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Physics grad student wins national Three Minute Thesis competition

Elizabeth Watt concisely and passionately describes impact of her radiation oncology research on breast cancer patients
June 5, 2015

Elizabeth Watt, an MSc student specializing in radiation oncology physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, works with Tyler Meyer, an adjunct assistant professor in the  Department of Physics and Astronomy. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

For the 3MT competition, Watt described her research identifying and quantifying the uncertainties involved in Permanent Breast Seed Implants, a one day, outpatient procedure in which radioactive 'seeds', pictured above, are permanently inserted in and and around the cavity from which a breast cancer tumour has been removed. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies announced today that Elizabeth Watt, a University of Calgary master’s student specializing in radiation oncology physics, has won Canada’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

The 3MT is an academic challenge where participants have just three minutes to explain the scope, significance and impact of their research project to a general audience. Launched in 2008 at the University of Queensland, 3MT is now a global competition held at universities around the world.

Watt was chosen from 11 national finalists for her explanation of how radioactive “seeds” can be used in breast cancer treatment as an alternative to external-beam radiation. Watt’s presentation is a subject that generates a lot of interest beyond the academic community as the benefit of this treatment can shorten the time spent in hospitals for cancer patients, significantly improving the quality of their daily lives.

Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president (academic), says on learning of Watt's win: “The 3MT challenge is an important competition for graduate students. By participating, they sharpen the communication skills that will allow them to connect their research to the community in a meaningful way. The university offers many learning programs that support their development in this area. We are very proud of Elizabeth’s achievement.”

Watch Elizabeth Watt’s 3MT presentation, Permanent Breast Seed Implant: Improving Patient Experience in Early-Stage Breast Cancer.

The three minute advantage

“One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is to use simplified terms and explanations when describing my research,” Watt says. “It is so easy to get caught up using jargon or abbreviations and we forget that not everyone is immersed in our research topic all day, every day!”

Watt attended practice sessions offered through My GradSkills, which helped her realize that what she thought was clearly understandable, was actually quite confusing and convoluted to people outside her department of Physics and Astronomy.

My GradSkills operates out of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) and is designed to help graduate students hone their academic and professional skills. Tara Christie who runs the program says that, “In life, being able to talk about things clearly is a great skill to have. From business leaders to scientists, the most influential also speak in clear, easy to understand language that gets their point across.”

Students’ understanding of their own research and its purpose can vastly improve their ability to find funding, employment, and collaborate effectively with members of the community outside their field of research.

“In my view, on an equal level of importance with doing high quality scientific measurements, the ability to communicate the results and conclusions from your work to the community is absolutely core to being a scientist," says Robert Ian Thompson, head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "If you don't communicate and defend your work broadly, there is no point in having done the study.”

Thompson believes in communication skill development for the students in his department. Its graduate programs require that students are trained in scientific speaking, writing and presentation skills.

“Although we aim to raise all of our students to a high level of communication skills, Elizabeth's accomplishments in the Canadian 3MT competition are truly outstanding. We as a department could not be more proud of her work, her accomplishments, and her membership in our community,” says Thompson.

Christie hopes that more graduate students take on the 3MT challenge going forward. It is a fun and unique opportunity to really develop the ability to talk about their research, making complex ideas accessible to more people, an essential building block for any student thinking about staying in academia or joining the workforce.

Colleen Bangs, manager of Career Services at the university, agrees. “Strong communication skills are top of mind for most HR recruiters and hiring managers when bringing in new talent. How well we communicate often determines the direction our careers will take us.”

“Elizabeth has honed this very important skill and has done the University of Calgary proud in winning this esteemed award,” she says. 

What goes into a winning 3MT presentation?

It takes lots and lots of preparation, repetition and practice to win the national 3MT competition. Watt worked hard on her presentation and turned to many people and resources for advice and feedback, because the thought of packing countless hours of research into three minutes can be overwhelming. 

Watt was drawn to the competition for this very reason. “Generally speaking, physics is not thought of in the health-care setting, so it’s challenging to explain where my work fits in," she says. "Summarizing my research in three minutes helped me focus on its important and most relevant components.”

Watt made it through two rounds of finals beating out 19 competitors before entering the national stage and competing against ten other graduate students from across the country.

She set her presentation apart by emphasizing how her research benefits others and by revealing a surprising side of physics that people don’t know about — how physics research can improve treatment for cancer patients. “Permanent Breast Seed Implant has the potential to play a significant role in the future of radiation therapy, meaning that such research is essential for continued progress and success of the treatment, and ultimately its ability to improve the lives of many women who bravely fight breast cancer every day.”

Through her participation, Watt learned another surprising but important aspect to a great presentation: enthusiasm. “Seeing how excited each individual was about their research made me, and the rest of the audience, get excited right along with them!”

Still in disbelief but thrilled about her success, Watt is really grateful that she had this opportunity and immense support from her supervisor, Dr. Tyler Meyer, the Department of Physics and Astronomy and FGS.