Leaning into a fictive role as a cheerful "exoplanet real estate agent," aerospace graduate student Niyati Desai described her real-life research on imaging planets in regions that are "just right" to support life: those not too hot and not too cold.
Her performance won her first place—and a $3,000 prize—at Caltech Library's annual Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition held April 25 in Hameetman Auditorium. Originally conceived by the University of Queensland, the competition challenged Caltech graduate students to explain their research in an engaging and clear three-minute talk intended for a nonspecialist audience.
University Librarian Kara Whatley says the event is a valuable tool to help graduate students practice communicating their science. "Our students today are the scientists of tomorrow and their ability to engage people about the impact of their research is really important."
This year, more than 30 Caltech PhD students participated in the competition. A panel of judges voted on each of the 13 finalists' presentations. The judges included Darrell Peterson, associate dean of graduate studies; Kristin Briney, biology and biological engineering librarian; George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy and data science; Roni Goldshmid, postdoctoral scholar research associate in aerospace; and Michele Judd, executive director of the W. M. Keck Institute for Space Studies.
First-place winner Desai engaged the audience with a light-hearted but detailed explanation of techniques that allow telescopes to find comparatively faint planets next to fantastically bright stars using filters and finely focused mirrors. The technique, she mused, is akin to asking, "Mirror, mirror, not on the wall, which planet is the most habitable of them all?"
After winning the competition, she said, "For me, the most fun and rewarding part was getting to practice my talk to so many of my friends and family who aren't astronomers and then feeling their support while I was on stage. In just three minutes, I had the chance to share my passion for exoplanet imaging in a way they could understand and get excited about too!"
Chemistry graduate student Skyler Ware earned second-place honors and a prize of $2,000. She explained her research on how water-free electrolytes could improve battery life, aid in the production of medicines, and improve sustainability efforts worldwide. Dominic Yurk, an electrical engineering graduate student, won third place and $1,000 for his presentation on a noninvasive way to measure heart function using ultrasound. Sophie Miller, a chemical engineering graduate student, won the Audience Favorite Award and $500 for her presentation on her research exploring the molecular signature of sleep.
This year's event was jointly sponsored by the Caltech Library and the Graduate Studies Office.