Kristal and the art of 3 Minute Thesis

Registration now open for annual competition of brains and brevity

- January 16, 2019

Kristal Ambrose competes in last year's 3 Minute Thesis competition. (Nick Pearce photo)
Kristal Ambrose competes in last year's 3 Minute Thesis competition. (Nick Pearce photo)

Kristal Ambrose, winner of Dal’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition in 2018, has a message for grad students contemplating signing up for this year’s edition of the event on March 12 and 13.

“I say jump, just do it. Don’t worry about winning – as cliché as that sounds. It’s only a competition. I mean the prize money is great, but it’s also just a great challenge.”

Registration opened this week for the annual event organized by the Faculty of Graduate Studies which gives the university’s research-based graduate students the opportunity to share their ideas with the Dal and Halifax communities and contend for $4,000 in cash prizes.

To succeed, contenders must present the complexities of their research in the most compelling way possible. But there’s a catch: they only get 180 seconds and one PowerPoint slide to make their pitch to a panel of judges and an enthusiastic audience of the uninitiated. It’s an exercise that combines brains and brevity, and the most convincing communicators come out on top.

Kristal, a Master’s of Marine Management student, won last year’s competition with a presentation of her research investigating how plastic debris ends up on the white sand beaches of her island home, The Bahamas. Having just completed one semester of her 16-month program at the time, she says the competition helped her find focus in her studies.

Watch: Kristal Ambrose's winning 3MT presentation

“I was still trying to find a way to refine my research. 3MT forced me to really sit down and take an in-depth look at what I was trying to do,” she says. “It forced me to ask: What are the important components of this work? What are the questions I need to answer? What is going to help me answer those questions?”.

Balancing communication and charisma

She says that once a student has those questions figured out the next step is to land on a presentation that will let their personality shine through.

“Structure is good and following formulas that exist is good, but don’t leave yourself out of the equation. Don’t forfeit your personality. When I first started, my presentation was very cut and dry. I would practice in the mirror and end up saying to myself, ‘Kristal, this isn’t you.’”

Her advice this this year’s competitors:

“When you’re on stage, people want to see you. They want to know who is doing the work. So be sure to put your personality in there. You don’t have to separate the two.”

From English to engineering

In 2018, the 3MT competition brought together more than 100 Master’s and PhD students from across the university in pursuit of cash prizes, bragging rights and the chance to share their passion. Ambrose says it’s the broad mix of topics from across the faculties that makes the event so exciting.

“The 3 Minute Thesis offers an amazing platform for students to share their work. We got to see so many different disciplines. So, outside of just competing, you get to see what other students are doing. It was really inspiring and motivating to see the breadth and depth of work that’s being done by students who are just like you.”

For Kristal, the research she presented at 3MT is a big part of who she is. In addition to her studies, she runs The Bahamas Plastic Movement, an NGO she started before she came to Dal with a mission to reduce the plastic waste that ends up on her country’s beaches. Her biggest accomplishment so far has been to successfully lobby the government to instate a ban on plastic bags that comes into effect in January 2020.

“The data from my graduate research project actually informed the legislation, and we were able to use that to help guide policies and management strategies for marine debris,” she says.

"Right now, we’re focusing on getting the country ready for the ban and moving toward a plastic free Bahamas. So, a lot of public education campaigns and expansion of our scientific research.” 

The medium becomes the message

She says 3MT and associated promotion helped her connect with new people and advance her cause. A video of her presentation has been viewed thousands of times across numerous social media channels and introduced her to people at home and around the world.

“It’s been great exposure. I’ve been to international conferences and people say, ‘I saw a video of you’. And everyone is like, ‘you look familiar, I feel like I’ve seen you before.’ Even students who came into my program – the incoming class of the Marine Affairs – they said ‘I saw your 3 Minute Thesis and I was so inspired. I came to the program because of you,’” she recounts, shaking her head with disbelief.

“No kidding, they said that, and I was like ‘whoa.’”

Watch presentations by 2018’s second and third place competitors:

Second place: Laura Hall, Psychology and Neuroscience

Third place: John Noël, Chemistry


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