Three Minute Thesis Competition – a great opportunity for graduate students to stand out

The Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) is kind of a speech contest for graduate students. They talk about their research (thesis) in three minutes with only one slide. It is not a conference-like talk, but rather a speech; they don’t introduce themselves in the presentation, there is no Q&A session afterward, and they are disqualified if the presentation exceeds three minutes. 3MT started in the University of Queensland and expanded to other universities including Purdue. Purdue Graduate School organizes this exciting event every Spring, where a big number of Purdue graduate students participate every time. (for more information, see Purdue 3MT website).

I learned about this event from Dr. Linda Mason, the Dean of the Graduate School. She is a science communication professional and offers graduate seminars/workshops every semester. Just like other students, I was so attracted by her passions and the way she talked in the seminars. That was the time I started thinking about participating in 3MT. But it seemed to be a big challenge – talking in public is definitely out of my comfort zone, and as an international student, I thought I was already having a linguistic disadvantage. I shared this feeling with my fiance – hey, I kind of want to try this, but I don’t know if I can do it. Then he, without trying to encourage me or anything, just went straight to the Purdue 3MT webpage and registered me.

The preliminary round was just me talking in a regular classroom in front of three judges. The absence of a big public audience minimized my nervousness. Luckily, or maybe thanks to the fridge in my apartment that was listening to my practice every night, I was selected as a finalist among 100 participants.

Unlike the preliminary round, the final took place in the newly-built, huge auditorium in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center. I thought I would be extremely nervous but my confidence level had increased since being selected as a finalist. My friends came to watch me, and I tried to do the power posture to just pretend that I was a superwoman (if you haven’t watched Dr. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, I highly recommend it for those who have low self-confidence like me). And the miracle happened; I was placed second among the eleven finalists. That was one of the few experiences (or maybe the only one) where I’ve been under the spotlight. I felt even a little shy on the stage.

Purdue Three Minute Thesis Competition 2018. All the eleven finalists and Dr. Linda Mason (left).

This all happened last year, April 2018; but, the story didn’t end. Earlier this year of 2019, I received an email from one of the 3MT organizers saying “would you be interested in participating in the Midwest Three Minute Thesis Competition in St Louis?” I didn’t wait for a second to say yes.

I couldn’t make another miracle happen in my second 3MT experience. There were 40+ students representing each university in the Midwest, and all the talks were high-level. Some talks were even entertaining to make the audience laugh. Although I didn’t make it to the final, it was a wonderful experience to see all the talks and interact with the participants. I couldn’t believe that Purdue provides such a fantastic opportunity for a student like me.

The Midwest Three Minute Thesis Competition 2019 held in St. Louis. Representatives of Midwestern universities.

Waiting for my returning flight at the St. Louis airport, I was writing a thank-you email to the Purdue 3MT organizers who sent me to St. Louis. Then, one of them asked me, “would you be interested in being a judge in Purdue 3MT this year?” Wow, my 3MT journey never ends.

People at Purdue are respectful and inclusive, both students and faculty/staffs. I feel all the students (both domestic and international students) are equally treated and respected, and I believe this is a very important factor when you choose graduate school. Furthermore, there is plenty of opportunities where you can challenge yourself, stand out and grow as a professional researcher. 3MT is just one of many opportunities. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next in my graduate life at Purdue!

Conference Group Photo

Conferences: Confluence of Ideas

I am not going to talk about the great Tamil Sangams that took place in ancient times in India, but about an education technology conference that I attended recently. First let’s see what a conference is. This is what I got from our friendly source, the internet.

What is a conference?

A conference is a meeting of people who “confer” about a topic. Conference types include: Academic conference, in science and academic, a formal event where researchers present results, workshops, and other activities. Athletic conference, a competitive grouping of teams, often geographical.

What happens at a conference?

At a conference, innovative ideas are thrown about and new information is exchanged among experts. Its purpose could be one of the following: An academic conference is a gathering of scientists or academicians, where research findings are presented, or a workshop is conducted.

As a learning design technologist, as I would like to call myself than the often-used term instructional designer, I was encouraged by my department to attend this conference. This time I needed some push because the event was to take place in Kansas City. Here you should note that in 2016 I did not need any pushing because the conference was in Las Vegas. I was also eager to attend another early this year in New York. For international students Las Vegas and New York are bigger attractions. Anyway, this conference was organized by Association for Educational Communications and Technology or AECT. It brings together people from around the world who are instructional designers, teachers and professors researching about and working on incorporating technology into classrooms. We believe that making the classroom experience more attractive and engaging will enhance student learning and that one way of doing that is using technology.

My interest in innovative technologies drew me to sessions about using Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), games, biometrics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in classrooms. Although the entertainment and marketing industries have adopted these technologies long time back, there adoption into education has been slow. Firstly, because we still don’t know if it will work and secondly, because it is so expensive.  A lot of research is being done on whether using these technologies will enhance learning or whether they will cause cognitive overload. It is my opinion that incorporating technologies should be intentional and should not be for the sake of using it.

The most interesting of all was the use of Alexa in the classroom. The presenting researchers said that, Alexa was adopted happily by all the teachers in a school, who found innovative uses in physical education, music, language courses, STEM classes and so on. The most remarkable effect of Alexa in the classroom was when a student who is shy and normally does not speak to anyone was seen trying to converse with Alexa when he thought no one was looking. That I think is phenomenal. Little children are more comfortable talking to a device than a human being? This made me sit up and listen. Is technology getting so powerful and capable of replacing humans even for making friendly conversations?

Another important occurrence during the AECT happened when I was attending a get-together with a service organization.  There were loud cheers from few people when they heard we were from Purdue.  They said, “My children are so happy that Purdue won the game.” They were referring to Purdue’s football win. I asked if their kids were studying at Purdue. They said no, their children were studying in University of Michigan, and University of Wisconsin and so on, but all these families watched the match on TV. They got super excited when spectators stormed the arena and danced with lights flashing to match the beat of the music. They said that their children were so grateful that Purdue beat the other team. We were even thanked and praised for Purdue’s win.  To be honest I’ve never touched a football in my life, leave alone American football. I don’t understand anything and so I don’t watch the games. But my friends and me were so happy when people wished us for the victory. Thanks team! They went on to spend nearly 15 minutes talking about the fabulous way the match was played and how students celebrated. Fortunately, I knew all this happened because my professor discussed this during a meeting a day before. Otherwise I would have stared back at them with blank eyes 😉. This event became bigger than the AECT conference itself, for me. I was so happy and left the place elated about being a part of a great university!

Country of Hope and Development: My Experience of Research in Pakistan!

As Boilermakers, we always stick to our great slogan “WE ARE PURDUE, WHAT WE MAKE MOVES THE WORLD FORWARD” meaning that we always try to actually move the world forward with our research. Sometimes, as part of our research, we get the chance to travel to different regions in the world to help communities in different scientific issues, which, in my opinion, is the whole idea of our slogan. Fortunately, I recently had the honor to be part of a research team representing Purdue University to travel to Pakistan to work on water quality of two major rivers in that region. This was a great experience for me that I decided to share with you in this post.

Let’s start with the very moment that I was told by my advisor that as part of my Ph.D. research, I have been assigned to be part of a scientific cooperation between the United States and Pakistan working on “Endocrine disrupting chemicals in Kabul and Swat rivers and their impact on fish populations and rural community livelihoods“, which was funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by National Academy of Sciences (NAS). I remember that I was so excited to be part of this project as it was a great way to help the people of Pakistan to improve their water quality. I should say that I don’t believe in such concepts as border and nationality, meaning that we’re all from one beautiful planet no matter where we’re born, in what language we speak, or even what religion we practice; however, when I got the news, I had this feeling that now that I can’t help people of my own country who are really suffering from lots of environmental issues, I have been given the chance to play my role in that area of world. We started the preparation process for our upcoming trip to Pakistan in June in order to do water sampling in these two rivers.

River Kabul and its tributaries including River Swat are major freshwater sources in the KP province of Pakistan that serve the water needs of most of the Northern mountain and Northwestern plain areas of the province. These rivers also serve as a rich source of various fish species which local populations depend on for their livelihood as well as the tourism industry. Unfortunately, untreated effluent discharges from dozens of small and large-scale industrial units enter the Kabul and Swat rivers directly or indirectly. For more than a decade, there have been complaints about the declining water quality of these rivers and reduced crop production. There has also been a substantial decline in fish numbers as well as reports of mysterious fish kills, ultimately affecting the livelihoods of rural communities. Therefore, we were quite sure that we should do our best to make the situation better (which is actually ongoing).

Everything was ready and we were prepared for a long 23-hour flight to Islamabad and then Peshawar where the project was supposed to be started. As an Iranian student in the USA who was fully experienced about the huge differences between the reality and what media show about a region, I was completely aware of what I was reading in the media about Pakistan and what we were going to see there; however, it is a lie if I say I wasn’t worried at all, which later on, I realized that I shouldn’t be worried even a little as it was the best country in the world with the greatest people I have ever seen in my life.

First Days:

Finally, after a two-stop-24-hour flight! we arrived at Islamabad at around 5:00 am while our colleagues were waiting for us there, which was the first sign of knowing how hospitable Pakistani people are. We started another two hours driving from Islamabad to Peshawar where we’re supposed to stay. For me, except the cars that had the steering wheel on the right side! everything kind of looked familiar which was a great feeling. I was watching people driving in different and the most colorful cars reflecting the great Pakistani culture. I was so excited about this trip.

Fortunately, we had a great place to stay in the University of Peshawar that was much better than we expected. This was a great news for us as we knew that we’re going to have a big jet lag after that long flight. However, it turned out that my advisor’s suggestion of drinking a lot of water before, during, and after the flight actually worked, and yes, we concurred the jet lag!

Next day was the start of the journey. The meeting with our Pakistani colleagues was the second sign of knowing how great Pakistan is. Since almost all the colleagues could speak English very well (even better than me), we started hanging out and actually becoming friends beyond being colleagues. I had never expected to make friends there when we were planning to go there, but after getting to know them, I realized that this was going to be even a much greater trip for me.

In that day, we went to see some sampling points in the Kabul river, which was my first experience of actually living in the city of Peshawar that was under Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) construction at that time. For lunch, we went to a local restaurant to eat “Chapli Kebab“!  We started talking about lots of things there as we were preparing for hard sampling days! 

In the first couple of days, after seeing people in the streets with their nice traditional outfit and talking with my fellow friends, I literally became in love with Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has unfortunately had such disastrous experiences in past years, I could easily see in their lives and in their eyes that they are hopeful about the future and are trying to develop more and more. This was the main reason that I unintentionally felt as one of them especially when I saw the number of mutual concepts in my and their culture such as similarities between their national language “Urdu” and our “Persian“.

Anyways, we had two rivers as our target points. Everything was ready, and I had already practiced a lot to make sure everything works perfectly. We were all ready for the project.

Going to Swat district:

Before Kabul, our colleagues had managed to start the sampling process first with Swat river in Swat valley for 4 to 5 days, and then come back to Peshawar for the sampling of Kabul river. Therefore, we started our trip to Swat districts, which was almost 6 to 7 hours driving. On our way, we started talking about everything including politics, literature, science, etc., so I kind of missed the gorgeous road we’re driving (also because it got dark when we started the trip). Finally, at around 2:00 am, we arrived at “Trout Culture Training Centre Madyan Swat” where we supposed to stay for the next couple of days, which turned out to be absolutely amazing.

Swat was the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen in my life. I don’t want to talk more about it, just watch this video:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2za7B2Nvu8]

See? It was like a dream. Even though we weren’t tourists and had the work to do, still, we could easily see how beautiful is this region. But besides its beauty, there was something else that made me be in love with the region, which I can generalize to the whole country: people!

It goes without saying that when you’re from another country with different looks and outfits and go to a less developed area of a country like Pakistan, it’s a fair assumption to at least not expect local people’s support, which was honestly my assumption at first too. However, it turned out that it was a completely wrong one. We received so much support and love in almost each sampling point that I couldn’t believe it. People were so kind and supportive that in some places, they even started helping us during the sampling process. This was, by far, the best thing I learned in this trip that Pakistan has one of the kindest and the most hospitable people in the world.

However, the sampling process was harder than we expected. Because of the road constructions and heavy traffics in some of the places, transportation was hard enough to make us not be able to get more than 4 samples in one day. As we were there in high flow season, measuring the river discharge was our another challenge that took us a lot of time to figure out.  We also got sick there a little but fortunately could handle it before getting worse. 

Meantime, we had the chance to meet new places and new people. We had been invited to some places and had the honor to meet local authorities discussing different aspects of the project. Speaking of meetings, in Pakistan, or at least in places I visited, Pakistani Chai, which is a combination of normal black tea and milk with a specific recipe, is the most popular drink that is being served in almost every meeting. At first, I remember I preferred just a normal tea (or as they call it “Sulaimani Chai”!), but after a couple of times that I drank the Pakistani chai, I became in love with it.

By the way, despite all the hardships, we successfully did all the sampling points alongside the Swat river and were ready to come back to Peshawar. We couldn’t do it there without the sincere help of local people and authorities there.

Coming back to Peshawar:

After 5 days of being in Swat district, We went back to Peshawar to continue the work on the Kabul river. We decided to rest for one day and be more diligent to finish the process in the next 2 days as we already had the experience of sampling in Swat. One huge difference between Swat and Peshawar regarding the sampling was the weather! In Swat, we had to be prepared for sudden rain and storm, but in Peshawar, the sun was the enemy! as it was so much hotter than Swat. 

We even decided to rent a small boat to move along the river to reach the points faster and easier than going there by car. This was a great decision even though the boat was much slower than we expected, meaning we had to be under direct hot sunlight for 7 to 8 hours. But we finally did the sampling process as excellent as what we did in Swat. I have already mentioned a difference between Swat and Kabul, and now is the time to talk about a similarity between these two regions: people, again! Same as Swat, we had the warmest and the most support available from people who were greeting us, trying to communicate with us, and especially, helping us. I was absolutely stunned by their amount of being kind and hospitable.

Last days of rest and shop:

We did the work! we did all the sampling points, measured all the needed parameters, and gathered all the data sooner than expected, so we could reward ourselves with resting and more importantly, being with people (also shopping for sure!)

Thanks to my friends, I had the chance to visit Qissa Khawani Bazaar for shopping and visiting cultural places, which for me, was reminding of the Grand Bazaar in my hometown, Tehran. There, I got the chance to buy different souvenirs. There, they invited me to eat the traditional Charsi Tikka, which was by far the most delicious food I had in Pakistan. It also reminded me of our Persian Shishlik kebab, which is also great. Just in case, did you know that in Pakistan, there is another platform like Uber called Careem?!

In that bazaar, I actually blend in with local people in a way that you couldn’t know that I’m not from Pakistan! How? see the picture:
Yes! my friend did me a great favor and brought me a traditional Pakistani dress that was absolutely beautiful. But on a serious note, those couple of days that we had the chance to meet people and talk about daily issues were a great experience for me to be more thoughtful in my future environmental activities.

Last words:

Humanity is beyond all the borders. People are not defined with their language, skin color, religion, nationality, etc. As an Iranian student, I can say that I have already suffered enough from different levels of misunderstandings and misjudgments. I also blame myself since I have also done such things that I don’t proud of. However, as an environmentalist, this trip to Pakistan was a great reminder for me to know that people are the same all over the world in spite of the politician’s struggles! In this trip, Pakistani people taught me to be humble and try for the betterment of your society, which was a great practical lesson that I won’t forget. I decided to not mention any names in this post just to write my experience, but my friends there know how much I respect and miss them. I hope I can see them soon. Even though Pakistan has had rough days in recent years, it’s now flourishing as ALL the people are trying to do their best to make their country a better place, and I want to speak to all of them that you are doing great. You have a great country to which I also feel belonged. You are the best and God Bless you all. It was a great honor for me to be there as a Purdue student and try to represent my university alongside with my other colleagues as it is what we do at Purdue University.

Regards,
Peyman