Bridging the gap between science and society with research communication competitions

The onset of COVID-19 brought science and research into the daily lives of millions of Americans, proving now more than ever the need for effective research communication.

Purdue University graduate students are using communication competitions, such as Three Minute Thesis (3MT) and Say It In 6, to learn how to share their stories.

In a society dominated by sound bites and short sentences, arduous journal articles and jargon-heavy conference presentations fail to convey the important work being conducted at universities across the nation. Instead, the general public is left to learn about world-changing research through the lens of morning news anchors and social media news feeds. That, however, is about to change. The next generation of scientists and researchers at Purdue University are learning how to effectively communicate their discoveries through participating in research communication competitions that challenge them to explain their research in language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience.

Three Minute Thesis Competition

One such competition is Three Minute Thesis (3MT). This competition was developed by the University of Queensland and is hosted by universities around the world, including Purdue. This is a fast-paced competition where the top 10 graduate student finalists compete by summarizing their 2 to 3+ years of research in only three minutes with only one slide. This year, the competition was hosted virtually, allowing thousands of people from around the world to experience first-hand the influential research being conducted at our university.

The research featured in this year’s competition ranged from prostate cancer patient care to identifying the origins of life on Earth, but it was Jana Vincent, a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering, that earned first place in the competition with her presentation on Stitched RF Coils for MRI. Her presentation featured a new technology that can improve the quality of MRI images by up to 20%. Vincent impressed the judges with her ability to succinctly explain her research and why it is important in under three minutes, noting that the more than 1.71 billion people that suffer from muscular-skeletal diseases around the world can benefit from this more lightweight, comfortable method of conducting MRIs.

Geoffrey Andrews, a PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics, earned the second-place spot in this year’s competition by effectively explaining the complex topic of hypersonic boundary-layer transition. Andrews shared, “I decided to compete in 3MT because I’m passionate not just about my work, but about communicating science effectively. If recent events have demonstrated anything, it’s that the scientific community needs to make sure that it’s not only doing good scientific work, but that it’s communicating, educating, and engaging non-scientists with their processes and their findings. The world is facing a lot of issues right now, and while science may be able to solve some of them, it won’t be able to solve any of them if the research community can't adequately communicate.”

Finally, this year’s People’s Choice Award winner, Rana Chehab, a PhD candidate in Nutrition Science’s Interdepartmental Nutrition Program (INP), received more than 600 votes for her presentation titled, “Breast milk’s secret ingredient: What can your mama do about it?” which discussed breastmilk microbiome development. Chehab discovered that supplements impact the composition of the breastmilk microbiome more so than diet, suggesting that pregnant women have more power to address deficiencies than once thought. Findings like these can potentially impact the well-being of every family; therefore, it is important that these new discoveries are communicated in a way that is accessible to the public.

Say It In 6 Competition

Say It In 6 is another competition that challenges students to communicate their experiences clearly and concisely. Based on SMITH magazine’s “Six-Word Memoirs” concept, Say It In 6 requires competitors to tell a story about their graduate experience by using only six words and a visual aid. Hundreds of students participated in this year’s competition; however, only three could win. First and second place were selected by judges, and the Purdue community voted to select the People’s Choice Award winner. 

This year’s first-place winner was Zulaida Soto-Vargas, a PhD candidate in cell and molecular biology, studying cancer research. Soto-Vargas’s six words were, “Together We Will Take Giant Leaps,” and featured an image with six of her lab mates holding signs that say “together” in different languages.


Zulaida Soto-Vargas (center), first place winner of the Graduate School’s 2021 Say It In 6 competition

Soto-Vargas shared, “What inspired my six words was my wonderful lab. I love being in a lab with people from different countries and places all around the world such as India, Pakistan, Colombia, Korea, Egypt, and China, and it has been an awesome experience to meet and work with each of them. I have learned so much from them throughout my PhD experience, not only about lab techniques but their backgrounds cultures, languages, and food. This is the message that I wanted to share in the Say It In 6 competition, no matter what language or where you come from, together we can do great things, and in the case of our lab, hopefully, be closer to curing lung cancer.”

The second-place winner in this year’s competition was Kristen Walker, a master’s student in public health. Walker’s six words were, “Matching My Pup and Masking Up!” Her accompanying image featured a picture of her wearing a mask and posing with her pup, who sported a matching bandana. Walker said of her experience, “I wanted to share how my pursuit of a master’s degree in public health was heavily (and ironically) shaped by a global public health crisis… but also show how it was paw-sitively impacted by the love and companionship from my dog, Brody!” 

Kristen Walker

Kristen Walker, second place winner of the Graduate School’s 2021 Say It In 6 competition

Finally, the People’s Choice Award winner for this year’s Say It In 6 Competition was Sangho (Sean) Lee, an online MBA student. His six words were, “At Purdue, We Love New Challenges!” and his image featured him doing the splits on two chairs while wearing a suit and holding a Business Statistics textbook. Lee received more than 400 votes for his inspiring words and unique image. When asked what inspired his six words, Lee shared, “When I entered the contest, I was taking a very challenging class.  Most of my classmates who took business analytics would agree that it can put a strong man on their knees. While the class was challenging, giving up was not an option for me, so I came up with those six words to motivate myself and inspire other students who may be struggling.”

Lee Sangho doing the splits and balancing between two chairs

Sangho (Sean) Lee, People’s Choice Award winner of the Graduate School’s 2021 Say It In 6 competition

All these students proved that it is possible for researchers to effectively communicate their work and share their experiences in a way that resonates with the general public, and, with the help of communication competition like 3MT and Say It In 6, Purdue University graduate students are well on their way to sharing their research with the world.

The Graduate School is actively seeking alumni who are interested in participating in these competitions. If you would like to judge, donate, or participate in other ways, please email Brittany Ledman at

Writer: Brittany Ledman,

May 12, 2021

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