Doctoral student takes home top prize in 3-Minute Thesis Competition

Finalists

Tim Erickson (right) with 3MT contestants (from left to right) Weilu Han, MPH,Fang-Yu Lin, Elizabeth Leass, MPH and Karima Lalani, MBA, RHIA.

Three minutes. That’s all the time UTHealth School of Public Health doctoral student Tim Erickson had to summarize his research on the potentially deadly tapeworm infection, neurocysticercosis, last month at the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The challenge was, “exceedingly difficult,” admits Erickson. It typically takes about two hours on average for an oral dissertation defense, or to present in-depth research findings.

“I am haunted by the details I had to leave out to make this incredibly complex worm and study fit into three minutes,” he says.

A race against the clock

But keeping science short and sweet is the goal of 3-Minute Thesis, a research communication competition developed by The University of Queensland. Graduate students have just three minutes to present their thesis, dissertation or research and its significance concisely to a non-specialist audience.

Erickson competed against 45 students at the regional competition held Feb. 14-16 at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools. He delivered a tight, compelling speech that won him the people’s choice award for his presentation, “Worms on my Mind: Tracking Neurocysticercosis in Houston.”

Neurocysticercosis is an infection that affects the brain, muscle and other tissues. A person gets neurocysticercosis by swallowing microscopic eggs passed in the feces of a person who has the intestinal pork tapeworm Taenia solium. Once inside the body, the eggs hatch and become larvae that travel to the brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Taenia solium has the most fascinating transmission of any organism on the planet,” Erickson says. “When I learned about how complex it was, I became interested in studying it, but it was not until the Centers for Disease Control and an article in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene declared it a neglected parasitic infection in critical need of study that I began my research.”

Cases found in Houston

Until recently, neurocysticercosis was considered a traveler’s disease, or a condition you would find only in a developing country, but Erickson has tracked cases in Houston in individuals with no travel history in his multi-center study on the condition.

Before advancing to the regional competition in Knoxville, Erickson won first place and the people’s choice awards at the preliminary competition at UTHealth School of Public Health on Jan. 17.  

This was UTHealth School of Public Health’s first year to participate in 3-Minute Thesis. A total of nine doctoral students participated in the school’s first round in early November, with the five top-scoring students advancing to the final competition to compete for a chance to win a prize of up to $1,500, and represent UTHealth School of Public Health at the regional competition.

Robert Hammarburg, manager of Academic Affairs at UTHealth School of Public Health, helped launch the inaugural event, based on positive experiences he had implementing and operating the 3-Minute Thesis competition at his previous institution. He’s impressed with how the competition helps students sharpen their communication skills.

“It is already a challenge to synthesize a succinct oration of one’s research let alone having only three minutes and one slide to deliver this information in layman’s terms, so I tip my hat to all who participated in our inaugural competition,” he says.

Hammarburg says he is grateful for receiving support to implement 3-MT. He anticipates watching the competition return and grow at UTHealth School of Public Health.

To see Erickson’s award-wining presentation, click here.

Written by Anissa Anderson Orr