Doctoral students present theses in 3 minutes

Emily Williams

While an average graduate thesis is around 80,000 words, 15 University of Alabama doctoral students managed to condense theirs into a three-minute presentation.

The contestants gathered in Russell Hall Wednesday night to present their theses as part of the championship round of the inaugural year of the graduate school’s Three Minute Thesis Competition. According to the program, the average thesis would take approximately nine hours to present, so the contest was all about being concise. The competition was based on an event that originated at the University of Queensland, Australia.

A panel of seven judges that included professors, a circuit court judge, the superintendent of Tuscaloosa County Schools and UA Interim Provost Joe Benson judged the students’ presentations based on the effectiveness of their communication, comprehension and audience engagement. The goal was to get students to explain their theses in a way that was accessible to a non-specialized audience without the use of overly technical jargon. Students were allowed to create one slide as a visual aid and could not exceed three minutes of speaking time.

Initially there were 100 competitors representing 26 departments of the graduate school. Forty-seven winners advanced to last week’s semi-finals, from which the competition was narrowed to 15.

First place went to Will Guin, a graduate student in civil, construction and environmental engineering. Guin presented his thesis about “poptubes,” which use microwave radiation to create more effective airframe skins for Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” planes. The invention is patented by Guin’s advisor Jialai Wang, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, and Xinyu Zhang, associate professor of polymer and fiber engineering at Auburn University. Guin has worked with the two associate professors to advance the technology. The first place prize included $1,500 cash and a trip to San Antonio, Texas, to represent Alabama at the Council of Southern Graduate Schools in February.

“I’m pretty surprised; it’s really unexpected. … I want to thank the department of environmental, construction and civil engineering, Dr. Ken Fridley and all of the faculty for encouraging us and helping us to this point.”

Guin congratulated his fellow competitors and said he is hoping to get his work published in the future.

Steven Kelley, a graduate student in the chemistry department, received second place and $1,050 cash for his thesis on the use of nitrogen to deactivate radioactivity and permanently dispose of nuclear waste.

Julia Stevens, a graduate student in biology who presented on the common attributes of invasive species, specifically the lionfish, received third place and $700.

Fourth place and $250 was awarded to Catherine Winn, a graduate student in the English department, who spoke about 16th century views of women’s anatomy and their effect on modern reproductive rights policies.

The people’s choice award, amounting to $900, went to Alireza G. Kashani, also a civil, construction and environmental engineering student. Kashani’s presentation dealt with using lasers to more effectively assess the structural damage done by tornadoes.

“It’s a very exciting thing that brings the University community together to see all the exciting work our students are doing and how research that our students are doing is going to impact our lives. I think anybody here [tonight] was impressed and proud to be a part of our community,” David Francko, dean of the graduate school, said.