Science for all: Researchers explain findings in three minutes or less


To win the first edition of the Flemish PhD Cup, researchers have mere minutes to tell an audience what their work is about and why it matters

Knowledge in bite-size pieces

A PhD takes between four to six years to complete, but to win the Flemish PhD Cup researchers have just three minutes to tell a live audience what their work was about and why it matters.

Eight recent PhDs compete for the first Cup on 28 September, presenting research into subjects such as cancer therapy, smart concrete and pessimism in philosophy. First prize is a voucher worth €10,000 for training at Vlerick Business School, in any area the winner chooses.

While the three-minute pitch is the climax of the competition, the Cup has a broader aim. “We really want to stimulate young researchers to talk about their work outside the academic community, and to make use of the media,” explains Arnaud Zonderman, co-ordinator of Scriptie, the non-profit organisation behind the initiative.

The competition was open to anyone who completed a PhD, in any discipline, at a Flemish university between May 2014 and May 2016. Out of the 74 people who applied, 16 were selected to go through to the first round of the competition.

This consisted of four days of communication training, including how to write about science for the public, being interviewed, camera and voice training and digital storytelling. Eight contenders were then selected by a jury to go through to the final at the Academy Palace in Brussels. The event will be live-streamed on Canvas.

Focus on the big picture

The main challenge for young PhDs is to stop thinking like academics. “As scientists, when they talk about their research they want to paint the full picture,” says Zonderman. “Every little conclusion of their research is important, and they want to get all the nuances out there. But unfortunately that doesn’t always work when you’re talking to a lay audience. You have to be brief and choose what is most important to you.”

Annick De Backer did her PhD at Antwerp University, developing image processing techniques for use with electron microscopes that make it possible to count the atoms in nano-particles. The remarkable properties of these very small structures are often defined by their size and shape, so being able to accurately count the number of atoms involved is very important.

A lot of the results of PhD research stay in the academic world, so for me, this was an opportunity to show these results to a non-academic public

- Annick De Backer, PhD researcher at Antwerp University

“We do fundamental research, but we know that in future it can be applied to make more efficient solar cells, faster computers or revolutionary medical treatments,” she explains.

But it is hard to talk to the public about fundamental research. “Often in the media you start with your main message, but my main message is already quite difficult to understand, so I always need an introduction to explain exactly what I’m doing.”

This made preparing a three-minute presentation particularly tough, and when it came to the semi-finals of the cup, she was not selected. But she has enjoyed taking part. “The media training was a fascinating experience. You are often taken out of your comfort zone, but you learn a lot.”

And she remains enthusiastic about bringing her work to a wider audience. “A lot of the results of PhD research stay in the academic world,” she says “so for me, this was an opportunity to show these results to a non-academic public.”

Everything matters

Gertjan Willems did his PhD at Ghent University, looking at the relationship between government policy and feature film production in Flanders between 1964 and 2002. During this period, public subsidies came directly from the government, giving ministers considerable influence over the kind of films that were made and the themes they addressed.

This subject gives Willems (pictured) a slight advantage over some of his colleagues. “People can immediately connect with it, so in that sense it is easier to talk about my research than hard scientific subjects,” he says. “But it is sometimes difficult to make clear why this kind of research is important, why it is relevant to look at the history of these films and how they are produced.”

The answer is that the films people watch are an important part of the culture they live in. “They have an impact on who we are, how we think about things and how we construct meaning,” he says. “That’s why I think it’s important to analyse this culture, to understand what it really says, and how it comes to look like it does.”

Even in an accessible subject such as cinema, Willems found the training on writing for a wider audience helpful. “I thought I was already OK in that area, but I was confronted by how many terms I use that needed more explanation. They were evident to me, but not to other people.”

Meanwhile the interview training made him reflect more concretely on the relevance of his work to society and how to convey that to a general audience. “Society pays for our research, so I’m very glad to have developed my skills in how to communicate back to society.”

Photo: Kevin Faingnaert