in maximum three minutes using plain language, with one static slide in the most intriguing and entertaining way. The whole point of 3MT is to communicate the what, the why and the how of your research project, to ordinary people. I think all research stems from the benefit to society in some ways but sometimes, as a PhD student, we get lost in solving the problem and forget about the bigger picture of how our work is actually connected to the very everyday interest of society. I think it is not only that HDR students can practice their communication skills but also it is a great chance for us to take a step back and see the bigger picture of how our research fits in and adds value to society.
What motivated you to study your PhD? When did you first decide you wanted to study and work in this field?
My first exposure to research went back to my undergraduate degree when I interned in a Genomics Facility in Malaysia. With guidance from Dr. Han Ming Gan, I analysed genomic data in bacteria and then went on to write articles and publish my very first first-author articles there. I found the work rewarding when I contributed to the new knowledge pool. In addition, the more I learnt about gene sequencing technology, the more fascinated I became about the potential use of it in unveiling various biological processes across numerous fields.
Why did you choose to study your PhD at Deakin?
I got to know Deakin through Dr. Gan who later joined Professor Chris Austin at Deakin Genomics Centre. Through Professor Chris, I was introduced to Professor Leigh Ackland and her collaborative research project with Professor Maria Forsyth. We wanted to employ gene sequencing technology in understanding corrosion. The project is exactly what I wanted to do – to unlock the tremendous potential of this technique in the less expected field. In addition, Deakin Genomics Centre offers a state-of-the-art facility in sequencing and with the expertise from both Prof. Leigh and Prof. Maria, and Dr. Gan, I was just simply impressed and convinced of a rewarding research journey ahead.
Why did you choose to compete in the 3MT?
For months during the lockdown, I could not conduct experiments in a laboratory, so I stayed at home to focus on data analysis, writing and reading. At some points, I felt like I needed to add something new to that routine, so, with full support from my supervisor, Professor Leigh and my co-supervisor, Dr. Agnes Michalczyk, I signed up for the competition with a simple goal of just taking on a challenge out of my comfort zone. I hoped to achieve my main objective – to explain my research to my friends and families in the simplest and most amusing way. This objective has fortunately served me well in guiding my presentation style and speech during the competition.
How did you prepare for the 3MT especially during the challenging COVID-19 lockdowns?
Deakin has provided a wide range of online training sessions for HDR students during COVID-19 lockdown. These sessions range from research skills to career building tips and even entrepreneurship in research. I actually scratched off my first draft of the script and wrote a whole new one within three days after I attended two sessions in the Isaac Newton Training Workshop series, organised by Deakin’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment. Both workshops focused on how to employ a storytelling technique when engaging with the audience and have tremendously improved my speech.
How did it feel to compete in the 3MT virtually?
Competing virtually has its pros and cons. The good thing is that I no longer need to feel the anxiety and tension when speaking on the stage and in front of many people. However, the downside is that talking to the camera alone can be a little awkward at first and the tips for public speaking are not very applicable in this case. For example, you cannot really walk around and fully utilise your body language in a video compared to when you are on the stage. Therefore, I had to look for tips from YouTube videos and learn from popular YouTubers for how to engage with the audience in video settings.
What are some of the highlights in your time studying at Deakin?
3MT has definitely been one of the highlights of studying at Deakin. Other highlights include the awesome times I spent with other HDR students at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) before the pandemic. We had Christmas parties and social sport days which help to form a close tie between research students and make my days at Deakin more memorable.