Thesis in 3 finalists shine a spotlight on science

17 Nov 2015

The Thesis in 3 finalists

Women were well represented at the national science communication competition in Dublin recently.

3D-printed blood vessels to analyse stroke; new light-bearing channels for faster internet connections; a computer-based intervention to tackle social anxiety and a smart gym-coach in your phone.

Those were the winning presentations at the national final of Thesis in 3 in Dublin earlier this month, a competition where PhD researchers explain their work in easily understandable terms in just three slides and – you guessed it – three minutes.

The 21 participants had won a place in the national final through local competitions. On the night, which was emceed by radio presenter Rick O’Shea, more than half of the presenters were female and women scooped three of the top prizes.

The top four in the competition receive trophies and prize money, with the first place winner also receiving an iPad.

A winning model for stroke

In her presentation, which won first prize, Fiona Malone from Galway Mayo Institute of Technology painted the picture of ‘Bob’, a hypothetical middle-aged man with a heartbeat irregularity called atrial fibrillation, who suffers a stroke when a clot forms in his heart and travels to his brain.

Her research uses scans from patients as a basis to 3D print anatomically accurate networks of blood vessels, then she analyses what happens when clots (collected from an abattoir) travel through the models. “The shape and size will determine how the clot will travel,” she explained, noting that in the model the smaller clots tend to make it to the brain.

Malone’s ‘master stroke’ in communicating her work was to frame it around the story of a person hypothetically experiencing one. “Stroke is really scary and I think everyone knows someone who is affected by it,” the postgraduate researcher at the GMedTech Research Group in GMIT’s mechanical/industrial engineering department said. “The character ‘Bob’ brought in a personal touch in a way I think people could relate to.”

Thesis in 3

Thesis in 3 judges (l-r): Malcolm Byrne, HEA; Margie McCarthy, SFI Discover; Claire O’Connell

Making light work of the internet

For second-placed Niamh Kavanagh, who has just started her PhD with the Photonics Systems Group at Tyndall National Institute under the supervision of Dr Fatima Gunning, her research has the modest aim of improving the internet with better channels for light.

“The ones and zeroes that make up the internet are just a laser light turning on or off and travelling down an optical fibre – basically the internet is just a bunch of different-coloured twinkling lights, travelling around the planet in solid glass pipes,” she explained. “However, we have pushed these conventional optical fibres to the limit.”

Standard fibres guide light through a solid core, and new hollow-core fibres could open up better paths for more and faster information. But there’s a catch: “These fibres operate at a longer wavelength and this means we need to re-evaluate the whole optical system, from transmitter to receiver,” explained Kavanagh. “This is what I work on.”

Tackling social anxiety

Information coursing along those internet tubes could help bronze winner Cliodhna O’Connor realise her project, which looks at a computer-based intervention for social anxiety, which can affect academic achievement, self-esteem and mood.

“Social anxiety is characterised by an intense fear of social situations and of being negatively evaluated by others,” she explained. “It can cause those who suffer from it to completely avoid social situations and/or engage in detrimental behaviours – such as alcohol or substance abuse – in order to withstand social situations.”

O’Connor, who is a PhD student in University College Dublin’s school of psychology, is looking at an approach called Cognitive Bias Modification, which a person can engage with on the computer.

“It is based on a theory that those with social anxiety experience negative biases toward social situations – the program treats the brain as if it’s a muscle that needs to practice seeing social situations in a positive way, thereby modifying biases,” she said. “The most appealing aspect of this program for those who experience social anxiety is that it brings social situations to them virtually without subjecting them to the nerves of face-to-face interaction.”

Thesis in 3

Thesis in 3 organisers (l-r): Will Fitzmaurice, Phil Smyth, Aoibheann Bird

Gym coach in your phone

And from brain exercises to the more muscular kind – Martin O’Reilly’s PhD aims to make you work smarter in the gym, learning how to do exercises correctly rather than jumping in and potentially courting injury while not making ideal progress.

“To become an expert in strength and conditioning requires lots of education,” explained the researcher from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at UCD. “It’s therefore a non-ideal situation that people regularly embark on long training programmes after maybe only an hour’s introduction from an expert.”

O’Reilly is developing an algorithm that could ultimately be used with sensors in a smartphone to detect what exercise you are doing and then provide appropriate feedback and guidance on how to improve the quality of your exercise.

He wowed the crowd with his sporting talk, winning the Audience Choice prize in the process, and said he tries to get involved in public presentations to improve his skill as a communicator. “I also love the feedback and questions you get on your work when you bring it away from the laboratory and into the public eye.”

Easy-to-understand science

The annual Thesis in 3 initiative, which is supported by SFI Discover and organised by TV presenter Philip Smyth, Dr Aoibheann Bird from Insight and Will Fitzmaurice from Systems Biology Ireland, is about raising the communication and presentation skills of everyone who takes part, according to Smyth: “The public gets to meet men and women at the forefront of Irish research, all in a way that they can understand and enjoy.”


Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication