By Cody Musselman
Harini Sadeeshkumar, a fifth-year student in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, won the $1,000 grand prize in the annual Yale 3MT Competition for her presentation, “Developing riboswitch biosensors to find new antibiotics.” In her video Sadeeshkumar explains how antibiotic resistant bacteria pose a serious threat to humanity while the development of new antibiotics is on the decline.
3MT participants have to distill their research and present it with an eye to conveying complex ideas to a lay audience with the help of only one slide. “You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to make a three-minute speech,” she said.
Sadeeshkumar began drafting her talk last semester and attended workshops specifically tailored to the 3MT by the Office of Career Strategy and the Center for Teaching and Learning. She began by writing a description of her project that she might submit to her advisor and dissertation committee. With the help of friends, family, and career services advisors, she was able to edit out jargon and shape her talk for a broader audience. The challenge was to make her topic accessible for an audience with a limited scientific background without sacrificing the accuracy and specificity her project description required.
The 3-Minute Thesis Competition offers students the opportunity to refine their communication skills and develop an “elevator pitch” of their research. This appealed to Sadeeshkumar, who admits that she initially entered the competition because she thought it would be a valuable experience, not because she had set out to win. When Sadeeshkumar arrived at Yale after pursuing an undergraduate degree in bioengineering at UC Berkeley, she was terrified by public speaking. Yet, giving talks and presenting research updates is a regular part of the graduate student experience. “Every time I had to give a talk it was this terrifying thing. It was so stressful, but because it was so stressful I would go into it extra prepared,” she reflects. As time passed, Sadeeshkumar gained more confidence in both her subject matter and in her ability to effectively communicate about her research with colleagues. Yet the ability to communicate with a broader community eluded her. “We work on something so deep into biochemistry, how do I even explain this to someone? I always stumble over my explanation.” Entering the 3MT, she thought, would help her continue to hone the public speaking skills she was already developing as a part of her graduate training, but it would also challenge her to think about how she could make her research more accessible to people outside of STEM fields.
While developing her talk, Sadeeshkumar, became even more acutely aware of all the things that go into a good presentation. “It’s the content, what you’re saying, what you’re doing with your whole body.” Hand gestures, body language, poise, and inflection were all things she needed to consider, but the pandemic conditions added an additional challenge of performing on video. Most years students give their talks in front of a live audience, but this year’s competition, which was delayed from the spring semester, required students to record video submissions. “I dedicated an entire day to putting together this three minute video,” Sadeeshkumar said. She rearranged her room and stacked her computer on piles of books to get just the right angle. She rehearsed and taped her video multiple times, striving to get the perfect one-time take. While the ability to get one’s inflection and presentation just right through multiple takes may have helped some participants in this year’s competition, Sadeeshkumar notes that giving the talk over video had its own challenges, such as trying to engage an invisible audience and acting like an audience was present in real-time, when it wasn’t.
With a 3MT victory under her belt, Sadeeshkumar shows no signs of slowing down. She is currently the director of Science in the News, a Yale Science Communication Initiative. Science in the News puts together local talks in which graduate students share information on a topic or theme of their choice that is geared towards a general audience. “I guess I went really hard in science communication this semester,” Sadeeshkumar laughs.
The 2021 3-Minute Thesis Competition is just around the corner and Sadeeshkumar offers future participants the following advice: “Practice it in front of friends and family–especially people who are not familiar with the specifics of your work. Have them tell you what they thought the message was. It can be really informative for what you’re trying to communicate, [knowing] what people are getting out of your content.” She also encourages participants to “practice a ton,” and confirms that yes, “you really do have to memorize it for such a tight window.”