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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Three Minute Thesis Competition Aims At Keeping Graduate Students Clear, Concise

Chuck Quirmbach
MU Dean Douglas Woods (left) and the graduate students who took part in Three Minute Thesis.

What if you had just three minutes to tell someone about your academic career? That's the idea behind a graduate school contest that's been held at several universities around the U.S. — including Marquette, here in Milwaukee.

It's called the Three Minute Thesis Competition.

The winner of Marquette's recent contest is heading to a regional competition in St. Louis Wednesday.

While many people still value an advanced degree, Marquette University Graduate School Dean Douglas Woods says he senses some doubt about the value of extra years in the classroom. He adds at Marquette, and some other universities, in some fields, graduate school enrollment is down a little.

"We're in a time now when there’s more and more skepticism about the role of research and the role of higher education," Woods says. "And our students need to be able to explain why their work is important to the broader community." And, he adds it's also a good idea for students to be able to do so, clearly and concisely.

"Too often, academics will want to go on and on and on when explaining their research, and they use language that most people don't understand," Woods explains.

And so, he recently stood on stage at a Marquette auditorium, and greeted about 150 people. "On behalf of Marquette University, I would like to welcome you to the graduate school's third annual Three Minute Thesis Competition," Woods announced.

He then welcomed to the stage one-by-one, eleven students who had made it through preliminary rounds.  They had three minutes apiece to explain their thesis, or dissertation, for the masters or PhD program at Marquette.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
MU graduate student Lauren Sara speaks during the Three Minute Thesis Competition.

The students included Lauren Sara, who's in a health sciences field called clinical and translational rehabilitation. Sara told the audience that's she's studying how to find the Achilles heel in chronic Achilles tendonitis by taking a closer look  at the calf muscle attached to the tendon.

"For the first time in Achilles tendonitis research, someone will look at the calf muscle function," Sara explained. "And that someone is me. My research will evaluate strength and endurance of the calf muscle." She ended up winning a consolation prize of $500 for her explanation.

Civil, construction and environmental engineering student Nicholas Benn described his research into turning a type of plastic made in nature by bacteria into the energy source biogas. 

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
MU graduate student Nicholas Benn

"We simulated this process in the lab and achieved near complete conversion of PHA bioplastic to biogas in just over a couple weeks, with only a couple of microorganisms to adapt. We're now confident our techniques are ready to scale up outside the lab," Benn explained.

Benn was the runner-up in the thesis competition and also won $500.

Biomedical engineering student Eileen Baker talked about her effort to design and evaluate a new type of ankle joint for people who struggle to walk after having a stroke.

"Now, I can see you thinking, 'I'm not planning to have a stroke, so why is this important to me?' Consider that this technology could be applied to devices such as exoskeletons, or wearable robotic suits," Baker said. "These are already helping quadriplegics walk on their own again. But they're also helping employees in the workplace lift heavy objects safely, and they're being used in the military to prevent fatigue in the field."

Credit Photo supplied by Marquette University
Eileen Baker.

A panel of four judges, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, awarded Baker first prize and $1000. 

Baker says she's always been interested in designing things. "I have a very mechanical background. This project was sort of started before me. But when I was given the option to work on designing something, and being able to help people out with it, instead of an academic project, it really seemed like the right things for me."

She adds, it was a little daunting to be part of the Three Minute Thesis Competition, and required more practice time than she expected. But Baker says competing will make it easier to explain her work to her family, friends, and potential employers. And, she gets to take on the regional competition this week  in St. Louis. 

What taking part won't do, Baker says, is eliminate the physical and mental challenge of grad school. "Lots of late nights. It's bigger than a 9 to 5 job because you're doing classes, you're teaching, and then the time outside of that is what you have to work on your research. So, you don’t usually quit and go home and laze around. Because, you’re already thinking about the next thing to do."

But, say Marquette officials, all that work  by masters and PhD candidates is likely to result in increased pay and pay raises after graduation. 


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Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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