Short presentations highlight impact of research by OSU grad students
“Today,” Morgan Curtis told his audience, “I have the difficult task of convincing you that a subject literally as dry as mulch is interesting and important to our industry.”
A difficult task indeed. As conversational fodder goes, mulch would appear to be as dry as dirt.
But in just three minutes, the Oregon State University horticulture student managed to convey that planting cover crops in vineyards and turning them into mulch can conserve soil moisture, improve vine growth and deliver other benefits for Oregon wine producers.
And that’s the essence of Scholars’ Insights, a new program of the OSU Graduate School that challenges master’s and doctoral students to condense their research into interesting, nontechnical and even entertaining presentations no more than 180 seconds long.
The idea, Graduate School Associate Dean Anita Azarenko said, is to shine a light on the broad range of postgraduate research work being done on campus.
“We’re all really excited about this. We think it’s going to be fun,” she said. “It’s really so inspiring to see what what graduate students are doing across the university.”
Based on a competition called Three-Minute Thesis that began a few years ago at an Australian university, the first-ever Scholars’ Insights was held Wednesday afternoon in a midsized auditorium at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center before an audience of about 90 people.
That number includes the 32 competitors, who each had exactly three minutes to impart the essence of years of research in terms that anyone could understand. Presenters could use a single, static PowerPoint slide to illustrate their talk, but no other props were allowed.
Some were confident and natural public speakers, while others read from index cards, forgot their lines or stumbled over their delivery. In addition to bragging rights, there was money on the line, with $1,000 going to the best talk and smaller cash prizes for second and third place.
A five-person panel evaluated the presentations for style, clarity, structure, inspiration and impact.
The judges were Graduate School Dean Brenda McComb; Peg Herring, the head of communications for OSU’s Extension Service and experiment stations; Janet Lee, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies; Nick Dailey, a graduate teaching assistant in men’s development; and retired documentary filmmaker Dave Eckert.
The range of subject matter was impressive, with students from more than 20 departments presenting their work.
Alicia Dixon-Ibarra, a student in exercise and sport science, developed a menu-based program designed to increase activity levels among residents of group homes for people with intellectual disabilities.
Horticulture student Christina Hagerty identified a genetic sequence in common beans that can help plant breeders develop new strains that resist root rot.
And Ed O’Donnell, a toxicology student, analyzed drug safety profiles to find a new cancer-fighting application for a pharmaceutical already approved as safe by the FDA.
Stylistically, the presentations ranged from the conversational (“So, what do you think of the weather today?”) to the surprising (“In all societies, the way things get done is individuals communicating with one another; the same thing happens with cells”) to the dramatic (“Many scientists think the sixth mass extinction is upon us now, but unlike previous mass extinction events, this one is our fault”).
But virtually all of them achieved the Scholars’ Insights goal of making the highly technical research being done at Oregon State accessible to the general public.
As Curtis put it: “Mulch may not be as dry as you think.”
First place, $1,000: Matthew Palm, public policy, “Affordability and Population Density: Can Our Cities Grow Sustainably?”
Second place, $500: Andy Larkin, toxicology, “Air, Asthma and Apps”
Third place, $250: Arden Perkins, biochemistry and biophysics, “The Machines of Life”
On the Net: Videos of the winning presentations will be made available online at http://gradschool.oregonstate.edu.