Physiology Student Emily McGaugh Wins People's Choice in 3MT Competition

Apr 7, 2021

Emily McGaughCongratulations to Emily McGaugh, a PhD candidate in Professor Cristina Nostro’s lab, who won the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 U of T Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) finals on Wednesday March 31st. 

The 3MT competition is open to all graduate students enrolled in Canadian universities with competitions held at local, provincial, and national levels. Participants have three minutes or less to present their research to a panel of non-specialist judges. The challenge is to present complex research information in an engaging, accessible, and compelling way.

In three minutes, McGaugh was able to explain the work she does in her lab toward creating beta-like cells from pluripotent stem cells -- cells that have the ability to undergo self-renewal and give rise to all cells of the tissues of the body. 

Using the analogy of the process of making a phone call, McGaugh deftly explained how she helps these unique cells “make choices” to become cells that could eventually allow a person with diabetes to create their own insulin. She shared that her sister’s diabetes diagnosis led her down this career path, adding a personal touch to her speech. Here, McGaugh shares her 3MT experience:

How long did it take you to distill all of that science down into something three minutes in length?

I already had the first part of my speech, where my mom phones me to tell me my sister has diabetes, a year ago when I competed the first time. But I worked more on the thesis-specific part because I think last year I wasn’t scientific enough. I jumped around a lot to describe how pluripotent stem cells work. My mind first went to a branching tree -- you start with the trunk and then a branch comes off. But at some point the telephone came into my mind and there was something about it that kept the speech simple.

One co-host of the competition, CBC Ideas producer Tom Howell, characterized the People’s Choice Award as “the one everyone really wants.” Do you agree?

I think we'll stick with that story, that's what I'll tell my boss at the end of the day! It doesn’t win you any money, but it wins you bragging rights. 

I had my family watching, so they were texting me and excited to hear the results. They were very pleased and so was I. My sister who I talked about in the speech is staying with me this week, so she was here too to find out the results.

Would you recommend participating in the 3MT Competition to fellow students? 

Yeah, absolutely! In the lab you're so focused on presenting your research to your boss or colleagues, so sometimes you forget that it's actually important to be able to present it to people who don't understand all the technical things that you're doing. If we're working toward a therapy, this therapy isn't for your colleagues necessarily. It's for the public. I think it's important for everyone to understand science and each other better, that we’re able to communicate. The 3MT Competition helps you work on your communication skills. 

And it's fun! You spend four, five, or six years doing a PhD. It’s fun to present your research to people who want to listen to you! Otherwise you just do all these years of research, present once at your thesis defense, and then it’s over.

One of the guest speakers at the 3MT finals, neuroscientist and science communicator Samantha Yammine (aka Science Sam), said “It’s really important that we share the value of fundamental research.” Do you foresee science communication being part of your long term career?

Science communication is something I’ve only recently become aware of. I didn’t think of it before, but recently people have commented “You’re good at communicating your research to the lay audience.” Initially I wouldn't have thought science communication was a job…sometimes when you're doing your PhD you're so overwhelmed with the research that you forget that there's other life out there that's not just at the bench. So I think it’s something to think about, but I definitely have to learn about all the options out there.

Congrats again to Emily and all of the finalists and winners! Want to get involved? 

The Department of Physiology’s Graduate Professional Development course includes prepping and coaching for a Departmental 3MT competition to help students improve their communication skills. Learn more about the U of T-wide competition here