VP&S, Mailman Students Win Honors at Three-Minute Thesis Competition

Explaining what you do for work can be difficult for anyone visiting family during holidays or chatting with strangers at cocktail parties. Now imagine how much harder it is for people conducting research in complex fields such as microbiology or metabolic biology. Luckily, three doctoral students from the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and Mailman School of Public Health had the opportunity to develop and hone their speeches before their next social engagement—or academic conference—as participants in Columbia University’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition.

The Three-Minute Thesis Competition—co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Coordinated Doctoral Programs in Biomedical Sciences—is an exciting way to teach doctoral students how to communicate their research quickly and effectively. Each year students apply to compete by submitting summaries geared toward a general audience, and a committee selects semifinalists who submit a brief video. Around 12 to 14 students are selected as finalists for the competition. Finalists attended a communications workshop to help them develop their presentation skills. 

This year’s competition featured three medical center students—Julia Davis-Porada (Microbiology & Immunology, VP&S), Daniele Neri (Nutritional and Metabolic Biology, VP&S), and Gloria Huei-Jong Graf (Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health)—among the 14 finalists chosen to present their research to an audience of non-experts from across the Columbia community. 

Davis-Porada and Graf tied for first place at the competition, held on March 7.

Read more about each student’s research below.  

You’ve just explained your research in three minutes. Can you do it in three or four sentences? 

Julia Davis-Porada

"How Vaccines Generate Protective Immunity in Human Tissues" (PhD adviser: Donna Farber)

My project focuses on uncovering how our bodies develop and maintain immunological memory to infections and vaccines within tissues, specifically the novel COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Using different tissues and blood from vaccinated human organ donors in their 20s to their 80s, I have performed an in-depth analysis of the distribution and maintenance of vaccine-induced memory. 

Gloria Huei-Jong Graf

"Fast Forward: Are 21st Century Americans Growing Old before Their Time?" (PhD adviser: Daniel Belsky)

My research is about characterizing whether Americans are biologically aging faster or slower over time and why that is. I apply biological-aging algorithms to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which has collected data from a representative sample of the U.S. population every two years since 1999. I found that Americans have been aging faster and faster over two decades, from 1999-2018, and that these trends are likely driven by changes in the prevalence of behavioral and environmental risk factors over the same period.   

Daniele Neri

"Fire Up Your Metabolism: Disentangling Brown Adipose Tissue Regulation via Sympathetic Nervous System" (PhD adviser: Lori Zeltser)

My research is uncovering how the body turns on brown fat and how this reduces the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes. Brown fat is a special type of fat that burns fat to produce heat, and it is activated when we are exposed to cold temperatures. However, in this process, other organs like the heart are activated, increasing blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. The goal of my research is to activate only brown fat to achieve the metabolic benefits without increasing cardiovascular risk. 

Why did you want to compete in this year's 3MT competition?  


As a student in the MD-PhD program nearing the end of my time in the lab, I am constantly thinking about how my work might play out in the clinic. I want to be sure that I can clearly and effectively translate my research from the laboratory to my colleagues in the clinic and ultimately to my patients. The opportunity to present as a part of the 3MT competition has allowed me to practice my public speaking and my ability to explain my research to a general audience.


Epidemiology is a discipline where people come in with very different backgrounds—everyone from clinicians to social scientists. I wanted to participate in 3MT to practice speaking to audiences with this kind of diversity in expertise. Also, I really love teaching and wanted to practice making subject matter more accessible while not sacrificing scientific accuracy. 


I am a sixth year PhD student and I am thinking about the next step in my career. 3MT gives me the fantastic opportunity to work on my presentation skills and to practice how to talk about my work to a broader audience. I think this will also increase my appeal in the job market. This competition is also a challenge to myself, to be able to consolidate and crystallize years of work into defined impacts on the field. Finally, I love the interdisciplinary nature of this competition, and I look forward to sharing my science and to learning from students that are in fields that are completely different from mine. It’s important to keep a broad perspective. 

What did you learn from your experience in the competition? 


Practically, I learned how to explain the critical findings of my work to someone who is not an expert in immunology. More interestingly, I learned about the extraordinary research being conducted by other graduate students here at Columbia, including work that could be relevant to my future role as a clinician such as new ways to treat traumatic brain injury, test for early signs of arthritis, or manage sensory disorders. I often go to seminars within my own department or at CUIMC, but this event reminded me of the vibrant community of student researchers that I am proud to be a part of.


As silly as it sounds, I never realized how different it is to speak with no notes, compared to even having a few key words written down to jog your memory! It takes a lot more practice. Also, TUMS are really helpful to have on hand if you get stressed about public speaking. Julia was kind enough to give me some while we were waiting for results to come back, and they were a lifesaver! 


3MT was a fun experience to get exposed to interesting research in other departments. Preparing for this competition gave me an unvaluable opportunity to present my thesis in a unique way. 


More information

The Three-Minute Thesis Competition was founded by the University of Queensland. Read more.