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Inaugural 3 Minute Thesis compels students to put high-level research into much-condensed package

Participants and judges in Creighton's inaugural 3 Minute Thesis competition, held Feb. 4, 2016.At a glance around Room 3027 in the Harper Center on Thursday morning, Yovani Llamas counted 14 people in attendance for Creighton University’s inaugural 3 Minute Thesis competition.

Llamas, one of five participants in the competition — which asks graduate students to condense their research into a three-minute presentation — wasn’t worried about speaking in public.

“That’s not the hard part,” said Llamas, a doctoral student in clinical and translational science. “The hard part is putting my research into what are basically a couple of bullet points.”

Indeed, less studied individuals might take three minutes even working through the title of Llamas’ thesis: “Vitamin D Regeneration of Endothelial Cells by Adipose Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells.” But here he was, ready to stand in front of these 14 assembled, including three judges and the dean and assistant dean of Creighton’s Graduate School, and deliver some eloquence on the subject he’d broken into the more digestible “Waging War Against Heart Disease.”

“It’s like your standard elevator pitch,” said Gail Jensen, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School and College of Professional Studies. “Can you talk about your research in an elevator with someone who might be from a nonprofit foundation or interested in giving you a grant?”

And therein was an object lesson of the competition. It resonated for all five competitors, each of whom was from the laboratory in clinical and translational science (CTS) or biomedical sciences run by D.K. Agrawal, Ph.D, one of the University’s most prolific grant earners.

Llamas’ fellow doctoral student in clinical and translational science, Joe Abdo, earned top prize in the competition, a $500 grant from the Graduate School Research Fund and a trip to Chicago to compete at the regional 3 Minute Thesis contest at the Midwest Association of Graduate Schools conference in April. Llamas earned second prize, a $250 grant.

Abdo said being able to succinctly deliver the meat of his research — into esophageal cancer and its derivation from gastroesophageal reflux disease — in such a short time frame was hugely instructive.

“I’ll often find myself at a family dinner and someone will ask, ‘So, what are you working on?’” Abdo said. “And I’ll talk for 30 minutes before they realize, ‘This guy isn’t going to stop.’ To be able to boil it down like this has been good practice.”

Though this year’s competition featured only researchers in the sciences, the 3 Minute Thesis is open to graduate students from all disciplines. Hoping to make the contest a tradition at Creighton, LuAnn Schwery, assistant dean of the Graduate School said next year, the aim is to get a good cross-section of research represented.

“We do hope to be more interdisciplinary in the future,” said Schwery. “It was a great event and we’re so pleased these students stepped forward to try it for the very first time. They all did a great job. The first rule of this is that you leave your audience interested, wanting to know more.”

The competition began at Australia’s University of Queensland in 2008 and has since spread internationally to more than 200 institutions of higher learning.

On St. Albert’s Day, April 12, the five competitors in Creighton’s 3 Minute Thesis will reprise their presentations. The audience for that event will then vote on a People’s Choice Award for one of the five. The competitors themselves hoped a wider audience might mean more cross-disciplinary participation in the future.

“It would be great to try this against someone in English or the other humanities,” Abdo said. “Today it was kind of CTS-on-CTS. But that does show you that our lab is so dynamic and we really do work well together. For me, I think we do get so locked into what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis that it was nice to see how some of my colleagues’ investigations are going.”

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