Three-Minute Thesis competition helps engineers build communication skills

Graduate student Khadija Zaidi-Rashid stands in front of a poster board with her research in a big fluorescent-lit room.

Khadija Zaidi-Rashid, a bioengineering PhD student, was one of Mason Engineering's finalists for the Three-Minute Thesis competition where she presented her thesis in three minutes or less. Photo provided.

Three minutes or less. Graduate students Khadija Zaidi-Rashid and Sahar Mazloom had to condense and present their research in the length of a song on the radio when they took part in the Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition.

3MT® is a research communication competition where PhD students present their doctoral research to a non-specialist audience using only one single visual aid in a bite-sized, three-minute presentation. Zaidi-Rashid and Mazloom were Mason Engineering’s two finalists and represented the school in the university-wide competition on May 9.  

“As engineers, I think we rely too much on letting our work speak for itself. Sometimes there are only so many ways you can explain something mathematically,” says Zaidi-Rashid, a bioengineering PhD student. “I liked that this got me out of that routine.”

Zaidi-Rashid presented her research working with stroke survivors, looking at impairments in upper motor control. “We used an approach that has been used to study the trajectory of flight,” she says. “We analyzed stroke patients’ movement to see how it is affected and where and how healthy movement is retained."

Graduate student Sahar Mazloom sits at a desk with a miscroscope, computer and other equipment

PhD student in the Department of Computer Science Sahar Mazloom presented her research on cryptography and data protection as part of the Three-Minute Thesis competition. Photo provided.

Mazloom, who is getting her PhD in computer science, presented her research on cryptography and data protection. Companies like Yahoo, Target, and dozens more have suffered from big data breaches. Mazloom says she has dedicated the latter part of her PhD studies to improving the algorithms that protect data so that they can compute on encrypted data faster and more efficiently to prevent data breaches from happening in the future.

“Its main goal is to construct secure and privacy-preserving machine learning algorithms to apply on large scale datasets,” says Mazloom.

Both Mazloom and Zaidi-Rashid say they enjoyed the experience. Zaidi-Rashid says it is a practice many engineers can benefit from. “Unless you are regularly talking with the layperson and regularly have to explain things to people outside of your field, it takes practice, but it has benefits,” she says.

“We need to be equipped with this skill set to be able to pitch our research ideas to people that can fund them,” says Mazloom.

“Every day we see the stunning difference between decision-based fact-making and fact-based decision-making,” says Deborah Goodings, associate dean for graduate programs for Mason Engineering. As researchers, as scientists, as engineers, as mathematicians, we have an urgent obligation to communicate and to intrigue and inspire others with what we do and what we know to be true. 3MT® challenges our students to frame and communicate their complex research to meet those goals, developing an essential skill that will serve them throughout their entire careers.”