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Presenting your research: approaches, benefits and career development

An interview with Zaid Janjua, 2015 UK winner of the Three Minute Thesis Compeition

This year, Taylor & Francis are supporting Vitae’s Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT®), a UK-wide event that celebrates the dynamic and exciting work conducted by doctoral researchers. But what makes a winning presentation? And how do you approach distilling your research into just three minutes?

Zaid Janjua, winner of last year’s 3MT® Judges’ Choice Award and People’s Choice Award, not only won but was also the first person to win both prizes. Based at the University of Nottingham, Zaid’s winning 3MT® presentation is now being used in Graduate School training courses at the university, as an example of excellent presentation skills for aspiring postgraduate presenters (watch his winning presentation above).

With advice for anyone presenting their research, whether you’re entering a 3MT® competition or presenting at another event, he outlines his approach and how winning has helped him develop his career.

Tell us about your research focus and current role
In May 2013, I joined the University of Nottingham for a PhD in Civil Engineering and I’m currently working towards writing up my thesis for submission by the end of 2016. My research focuses on two core aspects: computational and experimental. As part of the former, I am working towards developing a novel one- and two-dimensional mathematical model to explain the accretion of mixed ice on aerofoils in addition to rime and glaze. The experimental part of my research deals with running centrifuge tests on icephobic nanocoatings to assess their performance and durability for future use on actual aircraft wings.

What (or who) encouraged you to enter last year’s Three Minute Thesis competition?
Right from the onset of my PhD my supervisor, Dr. Barbara Turnbull, has been encouraging me to develop my communication skills by taking part in poster and presentation competitions both within the university and in external events. When I happened to come across a poster for the University of Nottingham Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition in 2015, she was very keen for me to enter and fully supported me with tips on the content and fluidity of my presentation.

“…competing against the winners from 48 of the UK’s top universities.”

Tell us about the process and your experience of the stages
The University of Nottingham held a 3MT®competition to decide an internal winner in June 2015. The participants recorded their talks and were judged by a panel within the organising committee. After I was notified as the winner, my video was sent to the online Vitae final, competing against the winners from 48 of the UK’s top universities. From these 48 elite, six participants were chosen for a live final in front of 350 conference delegates and six judges in September 2015 at the Vitae Annual 3MT® Competition. In all honesty, I never expected to qualify for the final, let alone win the competition and hence my expectations were limited. I think my mother was more nervous than me during the process leading up to the final!

“I adopted a three-pillar approach for my presentation…”

Talk us through your presentation and the approach you took to ensure you could communicate your thesis in just 3 minutes (quite a challenge!)
I adopted a three-pillar approach for my presentation, titled “On Thin Ice!” The first aspect entailed immediately catching the attention of the audience and judges with important facts about the impact of the ice formation on aircraft. The second aspect involved appropriate body language, an effective tool when emphasising the main points of your talk. The final aspect involved reducing the use of technical jargon, which tends to reduce the interest of the audience. Preparation prior to the event is crucial and I practised the three minute talk at least 50 times before the final, and took feedback from friends and family. Dividing your talk into three sections of a minute each is also extremely helpful to staying within the time limit.

You won £3000 to spend on public engagement activity and the opportunity to present at the Royal Institution. Can you tell us how you have used the prize money and how this has benefited your career?
I divided the prize money into three packages: £500 on a public engagement program with a primary school, £500 on a research visit to an icing tunnel in Capua, Italy and £2000 on attending the 2017 SciTech conference in Texas to present my research. The latter two tasks are currently in the stages of planning and execution. I am almost through with the former though which entails designing and testing gliders by Year 6 students at Heathfield Primary School (Nottingham). We divided a class of 40 children into 10 groups of 4 each and provided them with materials such as a balsa, art straws, polystyrene etc. After a brief introduction to the science behind gliders, the children designed and assembled their own models and we tested them on the school playground. I am currently analysing the results to present to the class next week. The opportunity to interact with young, creative minds is always helpful because it is interesting to analyse different approaches to problem solving. I hope the research visit and conference will primarily give me an opportunity to interact with experts in my field of research and seek avenues for collaborative future research.

“…encourage more people towards research in engineering and STEM subjects”

If you could tell other doctoral students one thing you gained from entering the 3MT®competition what would it be?
The biggest personal gain from my 3MT®experience would be the interaction that I’ve had with people who’ve watched my video and had otherwise no general interest and knowledge in ice formation on aircraft. Engaging in discussion and exchanging ideas is a personal favourite of mine and I’ve received many really useful tips on how to improve my research from friends and family which started from a discussion based on my 3MT®video. It’s wonderful to convey your research in a format which garners the interest of the general public and which might encourage more people towards research in engineering and STEM subjects as well.

“…an amazing and transformative experience in your professional development”

And one piece of advice for those who’re considering entering, or have already entered for this year’s competition?
For those that have already entered, I wish them well and advise them to enjoy the occasion if they are chosen for the live final. This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and if you have a relaxed mind set to enjoy the event, it will overcome a lot of the nervousness. For those who are considering entering and reluctant for reasons ranging from stage fright to command over the English language, I guarantee that you would be missing an amazing and transformative experience in your professional development.

Zaid Junjua
Zaid Ayaz Janjua was born in Mumbai, India. In 2011, he joined the University of Nottingham (UK) for a Masters in Environmental Engineering and is currently pursuing a PhD in Civil Engineering. His research deals with developing a novel mathematical model to investigate the accretion of mixed ice on aerofoils and performing centrifugal ice adhesion experiments on nanocoatings. Post his doctorate, Zaid is looking forward to a career in the aviation industry in a research capacity; focusing particularly on anti- and de-icing techniques to mitigate the harmful effects of ice formation on aircraft in flight.

Read our interview with Dr. Janet Metcalfe, Chair and Head of Vitae as she discusses the organization’s aims, the importance of public engagement in research, and the role the 3MT® Competition plays in this.