Skip to main content

Biology student creates buzz by winning top awards at Three Minute Thesis competition

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On Thursday night, School of Biological Sciences master’s student Austin C. Calhoun ’17 pulled off the same trick that a former biology student accomplished. Calhoun won first prize and the People’s Choice award at the Illinois State University Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Calhoun became the second competitor, after Dr. Kristin Duffield ’12, Ph.D. ’18, to sweep the top awards in the event’s four-year history.

“It’s pretty exciting. This is a really fun event. I’m really excited by the amount of people that came out and showed their support,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun’s two-and-half-a-minute presentation focused on how pesticides are contributing to the decline of native bumblebees.

“Specifically my thesis work investigates how unintended exposure to pesticides, while not killing the bees directly, may worsen the effects of pathogenic infection, to the detriment of bumblebee health,” he said from the stage. “This prediction stems from the idea that allocating energy toward detoxifying these pesticides from the body will come at a cost to mounting an effective immune response against infection. … Moreover, immediate action is essential if we consider that the loss of these pollinators equates to the loss of one-third of every bite you take.”

The fourth annual competition pitted 10 graduate students against each other to determine who could best explain their research to a general audience in 3 minutes or less. Nearly 200 people packed the Normal Theater February 20 for the approximately hourlong event.

The crowd voted on the People’s Choice award, while four judges selected the first- and second-place winners. Calhoun received $750 for each award and qualified for the Midwest Association of Graduate Schools’ competition, to be held in April, where he will face students from Purdue University, the University of Notre Dame, Kansas State University, among other universities.

Jennifer Woodrum, of the Department of Psychology, received $500 for placing second. Woodrum presented her research on how perfectionists deal with failure.

The competitors were restricted to one static slide, so they had to rely on verbal gymnastics to convey their research and to captivate the audience. Calhoun prepared for the event by practicing with his colleagues in Dr. Ben Sadd’s laboratory.

Calhoun said the best part of the event was spreading the word about research at Illinois State. “It’s an open invitation to not just ISU students, not just ISU faculty, but families, friends, lots of people who may not know what’s going on at ISU. I think the greatest benefit is that communication.”

The Graduate School organizes the Three Minute Thesis competition as a way to showcase the wide range of research happening at Illinois State. Participants represented the Departments of English and Psychology and the School of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences; the Departments of Agriculture and Family and Consumer Sciences and the School of Kinesiology and Recreation in the College of Applied Science and Technology; the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations and the School of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education; and the School of Theatre and Dance in the College of Fine Arts.

“I am impressed with all of the different types of research, how prepared the students were, how passionate they are about their topics,” Interim Director of Graduate Studies Dr. Noelle Selkow said. “(3MT) is a way for us to really bring the University to the community and to really showcase what our graduate students are doing at the University.”

The judges were Josh Barnett, McLean County Board member; Arlene Hosea ’82, M.S. ’84, Normal Township trustee and retired Illinois State University administrator; Dr. Roland Spies ’82, counsel for State Farm Insurance Cos.; and Dr. Diane Wolf ’89, ’92, M.S. ’95, Ed.D. ’15, assistant superintendent of District 87.

WGLT radio station General Manager R.C. McBride ’99 served as master of ceremonies. Normal Theater and WGLT co-sponsored the event.

The Three Minute Thesis competition was developed by The University of Queensland in Australia and has spread to more than 85 countries worldwide.