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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Three Minute Thesis and Tasmanian Devils

Rachel Owen, Right, with Doctoral College Team Member, Left
Rachel Owen, Right, at the Final with Doctoral College Staff, Left

On the evening of Monday 17 September, at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham, over 400 guests at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference gathered in the Monarch Suite for the 2018 UK Final of the Three Minute Thesis Competition 3MT®.

Sixty-four universities entered the competition, and only six made it to the final. These six had to take to the stage at the Vitae Conference and present their thesis, with no props and only one slide in just three minutes.

The Finalists:

Rachel Owen, currently in her fourth year of her PhD, won both her Faculty Heat and the University Grand Final during the Festival of Doctoral Research to make it through to the national stage of the competition. To her surprise, throughout the summer, she kept getting congratulatory notifications from Vitae informing her that she had made it through each stage of the competition, first to the Semi-Final, and then to the Final.

The next step was to head to Birmingham and present her thesis once again. The standard of the competition was exceptionally high, and each 3MT was excellent so the judges had a tough decision on their hands.

Rachel, unfortunately did not take the National title this year, but making it to the final surpassed her expectations by miles, and we are so proud of what she has accomplished taking on this challenge. Congratulations Rachel!

Congratulations also go to Owen Gwydion James who won the overall competition and to Jamie Khoo who won the People's Choice Award.

As we start planning the early stages of the 2018-19 competition, we met with Rachel to talk through her 3MT experience, from the beginning stages, all the way to the final, as well as a few words of wisdom for those just starting out in their academic adventure.

Firstly, for those who may not have seen your 3MT, can you tell us about your research focus?

“I have just entered my final year of my PhD with Dr Hannah Siddle, where I am focusing on two very interesting contagious cancers which circulate in the Tasmanian devil. The Tasmanian devil is a large endangered carnivorous marsupial endemic the island of Tasmania.

“I am focusing on two cancers, one of these cancers appeared on the island around 20 years ago, and has nearly wiped out the species, crippling the numbers of devils and is becoming a real threat. The second cancer that has emerged has upped this threat.  

“My research I would say has two heads, understanding where this new cancer has come from, where it has evolved from, and how. Then using that to identify potential targets to make a vaccine to try and stop the spread of both these cancers.”

What made you go into this subject, and how did you get to contagious cancers in Tasmanian Devils?

“For my undergraduate degree I studied Biochemistry, and when I was younger I always wanted to be a vet. I was fascinated with animal documentaries, but decided I didn’t enjoy the clinical side so I moved into science. I didn’t realise that animal science in itself was something I could study so when I became quite interested in cancer during my undergraduate degree it led me into looking for PhDs in cancer.

“However, searching on for ‘cancer’, it brings up a lot of search results, mainly those revolving around cancer in humans. While I was searching, the PhD I am currently doing popped up unexpectedly, and I had no idea jobs like this existed, but it was perfect for me, so I went for it. Luckily, Hannah liked me, and it has become one of the best things that has happened to me.”

To follow on from that, do you think if this particular PhD had not been available, would you have gone for a different PhD in human cancer?

“I had interviews for eight PhDs, seven of which were based on human cancer. So if I hadn’t of found this one, yes, I would have gone down the human cancer route.”

As you start your fourth year, have you thought about what you want to do next?

*Nervous laughter* “Trying not to!

“There are a few things in the works, but if they don’t come through then I will start looking for Postdocs. I know I would like to stay within academia and I know I want to try to stay in animal science if I can.”

What (or who) encouraged you to enter last year’s Three Minute Thesis competition?

“My supervisor!

“It wasn’t initially something I wanted to do. I was told it would be for my benefit by my supervisor and that I will be taking part… and as I hate public speaking, we had a very big fight about it.

“I am terrified of public speaking, I get worked up and extremely nervous, but eventually I bit the bullet figuring I would only have to do it once at my Faculty heat.

“On the day of the Faculty heat, which didn’t start until 5pm, I was a wreck, I kept having panic attacks, I couldn’t do any work, I had the leave the building… it was such a big deal for me to take part in something like this.”

Because of this fear, are you glad you took part?

“The short answer, yes! 100%.

“Just before the Vitae final, I went away to a conference and presented for around 15 minutes and, surprisingly, I was hardly nervous. Before 3MT, like I previously mentioned, I would have panic attacks, cry, I wouldn’t be able to enter the room I was presenting in, it was horrible but then I thought, it can’t get much harder than Three Minute Thesis, so presenting now isn’t as difficult.

“Since I started my PhD, I have been very aware that during my third year, I will have to present at the Biological Sciences Postgraduate Symposium, I had been terrified about that, but when it came around, after the Three Minute Thesis competition, I was actually excited for it.

“I do still get nervous, but not for as long beforehand, and not as crippling.

“I was never expecting to say this, but the most useful thing I did in school was take drama GCSE because that is how I can get up and do talks. I am so nervous, but I become theatrical, which is very useful for something like Three Minute Thesis.”

Talk us through the process and your experience, as well as your presentation and the approach you took to ensure you could communicate your thesis in just 3 minutes (quite a challenge!)

“Honestly, I just wrote a script and kept saying it aloud. I had it on repeat, doing the washing up, I would say it, walking around the house, I would say it, in the shower, I would say it. I just learnt it.

“You need to know it, because if you forget it for only a second, the three minutes you have become less and less.

“My lab group supported me when going through the process. After I wrote the script, I presented it to them and they timed me. This is where I worked with the group to change the script, if things did not make sense, where I should edit it to make it more understandable to a lay audience, and then once I had presented it again, I started to focus on the three-minute time limit.

“Whenever I presented it, and at every stage of the competition, I would change something small, minor bits that could help make the presentation flow better. If you ever trip over words when you are presenting, that is when you should think about editing the script.

“So I would say my main process was constant practice, seeing what felt right because I think you never consider how easy it needs to be to say, the timings are so tight, it needs to have a flow compared to the usual presentations you do during your PhD.”

If you could tell other doctoral researchers one thing you gained from entering the 3MT competition, what would it be?


“The first heat for me was horrible, but it got easier after that, and by winning the Faculty Heat I had got further than I expected… let alone the National Final.  

“It is a skill you may not need again, condensing work into three minutes, but you get used to speaking, high stress situations and, condense down the actual points of your PhD. Now I am at the point where when people ask me what I do, I have the perfect thing to say, and it is a very good way to break down your PhD to its bare bones.”

And one piece of advice for those who are considering entering competition?

“Give the presentation to people who have no idea what you do. I found it very hard to break down what was necessary for the presentation, what people need to know, and, what was me wanting to share everything about my PhD.

“Listen to the people you practice with, if they do not understand certain words, then remove them. There is usually another way to explain something. Try not to add pointless words, if you can say something in one word over four then take the easier option. Remember, you only have three minutes.

“I started off with a lot to say in the first draft then cut it down and simplified it.

“Something I found very useful was to team up with the people you are competing with. It may sound counterintuitive but everyone in the Faculty Heats are nervous, and it is nice to have people around you who are going through the same thing.

“Myself and two others competing sat in a room and presented our 3MT to each other, which really helped, as they are in it with you.

“Don’t over think it; it seems a lot bigger and scarier than it actually is. Have fun with it, with hindsight, it was fun and if anything, it gives you an excuse to go out and celebrate afterwards.”

How did you come up with your slide?

“The slide I used was actually about the sixth iteration. I initially started trying to have something useful on the slide, something that flowed, but it just looked messy.

“For what I was talking about, I couldn’t figure out how to get the information on the slide that felt useful and still keep people focused on my talk. You only have three minutes so the slide, even though it is a big part of the competition, the judges and audience still need to focus on your presentation.

“So in the end, I thought I would have something fun. When it comes to my research, the lay audience are very interested in the Tasmanian devil; they are interesting and cute to look at. When I found the picture of the healthy devil, I thought, this looks like a mug shot, and almost went down the lines of a wanted poster, but the ‘missing’ version seemed to fit better.”

Did you look at the judging criteria at all when preparing?

“Briefly, but I didn’t spend too much time focused on the judging criteria. I didn’t want to get held back by focusing on trying to fit something into specific criteria when I didn’t have that to talk about.”

Finally, as you approach writing up your thesis, can you give our current and new PGRs some advice for the PhD journey they are on?

“Make friends.

“Being someone that has social anxiety, I found the first few months here very difficult. I was lonely, stressed and upset because I didn’t really join in with things, I didn’t join the Biological Sciences Postgraduate Society (BSPS), or go to the pub on Friday, but since I started doing that being in Southampton became much easier.

“Obviously the work is very important, but I think there is a massive need for support from people who know what you are going through, so speak to the community of doctoral researchers around you. You are all going through the same thing, just maybe at different points.

“My main bit of advice would be to get involved with social stuff. Meet your cohort; meet the people starting with you because they are the people you are going to finish with. It is important to build up those connections/relationships so you have someone to go to when you need to talk, when things are stressful, when they get hard. It happens to everyone, you have ups and downs, so it nice to have people there.

“Don’t forget, your project will move at a different pace to others, you can’t compare yourself to them, it doesn’t mean you are not good enough, and it doesn’t mean you are ahead or behind of someone. It is very steep learning curve, and most people hit it in second year. (At least in Biological  Sciences) we call it the second year slump, you lose the first year excitement, it hits you what you are doing, and imposter syndrome sets in, and it is just about realising, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t good enough.

“PhDs are competitive so you are meant to be here. Everyone struggles, and finds part of their project difficult, you are not alone, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing the PhD, you should.

“Don’t get disheartened, take a step back, and you will realise you that everyone can feel like this, and talk to someone, a friend, or any of the support services on offer at the University.”

Do you have any advice on work-life balance?

“I would say to anyone starting out, unless you have to, try and keep your weekends free, you don’t want to burn out straight away, don’t consider the weekend as an extension of the week, and consider them as a last resort.”

Would you like to share one of your best memories at Southampton?

“Some of the best memories within the University have been where the PGRs and supervisors have come together for informal fun events. It shows a real sense of community makes the atmosphere better around the department and helps to build a rapport between staff and researchers.

“Fostering the relationships you make on campus and the people around you is the most important thing to help you survive your PhD.”

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