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Behind the scenes of MT180 competition: the laureates share their experience

Caroline Betto-Colliard, CUSO

On Friday, May 21st, the fifth Swiss finals of the competition “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” will take place. It will be broadcast online from 6pm on the EPFL website, on and on the EPFL YouTube channel.

What is “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” ?
It is a competition that allows PhD students to present their research topic in simple terms to a diverse audience. Usually it takes place in a theatre or auditorium, with the warmth of physical presence, but this year it will be online, for obvious reasons. Each doctoral candidate has to give a clear, concise, yet convincing presentation of their research project in three minutes. To give you a better idea of what this competition is all about, what the challenges are and what the difficulties are, the CUSO secretariat asked the last four winners a few questions, which they kindly accepted to answer.

Why did you decide to enter the competition “Ma thèse en 180 secondes” ?
Désirée König, 2016 winner: "After starting my PhD, I quickly noticed that one of the things I liked most was presenting my research, for example during seminars in my department. So I wanted to get more involved in science communication, and when I heard about MT180, I thought it could be a great opportunity. "
Sarah Olivier, 2017 winner: "It was the vice-rector, Micheline Louis-Courvoisier, who first suggested I take part in the competition. I was in the second year of my thesis at the time, and I was struggling to narrow down my subject and find a common thread; the competition seemed to me to be the right experience at the right time, since it was precisely a question of taking a step aside to return to the essentials."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "Just before I enrolled in my thesis, I heard some PhD candidates talking about MT180 on the radio and I thought it was great to be able to share one's research in this way. So it was a personal challenge to myself, to spice up my thesis. I wanted to make my research accessible to the general public because I am not interested in doing research that stays in a university cupboard. I also wanted to show the interest and the application of my activities, to restore the image of the doctoral candidate too often associated with that of an individual cut off from the realities of the world, as in the film "On connaît la chanson (Same Old Song)" with the thesis "Les chevaliers-paysans de l'an mille du Lac de Paladru (The knight-peasants of the year 1000 from Lake Paladru)". I admit that I often have this image in my head! Bringing science and research back to civil society is a real challenge for researchers."
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "After a lecture I gave at the Institute of the Ancient and Byzantine World, an ex-coach of the competition (Prof. Danielle Van Mal-Maeder), who was in the audience, saw in me a potential participant in MT180 and shared her opinion with my thesis director, Prof. Karin Schlapbach. I had thought about participating myself, because the idea of the competition sounded cool and I wanted to test my speaking skills, but I was afraid that it would take me more time than I had. The fact that my director encouraged me to enter made the decision much easier."

What difficulties did you encounter in talking about your thesis work to a lay audience?
Désirée König, 2016 winner: "It is often easy to forget steps in the explanation, because they seem obvious to us, so I had to pay a lot of attention to that. It is also always a challenge to find understandable phrases in French for terms that only exist in scientific English. But I was very lucky, because throughout my university career, my mother - who is far from being a scientist - always wanted to know what I was doing. So I'd had a lot of practice with her. "
Sarah Olivier, 2017 winner: "The difficulty lies in both the popularisation process and the short format, as both are at the antipodes of what is generally expected of a PhD candidate."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "To find the right way to simplify the remarks while keeping the scientific substance that makes it a thesis, to make people feel the complexity of the work, without scaring people. "
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "I think the most difficult thing was to design the text, because you had to choose only simple and captivating ideas and make a story with them. After that, I also had some difficulties with French, which is not my mother tongue. From that point of view, I was happy that I had to speak only 180 seconds.????"

How did you prepare for the competition?
Désirée König, 2016 winner: "Much less than you might expect. For the Fribourg selection, I had written the text the day before and rehearsed it a few times (it was actually much too short). Between the Fribourg selection and the national finals, I then took the opportunity offered by CUSO to rework the presentation with a coach. We worked on the text together, and she helped me to make it more fun and intuitive. Before the national finals, I rehearsed my text a few times while spending time at the microscope and the evening before the finals. Between the Swiss final and the international finals, I rehearsed my text 3 times in total. As the members of the juries who awarded me the 1st prize told me that they appreciated my authenticity, I think that the strategy of not over-preparing was the right one for me. "
Sarah Olivier, 2017 winner: "The preparation was done in two stages: first, composing the text, finding the right words, the right sequences, the right vocabulary; then practising to "embody" it, to transmit it orally, using the right tone, the right gestures, and trying to keep as much spontaneity as possible."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "I had already watched several videos from previous editions in order to analyse the structure and the way of speaking. Then, it was a long writing process (13 different versions ????) to find the right and striking words. And finally, a work of rehearsal so that the text, learned by heart, comes as naturally as possible. As well as being a researcher, this competition requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of an actor! "
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "I took a lot of courses offered by CUSO and also other training. I presented my text to my friends, to my colleagues, to anyone who wanted to hear me. And, in this way, I received a lot of feedback that helped me to improve my presentation. At the same time, the representative of Fribourg at MT180 2018 gave me a very good advice: to stay myself and present the text as I feel it. That's why I didn't follow all the advice I had received - you have to improve, but you also have to stay true to your own style."

What is left of a thesis when it is reduced to a three-minute presentation and a single image?
Désirée König, 2016 winner: "What is usually left is the central question. The one that as a PhD student we usually don't dare ask because it seems too ambitious."
Sarah Olivier, 2017 winner: "Ideally, the core, what constitutes the heart of the thesis."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "The only important thing that the human brain can really retain in the long term, everything else in a thesis is technical or scientific development, very useful for the research community but less so for society."
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "There is still what a neophyte audience would retain if we talked about a thesis for 3 hours and used a dozen images. There is even more. That's why I think the idea of the competition is great: we challenge PhD candidates to find the essence of their work and present it to the general public using simple words. It doesn't only require intelligence, but also a bit of humility and love, I would say. And without these three elements, I think we risk becoming dry scientists."

What did you learn from this experience on a professional level? And on a personal level?
Désirée König, winner 2016: "Professionally, the experience taught me that scientific communication is really what I like, so after my PhD I left the academic track and went into communication. On a personal level, I also learned to appreciate the way I am. I am a very bad actress. I can't fake it. The fact that the juries chose me for my authenticity and not for my acting skills, showed me how valuable this characteristic is."
Sarah Olivier, 2017 winner: "I have learned to speak better about my work, to be able to share the precise contours of it, both in the professional and personal realm. The oral expression techniques acquired during the preparation of the competition are still useful to me today when I have to express myself about my work, for example in the context of symposiums or conferences."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "I learned a lot professionally, such as how to speak in public in a lively way (very useful for teaching, and for the well-being of our students), how to find the right words, make metaphors, put a bit of humour in my remarks, make simple sentences, etc. It is a real work of reflection and writing to be used without moderation. Personally, I met passionate doctoral students, extraordinary trainers and a friendly and professional staff at UNIL and CUSO. The mix of research horizons and the view of our performance is a real school of modesty and openness. It was also a lot of laughter and great evenings during the Swiss and international finals.”
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "First of all, I learned how to speak in simple words about a complex subject. I must admit that before the MT180 competition, I didn't think of taking the trouble to explain to my family what I do for my PhD. I thought that my parents and grandparents would not understand what I was doing anyway. This competition taught me that people understand if we make the effort to talk to them "in their own language". I also learned how to present myself in front of an audience, how to deal with emotions, how to work on my body language, my facial expressions, my voice - I would say that these are important lessons both professionally and personally."

What is your best memory of the MT180 adventure?    
Désirée König, winner 2016: "For me, the international finals in Morocco was an extraordinary experience. It was my first time in a country with such a different culture and I really enjoyed the few days there. Meeting the other candidates from all over the world was also a real pleasure."
Sarah Olivier, winner 2017: "The international finals in Liège! Very nice meetings and exciting discussions around topics very far from those that usually concern me in my thesis."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "The week spent with the foreign PhD students during the international finals."
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "The emotions shared with the other participants. The admiration and support during the rehearsals and the competition, the fear before the presentations, the relief afterwards, the joy or sadness once the results were announced - all these moments were emotionally charged and created bonds between my colleagues and me. Even though it was a competition, the emotions we shared often made me feel like we were a family and I loved that. I even made friends. I would also like to mention a funny memory. After I won the Swiss finals, the same evening I had an interview with a journalist. I was so excited about my success, that I couldn't answer the first question clearly. The question was: What is the title of your thesis? "

Would you recommend other PhD students to try the MT180 experience? And why?
Désirée König, 2016 winner: "Absolutely, it's a great opportunity to meet other PhD candidates. And trying to summarise your thesis often helps you to clarify, for yourself, which things are really central to your thesis. "
Sarah Olivier, 2017 winner: "I highly recommend the experience to anyone who, like me, can sometimes feel alone with their subject and have the impression of losing sight of what constitutes the main thread. The competition forces one to distance oneself from one's research and to perceive, find, rediscover or clarify its essence."
Pascale Deneulin, 2018 winner: "Obviously! I have made so much progress in my writing and presentation that the 'return on investment' is enormous. Being a researcher means being able to promote your results and this competition offers a unique way of doing so. Beyond the competition itself, the training provided by CUSO and the universities is essential for a fulfilling research career or professional life. In addition, it offers a very useful visibility for finding a job."
Isabela Grigoras, 2019 winner: "Yes. Without a doubt, yes. Because it is a challenge and challenges are good if we want to progress. It is an opportunity to understand better what we do (this competition forced me to think about the key points of my thesis), to learn how to be concise and eloquent, to confront and overcome our fears - to make ourselves vulnerable to become stronger. In short, it's an opportunity to grow and have fun at the same time. In addition, it is a unique opportunity to popularise our research and to show the world how important it is to have researchers."

Mots clés: Middle of thesis, End of thesis, Science Outreach, MT180