With hundreds of eyes and the theater’s lights directed on him, Emilio Lobato stood onstage and calmly and assertively explained in two minutes and 38 seconds his entire thesis. His research had revealed how a person’s political ideology and cognitive style affect whether they agree with scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, evolution, genetically modified foods, and vaccines.
“Improving scientific literacy in the 21st century is going to require examining not just what people believe about scientific issues but why they hold those beliefs,” said Lobato, a master’s student in Illinois State’s Department of Psychology. (Watch his entire presentation here.)
Later in his presentation, Lobato noted how people were very inconsistent when reasoning about these topics: “For instance, when participants were justifying their disagreement with the idea that genetically modified foods were safe to eat, they made frequent reference to the naturalistic fallacy: this idea that natural things are better, that natural foods are healthier. But this idea never came up with vaccines, which were both healthy and entirely artificial.”
Asked afterward how he was able to encapsulate years of research into such a short time frame, Lobato joked, “a ton of practice and a ton of drinking to get over being nervous.”
Lobato overcame his nerves and nine other graduate-level students to win the Illinois State University’s inaugural Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition held Thursday night at the historic Normal Theater. He received $1,000 for finishing in first place and qualified for the Midwest Association of Graduate Schools competition in April.
Erin Barr, a master’s student in the Department of History, placed second and received $750. Gretchen Paulson, a master’s student in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation, won the People’s Choice award voted on by the approximately 200 attendees. She received $1,000.
Illinois State’s Graduate School organized the event, which was co-sponsored by the Normal Theater and WGLT radio station. The competition was judged by a three-person panel: Quincy Cummings ’99, president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP; Dan Leifel ’66, M.S. ’71, a retired attorney; and Diane Wolf ’16 Ed.D., assistant regional superintendent, Regional Office of Education #17.
The research communication competition, devised by the University of Queensland in Australia, challenges master’s and Ph.D. students to describe their scholarly topic and its significance to a general audience in three minutes or less.
“To listen to these students talking about what they are doing is incredible,” said Graduate School Director Amy Hurd. “They came in ready to go.”
The scholars rarely verbally stumbled during the hourlong event, as they eschewed jargon for common language and obscure references for illuminating analogies to explain their sometimes technical research. Students were allowed to use one static slide, and no additional transitions, animation, video, or props.
Hurd said the event was important because it gave the students an opportunity to talk about their research and make it relevant to a wider audience. Lobato concurred, “It’s a way to engage the public on their level.”
The audience got to hear a cross section of research from the University, as participants came from five of the University’s six academic colleges and talked about a diversity of topics including alkyne combustion, theatrical lighting, and the validity of the cupping therapy swimming great Michael Phelps used in the last Olympics.
Hurd was especially impressed with Special Education doctoral student Kristi Probst’s presentation on deaf-blind students.
“It’s just amazing how they get those children to communicate,” Hurd said.
Barr said it was special to be able to share her research with a large group. “History is often written off as irrelevant.” And she said it wasn’t easy attempting to cram her research into three minutes, especially since context and nuance are so important in history.
Barr presented on Irish women who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s. She described a conflicting situation where the women worked in the homes of rich people but also enjoyed a vibrant leisure culture. They were homesick and the victims of prejudice because they were Catholic immigrants. “They persevered and made better lives for themselves than they could have in Ireland.”
Anna Hill, an M.F.A. student in theatre, presented on the costume designs she created for the School of Theatre and Dance’s upcoming performances of 1776, a musical about the Founding Fathers. One challenge she faced was having to make the characters readily identifiable to the audience not only as individuals but also as patriots or loyalists. She noted how the patriots wore coarser fabrics native to the colonies and the loyalists chose richer foreign fabric for their clothes.
“As a costume designer I have to look beyond the script and be a student of the world.”
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.