Coming back with a 3-Min competition

It’s been a while since we have posted, we know. In the past year, one of us had two offspring (Maria is officially Dr. Pil, mother of Sebastião), and I’m in homestretch of my one and only offspring, my dear dissertation. The truth is: I miss the blog, I miss writing without peer-review manuscript prep or grant purposes, I miss talking about science that fascinates me, and I miss rambling about academia.

3MT-logoMy ‘return post’ will be about a recent experience I had – a 3-MIN thesis competition! I signed in almost instantaneously after I read the email from grad school about the competition. Don’t get deceived, I was prompt to take part in it not because I love competitions, but because I did a 2-min ‘lightening talk’ on a meeting in the past, and it was an absolute disaster. I needed to try again.

I won’t say my performance was successful, but it was definitely better than the first time I tried giving these types of very (very) short talks. I started preparing my 3-MIN talk by watching the presentations of  the past winners of the worldwide 3-MIN Thesis Competition. Yes, there’s such a thing, and one can learn a lot by seeing the strategies people come up with to tell a complex story of years of research within such a short amount of time. The four strategies I noticed were:

1st. Impactful opening and closing statements. You need to start with something that catches people’s attention and end with a statement that will leave the audience thinking about your take home message.

2nd. Clear presentations very often use numbering/listing to organize ideas – this makes the content very easy to follow.

3rd. You need to make people relate to your research. No matter how much you think your research topic is important (and I bet it is), you lose your audience if you don’t articulate it on a way that people from different backgrounds relate to.

I wrote a speech with these three observations on mind. The core of my dissertation is to use historical biogeography to determine turnover rates of avian haemosporidian assemblages in the West Indies. “Say what?,” you may think, if you are not the N=very limited number of people who work with what I work. Below, I share how I adapted my speech. I didn’t win the competition, but I’m happy with the fact that I made it to the finals.

Time traveling with bird malaria parasites in the West Indies islands

by Letícia Soares

Time traveling is not a privilege of science fiction characters. In my research, I used the geologic history of islands in the West Indies as a time machine to determine how the distribution of bird malaria parasites changes over evolutionary time scales. World wide, 3 billion people live at risk of malaria, and a half million people die of it every year. Bird and human malaria parasites are closely related through evolution. In fact, malaria parasites are also a threat to bird populations, and the disease has lead to the extinction of at least 10 unique bird species in Hawaii. With that said, my research 1) determines how rapidly these parasites can jump from one population to another, and 2) how the disease spreads over time scales of millennia. Bird populations in islands are the perfect study model to understand the evolution of host and parasite interactions, because birds canʼt go to the doctor to get treated, and we can see how parasites and hosts evolve in a natural system. 2 thousand years ago, the Earth was going through a glaciation, and sea levels were very low, causing some islands in the West Indies to be connected by landbirdges that were once covered by sea water. During that time, birds could move across islands that, today, are isolated by sea. I used this history of past connection as a natural isolation experiment to determine how long it takes to observe changes in 1) the type and 2) the frequency of parasites infecting these populations. I searched for the parasite DNA on the blood samples of birds, and 5 thousand blood samples across 21 islands later, I found that within 2 thousand years, there is a complete turnaround on the malaria parasite strains and the frequency they occur in these bird populations. This fast turnaround indicates that within 2 thousand years, birds may evolve resistance to parasites and parasites may evolve alternative ways to exploit birds. My research shows that birds and malaria parasites in nature are like Alice in Wonderland, in the sense that for one of them to get somewhere else, it needs to run at least twice as fast than the other.

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