Making complex concepts understandable: 3MT People’s Choice winner Chinchu Mohan

By Claudia Hooper

3MT People's Choice winner Chinchu Mohan

Anyone writing a thesis understands how difficult it can be to quickly summarise their studies and make it engaging at a dinner party. They’ll often explain that it’s very ‘technical’, or niche when asked or avoid the question entirely. But then some others take the opposite approach, taking the challenge head-on and opting to not only condense their thesis down into a relatable three-minute speech, but to do so as part of a competition involving a recital in front of a large audience.

This is exactly what hydrology PhD student Chinchu Mohan did, winning the People’s Choice Award at the University of Melbourne’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition last month.

3MT first started at the University of Queensland in 2008 and has since spread worldwide, with over 200 Universities participating. The competition is open to PhD students and challenges them to present their thesis in only 180 seconds, helping them develop their communication skills and share knowledge. This is no mean feat – their presentation needs to be engaging and easily understood by an intelligent audience with no background knowledge in the research area.

Watershed is a term that everyone understands in hydrology, but I found out that that term was meaningless to my peers

Chinchu’s work was cut out for her trying to distil a highly technical topic into an easily digestible presentation, with her thesis investigating modelling groundwater depletion around the world and finding ways to prevent the overexploitation of our water supplies, particularly for food production.

One of the greatest lessons for Chinchu was how to cut down and eliminate industry specific jargon. It’s a truism that every industry develops its own jargon and it can be extremely difficult to shake off all the inwards-looking and technical terminology to make research clear and exciting to those outside of it. It often takes someone else to pick up on discipline-specific lexicon – and to point out just how confusing it is.

“I started with my roommate,” said Chinchu, who explained that having a person from outside of her research area to talk to helped her with the first few drafts of her presentation. She then went to weekly catch-ups with other 3MT participants where they could all feed back what they understood – or didn’t understand – to one another.

“’Watershed’ is a term that everyone understands in hydrology, but I found out that that term was meaningless to my peers. At the same time I could tell my peers from microbiology which terms they were using that were completely alien to me.”

Chinchu in 3MT audience

Chinchu would practice her three-minute discourse on the walk to and from university. “It wasn’t always possible to find the time to practice and I found that it was great to do it while walking – even with all the distracting sounds of traffic. It made me concentrate and learn what I needed to say.”

Her next major challenge was being able to maintain composure while delivering her speech. “Definitely very nerve-wracking!” said Chinchu. She describes how the tension would mount before getting on stage before dissipating during her presentation and then picking up again afterwards. “The heats were fine, but I definitely felt the nerves in the finals!” Despite these challenges, Chinchu ultimately commanded the audience’s attention with her presentation and won the audience over.

Chinchu was joined in the finals by fellow MSE PhDc Raneem Haddara, who presented her research on preventing anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. Chinchu was pleased to have a peer from her own School joining her, remarking that “it was great to have two students for Engineering in the finals.” It’s likely that Melbourne School of Engineering will be well-represented in the future too – following on from her success, Chinchu aims to be a mentor to other students in the School who want to prepare their thesis for future competitions.