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Washington State University Graduate School

First-Place Winner of 2019 Three Minute Thesis

Xinyue (Sheena) Dong

By Yue Huang

With only one static slide as a prop, Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competitors are required to engage and communicate to a lay audience years of doctoral research—in 180 seconds. Nine WSU doctoral candidates competed in the 3MT competition on March 27 in front of audiences and a panel of WSU judges. The requirements for the competition are strict, and the pressure to engage the audience and help them understand the competitor’s scientific research in a short amount of time is intense. Judges score the presenters on comprehension and content as well as engagement and communication. For students whose English is their second language, the challenge is elevated to an even higher level.

Xinyue (Sheena) Dong, an international doctoral candidate in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at WSU Spokane, won the 2019 WSU Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. Sheena is from China, and English is her second language.

“I’ve never imagined that I could win the 3MT. It is a big honor to me,” says Sheena. “I believe what I have learned from this experience will benefit all of my future presentations.”

Honing Presentation Skills

Since joining Dr. Zhenjia Wang’s lab in fall 2015, Sheena has focused her research on using nanoparticles to deliver drugs to cure brain diseases, and has a passion to share her research with others.

“I do gain a lot of opportunities to share my research with others from my field, such as attending the graduate seminar in our college and conferences,” says Sheena. “However, the experience of sharing my research with people outside my research area is very limited.”

The 3MT provided Sheena with a chance to bring her research in front of more non-scientific audiences, which excited her.

“It’s really fabulous while challenging,” said Sheena. “I want to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.”

Sheena presented her research, Drug Delivery Strategies to Overcome the Blood Brain Barrier, to this year’s 3MT competition at WSU Pullman. In her presentation, she discussed how the nanoparticle could help deliver drugs cross the blood brain barrier to reach the brain and cure the brain cancer.

Preparing for the university-level 3MT took Sheena more than one month, during which she revised her draft again and again. To condense her report to only 3 minutes, she considered not only cutting out excess words, but also making the presentation accessible to her audiences.

“Because most of my audiences are non-scientists, they may be unfamiliar with what I’m researching,” said Sheena. “Thus, I wanted to make my presentation understandable.”

With help from her friend, Panshak Dakup, the winner of the 2017 3MT, Sheena decided to start her presentation with a story.

“The story should be attractive and also related to my research,” explained Sheena. “It must help my audience understand my research.”

Working closely with Panshak, Sheena came up with the idea of using analogy, and began her 3MT presentation with a question: “How many of you have travelled to a foreign country?” She then compared the process of how a traveler crossed the customs to a foreign country in the real world to how the nanoparticle delivers drugs successfully to the brain.

“The traveler is like the drugs, the blood brain barrier is like the immigrant officer, the brain organ is like the travel destination, and the nanoparticle is like the valid visa,” says Sheena. “In the real world, in order to travel to a foreign country, the traveler must have the valid visa to pass the customs, just like in our brain, the nanoparticle works to make the drugs cross the blood brain barrier to reach the brain.”

Her opening was successful in engaging the audience.

Audience Feedback

Before earning the ticket to present at the university-level 3MT, Sheena firstly attended the Science Bites Competition and also had to win at the college level, where she was able to gain experience.

In the Science Bites Competition, for example, when Sheena stated that the drugs that aimed to cross the blood brain barrier without the nanoparticle’s help was analogous to smuggling, the audiences started laughing—an unexpected reaction that frightened Sheena.

Maybe I said something wrong,” she thought. Then, she became nervous and almost forgot what she was supposed to talk about.

“Fortunately, this was an unofficial competition; thus, I still had time to learn how to deal with such emergent situations during my presentation,” said Sheena.

More importantly, the audiences provided Sheena with many useful suggestions.

“They helped me correct my pronunciation as I’m a non-native speaker and displayed some accents when speaking in English,” said Sheena. “Pronunciation is an indispensable part of giving a successful presentation because it affects how well you can deliver the information to your audiences. For me, as an international student, the pronunciation is really worth taking into account.”

Benefit for Future Presentations

Summarizing the experience of preparing for and participating in the 3MT, Sheena has drawn a visual picture showing how to attract audiences’ attention during presentations, which, in her words, will guide her to prepare other presentations.

“We need something attractive in the beginning and in the end, which are moments when audiences usually pay closer attention to what you are talking about. As for some more ‘boring’ content, we can put it in the middle when audiences may not be that focused on your presentation,” said Sheena.

Sheena also suggested that presenters need to balance accessibility with professionalism in their presentations.

“Although we emphasize that our presentation needs to be interesting to attract audiences, we cannot forget that it is scientifically oriented and not storytelling,” said Sheena. “Therefore, seeking  a good balance between the interest and the professionalism is important.”

Visit to watch WSU 2019 3MT.