Morgan Slevin, a doctoral degree candidate in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science’s Integrative Biology Program, captured first place in FAU’s sixth annual Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT®) for his presentation on, “Treating treatment failure: How wild avian microbiomes mediate stress responses, with applications to wildlife rehabilitation.” As the first-place winner, Slevin is also the recipient of the $2,500 Dr. Eric H. Shaw 3MT® Championship Endowed Award. Slevin was also the first place winner of the 2020 3MT® Championship.
What area of research are you studying for your Ph.D.?
I study animal behavior and how it relates to animal microbiomes and their health. The first portion of my dissertation focused on microbiome diversity predicting cognitive ability in our captive zebra finch population, while the latter portions look at wild birds’ microbiomes, how these bacterial communities can relate to host health and how certain behaviors like the stress response may mediate these relationships.
How does it feel to be the first-place winner?
It feels pretty amazing! Everyone in the Graduate College works their tail off day in and day out, and there is a huge breadth of interesting projects that my classmates in the College of Science are working on, so to be able to distinguish myself with the 3MT® competition is a good feeling.
What does winning the Dr. Eric H. Shaw 3MT ® Championship Endowed Award mean to you?
Obviously, it serves as a nice pat on the back, but it also helps me cover any incidental research costs that will undoubtedly pop up as I work to finish my dissertation. Microbiome sequencing and hormone analysis aren’t cheap, so the award gives me some peace of mind on that front.
How difficult (or easy) was it for you to translate this area of study into a winning 3MT® talk?
Microbiome analysis is data heavy, complex and very abstract work. But at the end of the day, I am working on a project that I love, and I’ve found that finding a way to communicate that passion makes it easy to get others excited about my work, too. It helps to be in such an integrative program because we get constant practice talking with other students (who often work in a very different field) and find ways to talk about our own research niche in a way others can understand.
How did you prepare?
In the early stages, my labmates and I would get together at someone’s house and run through our scripts, trying to trim the weaknesses and applaud each other for the parts that really resonated with us. We did the same with our slides, pushing each other to find a funny, simple way to convey our projects. To rehearse it, I always joke, “Practice ‘til you hate it,” but we were all in the middle of our field seasons, so I found myself walking around my study site while collecting data, muttering my script to myself to work on my delivery.
What did you like best about the competition?
I loved hearing everyone’s hook. People often view academics as somewhat odd people studying these arcane areas of research, so it’s really satisfying to hear my fellow nerds find a funny, interesting or creative way to grab peoples’ attention and then reel them in.
How did the Biological Science Department help you prepare? Advisor, faculty, fellow students?
My advisor, Rindy Anderson, Ph.D., is always pushing me to tell a good story with my research, whether it’s in a grant proposal, conference talk or manuscript, and she gave some great pointers for my 3MT® talk. I also participated in a 3MT® workshop offered by FAU, which reminded me of the finer points of delivering a successful elevator pitch. And I already mentioned practicing with my labmates, but they were great sports as we found time to make our schedules line up and practice.
What did you learn through this process?
I’ve learned the transferable skill of how to sell my work, which helps with future grant proposals, job interviews and manuscripts. More broadly, an important aspect of science is educating the general public on our discoveries and finding a way to do it in an approachable manner. The satirical movie “Don’t Look Up” came out while we were planning our scripts, and it really drove (i.e., scared) my lab to improve how we communicate our research.
What would you do differently? Do you have any advice for others competing next year?
There are always a ton of different directions you can take with how you communicate your research and get people’s attention. I’ll always wonder how I would have fared if I had chosen a different tactic. My advice to future competitors is to practice in front of a varied audience to get feedback from different kinds of viewers. Most importantly, find a way to let your excitement for your own research shine through, and you’ll do just fine.