Three-Minute Dash: Students Sprint in Thesis Contest

PhD students presented their research in a high-speed challenge during the CCAS Three Minute Thesis Competition. Chemistry’s Dustin Abele won first prize for his green battery proposal.
March 9, 2022
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Chemistry PhD candidate Dustin Abele won first prize in the fourth annual Three Minute Thesis Competition. (Photos: William Atkins)

For PhD candidates, completing their thesis is a culmination of years of grueling research and personal sacrifices along with hours of stressful dissertation defenses.

Now imagine summarizing all that work in just three minutes. 

Four doctoral students stand together in front of a GW building smiling
The 3MT competition winners included (from left) Systems Engineering's Anthony Henning (third place), Abele, Economics' Ruoyu Chen (second place) and Anthropology's Ferhan Guloglu (People’s Choice).

That was the seemingly impossible challenge for a group of George Washington University PhD students participating in the fourth annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition on February 24. The contest, which was launched in 2008 by The University of Queensland, is now held in over 600 academic institutions across more than 65 countries worldwide. The Columbian College of Arts & Sciences (CCAS) brought the contest to GW in 2019, and this year marked the first time students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) participated.

The fast-paced competition challenges students to swiftly summarize their research in language that is engaging and appropriate to a non-specialist audience. Under contest rules, participants can display a single static PowerPoint slide but are prohibited from using sound, video or props of any kind. This year’s winner was Dustin Abele, a PhD candidate in chemistry. His presentation, titled “Sustainable Materials for High Energy Density Li-on Batteries,” focused on reducing the environmental hazards of battery production by synthesizing materials from sustainable sources like sawdust and molten salt.

“I selected this work because I care about our environment and want to contribute to collective efforts to reimagine our current energy consumption practices,” said Abele, who received $1,000 in prize money and will have the opportunity to compete in the Northeastern Association of Graduate School’s regional tournament in April. “Researching in this field gives me hope that our ever-evolving society is making progress toward implementing sustainable solutions to address global climate change at its source.”

The other 3MT winners and their thesis topics were:

  • Second place and a $750 prize: Ruoyu Chen (Economics), “Evaluating the Effects of Carbon Trading on Power Sector Emissions in China: A View from Space.”
  • Third place and a $500 prize: Anthony Henning (Systems Engineering), “The Complexities of Measuring Complexity.”
  • People’s Choice and a $500 prize: Ferhan Guloglu (Anthropology), “Natural Mothers in the Making.”

To prepare for her presentation, which focused on the politics of childbirth in Turkey and involved working with women in the nation’s natural childbirth community, Guloglu practiced with her 4-year-old son. As she pared her research details into a three-minute speech, her son “loved timing me and yelling, ‘Done!’ at the end,” she said.

Presentations were judged on two overall criteria: comprehension and content, including whether students provided an understanding of the background and significance of the research and clearly described their results and conclusions; and engagement and communication, such as conveying enthusiasm for the topic, capturing the audience’s attention and exhibiting sufficient stage presence.

In addition to the prize winners, other participants in the contest were: Ebad Ebadi (Economics); Anna Gams (Biomedical Engineering); Jeffrey Kuo (Economics); Rully Prassetya (Economics); Courtney Sexton (Human Paleobiology); and Kerry Synan (Political Science). This year’s panel of judges were Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Gina Adam, Associate Professor of English Holly Dugan; Associate Professor of Physics Harald W. Griesshammer; and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience John W. Philbeck