You have two minutes on your specialist subject,

Distil PhDs into 120 seconds: impossible? Not for the winners of a recent competition. Chris Parr reports

September 27, 2012

A PhD thesis is a labour of love that represents years of sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears. But it seems it can also be summed up in a short, upbeat cartoon.

This was the reasoning behind the 2 Minute Thesis Contest, which challenged PhD students to explain their research in a two- minute audio file in an effort to encourage effective communication between researchers and non-academics. The best entries are being turned into online animations.

"Being able to take a step back and describe the complex work you do in a limited amount of time and using words outside your typical jargon lexicon is a skill every academic and researcher needs to be really good at," said Jorge Cham, regular Times Higher Education cartoonist and creator of PhD Comics, which ran the competition.

"Pop culture is full of stereotypes about what scientists and scholars should look like and act, and the public seems to have a somewhat limited understanding of what it means to do research, what the methods are, and how the process of discovery and verification takes place."

A "grand prizewinner" and a second- and third-place runner-up were selected by an online vote, with another 11 entries recognised by a judging panel comprising graduate students in various fields. Eleven have been selected to have their work animated in the coming months.

First to receive the cartoon treatment was overall winner Nahom Beyene (see above), a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who is researching applications of naturalistic driving data to enhance client evaluation in driver rehabilitation programmes.

Put more simply, as Mr Beyene explains in his winning entry, he was visited in a daydream by Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff's character from the 1980s television show Knight Rider) and Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf) from the Transformers films. They explained that new and elderly drivers cost the US $34 billion a year, leading him to ask the question: "How do we link driver licensing to road safety?"

"In some ways, the challenge was not to demonstrate the answers or solutions that have been discovered, but to explain my research area just enough to secure interest in others and encourage more questions to be asked," Mr Beyene told THE.

However, despite his two-minute video being viewed almost 30,000 times (and counting), Mr Beyene has no plans to leave academia.

"I am now distinctly aware that my voice is not suitable for any voice-over work in animated cartoons or movies, so I will not be misguided [enough] to think that I have a future with Disney or Pixar," he concluded.

The remaining winners come from universities in Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Australia, Israel and the US. Their PhDs cover topics as diverse as "discovering the hidden meaning in bird calls" and "building an artificial nose".

A new animation will be posted each month of the 2012-13 academic year on the PhD Comics site.

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