Tell a More Powerful Story, 3 Minutes at a Time


"If you are nervous, it means you care."

--My high school English teacher on the first day of class. This concept must have radically calmed my teenage anxiety in a way that stuck.

I get nervous every time I give a presentation. I have stopped hoping to someday not feel nervous, because I have heard from several of my role models (Erin, Dan, Patty), all of whom can captivate a room, share that they still get nervous every time. This is both comforting and disconcerting, so I look for opportunities to practice dealing with those nerves.

The past two years I competed in PSU's Office Of Graduate Studies 3 Minute Thesis Competition (3MT). The challenge: present your dissertation research in three minutes.

Both years I competed in both PSU's local competition and advanced to the State Competition, along with finalists from Oregon State University, University of Oregon, and Oregon Health and Sciences University. Both times I was nervous, but in completely different ways.

Year 1: I was absolutely overconfident in my preparation, and without a clear story or enough practice, I did not win first or second, but went on to state by getting enough text-in votes to win People's Choice Awards. I re-worked my speech for state according to the best feedback anyone has ever given me: "You need a beginning, a middle, and an end". Linda was right. But even after my rewrites, I knew my presentation did not accurately reflect my project, nor the reasons I think my project is so cool.

This is where I swallow my pride and share this presentation with you to show you where I started.


2015- Portland State University

But science communication matters to me. So it killed me to know I had potential to rewrite and practice a more effective speech, which is why I signed up for the competition again this year. If it sounds hard, and makes me nervous, it must mean I have room for growth and that I care about doing it well, right?

Year 2: I was a ball of nerves. But this time instead of being in front of a crowd, my nerves hit while I was all alone at my desk buried beneath a pile of notecards as I was sketching out my speech. I wanted to prove to myself that I could tell the story of my research, and convey why it matters in a brief, powerful manner. My stomach was in a knot and I could not stop writing new outline after new outline in an unsatisfied flurry. I was nervous about getting it right.


My office on that chaotic day

I was paralyzed by what I call inspiration fatigue, which is that feeling that comes from watching or listening to someone do something so well that it feels overwhelming to even think about practicing. I definitely dropped out of piano lessons because of inspiration fatigue. #sorrymom

The inspiration fatigue that sent me flying furiously through notecards came from listening to the author of Lab Girl at a book signing. Dr. Hope Jahren is a professor and geobiologist, and she enabled me to think about photosynthesis in a whole new light (which you can hear echoes of in my 3MT speech). This enlightenment was debilitating because she was so humbly good at connecting with people to inspire them to think differently about plants. That night after the book signing I had to put aside my pen and appreciate her talents without attempting to splay out my own communication tool set on the bare floor.

But in the following days, the way she crafted words to make plants come to life in a human context continued to simmer, until one afternoon at a coffee shop, the ideas bubbled over in my own wave of creativity, giving me new ways to think about about plants in my research and the questions I ask. These ideas bubbled over so fast, my writing organizational system could not keep up, spilling into three different notebooks. If Elizabeth Gilbert was sitting across from me at that picnic table on one of the first sunny weekends in April, she would have called what she would have witnessed Big Magic. It was beautiful.


A window into my creative soul

Now prepared with a new way to begin my speech with a concept familiar to my audience, a clear story about why my research questions are interesting, and a full circle connection back to the familiar starting place, all I had to do was practice. I have never made eye contact with myself in the mirror for three-minute chunks so much in my life. And if I ambushed you in your office, on your lunch break at the foot carts, or when you met up with me for happy hour, thank you for listening to me practice those three minutes. My strategy was to practice enough to know the words, but then also in a conversational tone to practice genuinely telling my story.

The day of the competition, no matter how prepared I felt, I am sure I still would have grown more anxious with every hour if I had not put in my headphones and danced across campus on my way to the competition. #whoisthatcrazygirlinablazer

And of course, before presenting I was still nervous. My nerves only got worse after several incredible presentations by my graduate student colleagues on campus, but I reminded myself that I have paid money to listen to ideas before, like at TEDx Portland, so I can use this as an opportunity to learn new ideas-- and to share mine.

So I did, and it must have worked because I won 2nd place in the Portland State Competition...


2016- Portland State University

And it worked again at the Statewide Competition, as I took 2nd place again, which felt like first for knowing that I can finally come across in a way that captures what I feel in doing this work as a scientist.

And I got to do so alongside many other talented passionate graduate students...


2016 State Competition- Oregon State University

...many of whom I may not have connected with in our normal routines, like Srikar Rao Darmakkolla, the chemist that will make your cell phone twice as fast by creating a chemistry-based chip that builds itself. Conveniently, you can see his communication growth journey over the course of this past year here too, leading him to take 1st place in Portland State's 2016 competition! Yeah Srikar!

Year 1:


2015- Portland State University

Year 2:


2016- Portland State University

#threeminutethesis #3MT #sciencecommunication #sciencewriting #biology #plantbiology #science #cancer #graduateschool #PhD #dissertation

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     © 2019 Photsynthessence  -  All photos by Adrienne Godschalx