How the 3MT reminded me why my research matters

Alfie Wearn won the Bristol 3MT final last month for his presentation on predicting Alzheimer’s disease. Here he shares his experience of taking part; from almost pulling out of the competition to winning the Bristol 2017 finals in Colston Hall.

Step out of your comfort zone. Comfort zones are the enemies of achievement.” – Roy T Bennett

I’m not normally a fan of inspirational quotes like these, but I make an exception for this one. I like it because I heard it just as I was about to pull out of the Three Minute Thesis ® (3MT) competition just a couple of days after applying. I told myself that because I was at such an early stage of my PhD, attempting to present a kind of “thesis” summary would be a bit fraudulent – in truth however I think I was wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself in for, and was looking for a good excuse to run away back to the safety of my comfort zone. I lost that excuse pretty swiftly when I was told that plenty of people had taken part in 3MT in their first year. So I bit the bullet and continued with the process. In hindsight – a good decision!   

Training & Practice

I was enticed, in part, to participate in the 3MT competition and Research without Borders because of the various public engagement training courses that were available for all successful applicants. During one course a communications expert at the University taught a group of us 3MT hopefuls the importance of creating a story, and using relatable analogies to engage audiences in our research. I also got a chance to practice a very early draft of my talk to this group during that training course. I got some really helpful feedback which helped shape the final version of the talk.

In the days leading up to the semifinals, I practiced it every time I had a spare 3 minutes. I practiced in front of the mirror, in front of friends, I even videoed myself on my phone to see how I sounded to others, and to see if I was doing anything stupid with my hands (still not sure I’d sorted that by the final…). I probably practiced it about 50 times more than necessary, but it gave me confidence, which, I have learned, is all important in something like this.

Actually doing the talk

Eventually the semi-finals came about and I finally got to perform what I had been practicing so much for the past month. Despite all this practice, I spent the 10 minutes before my turn wondering why I had not gone over the talk ‘just one more time’ – so much so that I completely missed the previous couple of speakers. But when it came down to it, I realised that actually doing the talk wasn’t nearly as bad as sitting and thinking about it. I immediately forgot all the worries and worst-case scenarios I had constructed for myself and just spoke about what I knew, and what I had practiced. And honestly, I really enjoyed it. Of course, by the time the finals came in May, as part of the Research without Borders showcase day in Colston Hall, I had completely forgotten this lesson, and once again spent the 10 minutes beforehand wishing for that one more chance to practice…   

Thoughts, feelings, and lessons learned

I’ve learned that condensing a PhD-sized amount of work into 3 minutes is, if nothing else, a great way of making sure you know exactly what it is you’re doing. Now I realise that sounds like a stupid thing to say. But when you spend so many hours, days and weeks with your head buried in your PhD work, and have little contact with the outside world, as often happens during a PhD, it’s easy to lose touch with the bigger picture. You forget that not everyone knows a lot about Alzheimer’s disease, or the role of the hippocampus in the consolidation of memories. It helps to focus your work, and when you’re having a bad week it is sometimes helpful to be able to remind yourself as to why your work matters.

I urge everyone to have a go at the 3MT and taking part in Research without Borders. You get a snapshot of all the research at the university that you might never even have realised is happening; from ageing kidneys and forest ecosystems, to noise-reducing materials in aeroplanes and the evolution of invertebrate vision, to name but a few. Lifting your head above the water every now and again to see what is going on around you is a habit we should all get into – and what better way, than these two fantastic celebrations of research at the University of Bristol.

You can listen to Alfie talking more about his research, alongside other 3MT finalists, on this Speakezee podcast.

Alfie’s presentation will be judged at a Vitae hosted (virtual) national semi-final next month. Six finalists will then be selected to perform live at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference during the gala dinner on Monday 11 September 2017. We’ve got our fingers crossed, Alfie! 

Find out more about Alfie’s research:

Twitter: @AlfieWearn


University research page: