Speed Dating for Researchers?

Is it even possible?

That was my first thought when confronted with the challenge of the Imperial College Graduate School Masters 3.60 competition. Can anyone actually present their research project to a panel of judges and an audience of peers in only 3 minutes? That was indeed the challenge of the competition and I have to say that initially I doubted if it were possible. However, since I was at that time very much mired in the ‘slough of despond’ with my project, trying to figure out what my research design was really supposed to be, I thought that condensing the whole thing into a three minutes overview might help focus my mind on which elements were really critical. A sort of academic segregation of wheat from chaff or sheep from goats?

Then I met my first real obstacle: the competition was in fact competitive. In order to enter I had to prepare a 2 minute audio pitch and a single slide, containing a range of stipulated content about my research. Hang on – I thought 3 minutes was impossible, but now I learned that in order even to be accepted to enter I had to squeeze it all in by another 33%, down to only 2 minutes. Ridiculous!

Or is it? That’s 120 seconds, or perhaps about 250 words. Which is possibly about a quarter of this blog? Hmmm? So certainly very difficult, but maybe not totally impossible. OK then, let’s go, bash something off and get into the competition proper…

But then who really wants to hear about social science research techniques to investigate the potential role of major international oil & gas companies in the transition of the global energy system to a lower carbon future? So I reckoned I needed a plan B. How can I create an angle which might keep the audience awake, even if it is only for 3 minutes? I needed a hook, I thought – and by a hook I don’t mean an old-fashioned upper-limb prosthesis for a wicked sailor caricature locked into an eternal battle with a fairy-boy of everlasting youthfulness… But that did get me thinking along literary lines: perhaps a literary allusion might cover over the inherent dullness of my topic and make it more appealing. It also occurred to me that it is a truth universally acknowledged, that an academic man with a good research story, must be in want of an audience. “Eureka” I cried, leaping up and rushing out of the library (fortunately dry and fully clad), I had my hook: Pride & Prejudice.

And so my esoteric research into the energy transition became a story about pride on the part of major oil & gas companies, successfully delivering energy and fuelling development and economic growth for more than 100 years, and increasing prejudice on the part of society at large. “I’m in!”, I thought as I bashed off my 2 minute script, and it certainly looked like the competition organisers agreed with me as I found myself through to the final 16 entrants selected to make their presentations in person in the final last week.

So there we were, 16 of us. Primed and eager. Ready to unleash our well-practised presentations on the judges and assortment of mildly curious types in the audience, who had mainly turned out to cheer on one or another of the contestants. 3 minutes each – not a second longer if we wanted to avoid automatic disqualification. Four slides, covering project title (OK easy enough so far), research problem and why it’s interesting (hmm, is it interesting?), research method (yes, it would probably help to have one), and impact of the research, benefits to academia, society, economy and the environment (now it’s getting a little far-fetched). Anyway, only 3 minutes, and well-practised: let’s go then…

One of the reasons my wife married me, I’m sure, was to move up the alphabetical queue: Si- to Sh-. Not huge jump I realised when I discovered that we were to present in alphabetical order, meaning that I was to go second to last. So I plenty of time to learn about pelagic sharks and how they have been greatly maligned by certain Hollywood films portraying them as man-eating monsters. Also about various forms of cancer and other illnesses which I should aspire to avoid unless I was really confident of the outcome of the speakers’ research projects, which invariably promised a radical new cure just around the corner. Eventually we were running out of letters in the alphabet and so it was my turn. Pride and Prejudice. 3 minutes later it was over. Easy.

I was very confident that I’d pick up at least one of the prizes. My main concern was how I should react if as well as picking up first place from the judges I was also voted by the audience as the ‘people’s choice’? Would it really be fair to take two prizes? Should I donate one to charity? Maybe cancer research?

I returned to my seat to listen to the final presentation by a young lady researching prostheses for limbs, specifically how to advance the technology beyond the old-fashioned hook. This researcher – let’s call her Jill, shall we? – seemed also to have cottoned-on to the need to find a link, or a hook, to draw in the audience. “Have you ever wondered what you can do with your hair?”, she asked slyly as her opening comment. With everyone now wide-awake and fully focused (well, at least all the women in the crowd), Jill went on to explain very simply and effectively how keratin coating for bone-anchored implants really is the future, and how keratin from our hair is the key to making it a reality. Wow. Fantastic – first prize, and well worth the wait through the entire alphabet.

As for me and my grand literary allusion? – well they do say that pride comes before a fall: no problem for me being overburdened with too many prizes. Or as they say in the Eurovision competition, which has certain similarities with the Masters 3.60: “nuls points”!



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