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U of M students accept challenge of explaining their complicated thesis research in 3 minutes

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Mathia Colwell explains her animal epigenome research.
Department of Animal Sciences Ph.D. student Mathia Colwell explains her animal epigenome research during the University of Minnesota's "Science in Seconds" event on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

A dozen graduate students sitting in a large hall nervously listen to the long list of rules for the science communication contest they've entered. 

"One slide and one slide only, no animation, no flashing lights," says Mark Rutherford, associate dean for graduate programs in the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. "No interpretive dance." 

Nervous laughs. 

"Are we ready?" Rutherford asks.

One by one, the students studying everything from the fishing bait industry to soil fertility and red blood cell recycling take the stage. One of the judges sets a three-minute timer. Go.

The challenge? Explain their complicated thesis research to a general audience in three minutes. No jargon, extraneous details or anything else that might make a non-scientist tune out. Interesting analogies encouraged.

One student, Brian Bohman, studies water resources science. He compares farmers, trying to figure out how much fertilizer their crops have taken up, to parents, who in a few weeks will try to figure out exactly how much Halloween candy their children have eaten. 

Austin Yantes stands for a portrait.
Austin Yantes stands for a portrait after winning two awards at the University of Minnesota's "Science in Seconds" event.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Another student, Austin Yantes, is pursuing a master's degree in natural resources science and management. She projects a picture of herself as a 5-year-old next to a picture of a wetland, to make the point that both people and ecosystems change over time.

"Twenty years later, I don't look anything like that, and the same goes for wetlands," she says, arguing that some natural resource managers are relying on the equivalent of old portraits to assess restored wetlands, because they only check in on them for the first five years.

After the presentations Monday on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus, Yantes learned she was one of three "Science in Seconds" participants who would advance to the next round: An event next month called "Three-Minute Thesis," which pits the scientists against their counterparts from graduate programs across the university in explaining their work in three minutes or less. 

It's an important skill to build, Yantes said, because people rely on science to make the world better, but need to be able to understand the science in order to believe it. 

"Scientists and academics are trapped in what we call the Ivory Tower," Yantes said. "It's easy to see how the public can lose interest or not understand. We need more scientists to make their science relatable and communicate it more broadly."