Three Minute Thesis

The idea of condensing your entire thesis project down into three minutes is almost laughable. Seriously. I’m just about a year and a half in, and already my project seems SO BIG that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write enough words to do the study “justice.” So when I saw this competition advertised, I was truly intrigued. How on EARTH could people do this?

I remember going to the three-minute thesis competition last year. I rocked up to the lecture room somewhere around halfway through the presentations. There were maybe 15-20 people competing in the heats, and I made sure to catch the ones of people from my College. I was a spectator preparing to be entertained.

And boy was I. The talks were so good. Sure some presenters struggled a bit more than others. Some lost their place during the talk, or had a few too many “technical” terms, but overall, everyone in the audience could walk away generally having some idea about a myriad of drastically unique studies occurring at the University.

I found myself thinking about what words I would use if I were to present some day. Between presenters I distinctly remember musing to my friends about my silly “beet” puns and how I would give it a go sometime. And that was the last I thought about the competition.

Until 2.5 months ago. We received an email about the competition and something about it just struck me. I didn’t know how I could do it (after all, I’ve just BARELY started my study and last year the winner was already DONE), but I wanted to try.

The rules were fairly simple. Each presenter has 3 minutes (strictly 3 minutes—they had a countdown clock and everything), to present their research. Judges mark the performances based on content, delivery and engagement. You are allowed one static slide, no props, no costumes, and your speech must be in blank verse (no fancy rhyming or singing). Easy. No problem. I can speak for 3 minutes on MY research area.

So I signed up and got to work. Draft one. What was I thinking? Why on earth am I doing this? It’s not at all easy.

Woodrow Wilson (I think it was him) said “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

And man. That quote has never rung so true. It seemed my first draft of my speech just got longer and longer and every time I tried to “edit” it down, I faced an internal battle of debating how important that one sentence, that one WORD was to the entirety of my project.

I finally got the timing about where I wanted and it was time to run my words by a test audience. Thank goodness for having some guinea pigs (I mean, housemates) nearby.

Never before have I realized just how “technical” some of the words I use in my field are. Here I was thinking I had simplified my topic too much, when in reality, my entire 180 seconds were littered with scientific jargon.

Exercise Capacity. Well yes, we can maybe guess what you mean, but what does it REALLY mean? 

Peripheral and central factors? Peripheral to what? What are you trying to say?

Beyond just the individual words, I had unknowingly written the entire talk in the format of a formal research presentation. Fantastic for a conference. Terrible for engagement of a lay person audience.

Draft two….ok they understand it now. Fix the words.

Draft three…. The university hosts a training. I realize that mine is way too long. What do I REALLY want to say?

Draft four….Supervisor. Help.

Draft five….ok. I think this works.

Unfortunately, draft five was finished precisely a day and a half before the competition date. I spent the next 36 hours in a state of pure panic as I paced the halls, office and bus stops talking to myself in a variety of tones and pitches with fairly energetic hand motions.

The day of the competition I’m in full panic mode. I am the very last presenter of the day so naturally, I have NO idea what anyone before me said as I used each of their countdown clocks to practice and time my own silent rehearsals. The presentation itself was overwhelming. I stumbled through a few parts, but other than that have next to no recollection of those 180 seconds.

We had 18 people presenting. One individual from each college (there were 5) would be chosen as the college winner to go onto the finals. Additionally, the overall winner and overall runner up would move forward as well as the people’s choice (who the audience voted for). I had next to no confidence going into the announcement, but somehow walked away with People’s Choice award, and a spot in the finals in 4 weeks time. Oh man. Now I have to go again….

I spent the next four weeks really trying to fine tune my talk. We received “feedback” from the judges. I use “” because the feedback I got was “great presentation” and “include more methods.” Cool. The university held another training day for the 8 finalists, and between that and many more practices at home with the housemates, numerous late nights of whining to the best friend, and countless train rides spent muttering to myself, I was finally ready for the Victoria University finals.

I spent the morning in a panic (fairly typical for me pre-presentation). By the time the competition was kicking off, my nerves were calming and my excitement was rising. My biggest fear is forgetting my words (and when you have 490 of them to say in less than 180 seconds, I think that’s a reasonable fear). I knew my words though. I had them memorized by heart. I just needed to get out of my way and stop thinking. Just tell your story. You know your story. Be you. Stop thinking about the words and think about the story. It was the best advice I got (thanks Aurèlie). I got out of my head. I stopped rehearsing. I was in the moment. I handed over my phone so I had no distractions. I had no one to panic to. I was just there. Waiting to go. I was second.

The stakes were high. The winner from this round, we were told, would go on to represent the University at the Asia Pacific Finals in Brisbane, Australia at the end of September (in addition to a nice cash prize). Runner up would receive a cash prize and people’s choice would win a pretty hefty gift card to the campus store. Beyond the prize though, all the presenters shared the same motivation of just not wanting to MESS UP in front of a video camera, live audience, and our supervisors.

When I stood up, I took a deep breath. It felt like 30 seconds (I’m told it was more like 5-10). I smile, and just went for it. Line by line, the next words just kept coming. I focused on the audience. I found smiling, nodding faces and spoke right to them. I got in a rhythm and forgot I was even nervous. Wait, what’s the time. Am I on time? I glanced at the clock. Ahead of time. Slow down. I did. I got to my final line and brought it home. Relief flooded through my entire body. I wanted to collapse in my chair. I did. I felt good. At that point, the outcome didn’t matter because I knew that was the best I could have done.

Over the next 45 minutes we got through the other presentations. One by one we all started smiling. It’s over. It’s done. We were dismissed for food while the judges deliberated. I was immediately engulfed in hugs and congratulations. Guys, we don’t even know how I DID yet. The best friend was literally more excited than I was. She had sent me a flurry of texts right after my presentation (that I didn’t get until after because I didn’t have my phone….SHE had my phone). I had a picture from the boyfriend that was a selfie of him with my supervisor as they somehow ended up sitting beside each other. There was so much support from my friends and colleagues and supervisors. And there was food. And so we waited.

And waited. And waited.

Finally the judges came out. After the necessary thank you’s and congratulations, they announced that the decision was so difficult that they actually selected TWO presenters for the runner-up award. But first, they called people’s choice.

Mary Woessner

What. Wait. Me? 

 I went up, accepted my prize and couldn’t stop smiling. They then announced the two runner up places. Neither were me. At this point, I’m in a state of nervous, confused, perplexed wonder. Either I wasn’t even close to the top…or….no…surely not. I hadn’t even won my college heat in the last round. I wasn’t the winner or runner up either. No…surely not.

And the student who will be flying to Brisbane next month to represent Victoria University at the Asia-Pacific Finals is….Mary Woessner.

No freaking way.

They called me up. They called my supervisor up. There were photos and smiles and all the fanfare you would expect. It was unreal. All my friends had stuck around to congratulate me and all I could think was uh oh…now I have to do this again!

It was an awesome experience. The competition pushed me to my limit. It took so much longer than I thought. It took so much more energy than I thought, but in the end, I’m really proud of where my speech got to. I have no idea what the next month’s training will be like (I’ve been warned it is intensive), but no matter what happens, this was been one heck of a ride. And I’m so thankful for everyone who has supported me on this journey so far.

(Pictures from the day from top left to right: The supervisor and boyfriend selfie they were so pleased about, the acceptance of the award with my supervisor, the overall winner certificate. From bottom left to right: the people’s choice winner certificate, a random photo from the ice hockey match we watched later that night, chosen because it pictures my biggest cheerleader throughout the entire competition–told you you should have smiled for the photo).

 

 

 

PhD Students…we run the world

It’s hard to explain what being a PhD student is like because every experience is so unique. While success in the endeavor requires all aspiring students to possess a few standard qualities such as self-motivation, determination, and a certain level of intellectual curiosity, the journey one takes toward the finish line is a very personal one. Two students setting out on the same path, even in the same field of study, would have vastly different experiences based on how they choose to approach their research, who their supervisors are, the environment they are working in, and their own personal motivation and drive.

I knew coming into this PhD program that there would be long hours. I knew that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I knew I had a LOT to learn….what I didn’t know, however, was how quickly I would become invested in my project and how simultaneously lost and found I would become in my research. Obviously prior to starting the candidature process I had a passion for clinical exercise physiology, but my path to a PhD started long before I knew anything about the clinical realm.

Like most people in the sports science field, my passion for exercise science began from my obsession with athletics. As a lifelong athlete, when I found out that I could major in “Sports” at college, I was immediately won over. What could be better than working with high performance athletes? Forever driven by my competitive nature, I knew working with other athletes was my dream job. I very quickly learned, however, that of all the students who endeavor to work professionally with athletes, maybe only about 10% actually make it. Undeterred, and knowing I needed something better than a bachelor’s degree to “make it” in the field, I progressed to a masters in Exercise Physiology.

It was in my masters program that I was first introduced to clinical research studies and the exercise is medicine movement. A shift was happening whereby exercise training was becoming more mainstream and starting to be recognized as a medical intervention to aid in both treatment and prevention of diseases. How cool. I mean, obviously we all intuitively KNOW exercise is good for our health, but gosh it’s just so much work to wake up early to get in a workout before work. But what if you knew that just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week can dramatically improve your health outcomes. What if you knew that regular exercise could combat high blood pressure in similar magnitudes as some medications?

This exercise is medicine movement is what first sparked my interest in clinical exercise physiology. I loved the idea that exercise could act as a treatment in lieu of medications, and, in some cases, actually be MORE effective. Over the next few years my interest in clinical populations slowly became a focus…and before I knew it these patients were my passion. As cliché as it may sound, I found myself finally feeling like I was truly making a difference in my little niche area of research. I was working with patients who could hardly walk 10 meters. Three months of an exercise intervention later and they were bragging to anyone who would stand still long enough about how they had walked all the way from their car without stopping, or how they did their grocery shopping with a cart instead of a scooter. I had one participant explain that for the first time they were able to get down on the ground to play with their grandkids, without worrying about how they would stand back up. Hearing all these stories made me realize that this is the type of research I want to be involved in. I was making a measurable, significant and quantifiable difference in the every day lives of these patients.

My PhD project differs slightly from my previous clinical work in that I have shifted to working with patients with heart failure. I have no prior experience in this population, but I have spent the last 6 months learning everything I can about the disease pathology, progression and prognosis. I will be working with some of the most fragile clinical patients, which is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because these are the people who need interventions the most, but daunting because they are typically very physically compromised. While I won’t be incorporating an exercise intervention in my project (while 3.5 years seems a long time for a PhD, it’s actually quite short for a clinical trial), I will be testing the effects of a natural dietary intervention (yay beetroot juice) on exercise tolerance in heart failure patients. Before you scoff at the idea of beet juice, go Google some articles on exercise performance following beet juice supplementation. There is some pretty cool data. I won’t go all science-nerdy on you just yet (I’ll save that for when I reach expert status in my PhD process), but I will say that there has been promising data from both healthy people and clinical patients demonstrating the benefits of beet juice on exercise performance.

So for me, my PhD journey started a long time ago. My project is now set. I know what I am working towards. Pieces may be tweaked, but the overall concept is pretty much in place. Even so, this process leaves me in a constant state of learning, development, and self-reflection. Working on a PhD is unlike any other degree. You are truly in charge of your own education, and while homeschooling for most of my life definitely taught me the power of independent learning, this level of studying is a whole new extreme. Some days I literally get lost in the literature, only to emerge hours later wondering where the daylight went. But I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. I am being paid to learn everything I possibly can. I have been given 3.5 years to focus on one area of a field that I have a deep passion for. Three and a half years to make some meaningful contribution to the study of a disease plaguing millions of people worldwide. And, on a more self-indulgent level, I have been given 3.5 years to build myself into the strong, independent, confident researcher I’ve always wanted to be.

Everyone’s journey is unique. This is simply my story. Hopefully this gives a small insight into my motivation and passion for my chosen field. One of the things I value most about this experience is sharing it with other students who are equally as passionate and motivated as I am, but in a completely different focus area. While we can’t always help or advise each other on methodologies or recent articles, we can share in the experience of taking an idea, formulating a hypothesis, and changing the world, one dissertation at a time. Ok, fine…maybe we won’t all change the WORLD, but if my research somehow made a difference in the life of even just one person, that would be good enough for me.

On that note, I’ll share a piece of writing I particularly identify with…a poem I discovered many years ago at a LeaderShape conference (spoiler alert, it’s the one in the featured image of this post, so if you read it there, feel free to disregard the following):

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