By Emma J Butcher, on 18 October 2018
Written by Jonathan Lambert
For most research students, including myself, writing a PhD thesis feels like trudging up a seemingly endless mountain. It is a lonely experience made more difficult because only three or four people may ever read our careful efforts. But I want to encourage you. Just imagine, for a moment, packaging up all your hard work into a three minute spoken presentation that conveys the big picture of your thesis to a potentially world-wide audience. The presentation would identify the value of your research in potentially improving human health and wellbeing, communicate your passion for the subject, and highlight the wider impact of your findings to society. Imagine how helpful that talk would be when meeting potential employers or completing grant applications, not to mention helping construct the final thesis. Then of course there is the buzz of using your presentation to share your work with family and friends in a way that is accessible to all. This could be the perfect opportunity to get excited about your work and help you feel like you’ve just found a lift to help you up the mountain.
Well, this is precisely the concept of the three minute thesis (3MT), developed by The University of Queensland, Australia, in 2008. The competition has grown in popularity and spread internationally to over 600 universities, including UCL. The Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOSICH), UCL, held their first 3MT competition in 2016, at which I presented my project entitled “Less is More: the efficacy of gene therapy to treat Fabry Disease”. The slide developed to help communicate my thesis is shown below.
In my 3MT presentation, I discussed my research on Fabry disease, a genetic metabolic disorder primarily affecting the heart, brain and kidneys. The disease is caused by an enzyme deficiency in lysosomes, which are compartments within cells. Lysosomes may be conceptualised as a “wheelie bin”. I asked the audience to imagine the situation if a local waste removal company went permanently on strike: waste would accumulate in bins resulting in anxiety, illness and death to the local residents. On a cellular level, this situation is similar to Fabry disease. The enzyme deficiency, which results from specific gene mutations, leads to accumulation of waste in lysosomes and ultimately cell death. My research investigated whether gene therapy, which involves inserting a correct gene copy into patient cells using a virus vector, may be a good treatment.
I found that gene therapy produced a dose-dependent increase in enzyme activity in target cells. A low dose produced an enzyme equally efficient at breaking down waste as in healthy cells, but a high dose produced a significantly less efficient enzyme. In the talk, I put these results into the context of the waste removal company to help the audience appreciate the relevance of these findings; a low dose gene therapy may be thought of as a single workman, focused on his job and efficient at clearing waste from bins. A high dose delivery is like a team of workmen, distracted by arguing and talking with each other so that they can’t work efficiently. In other words, a lower dose of gene therapy may treat patients more efficiently than a high dose – “less may be more”. I concluded my talk with discussion of my on-going work, studying the potential of gene therapy to repair damage to the mitochondria, the “power supply” of the cell. The potential impact of this was highlighted by explaining that, if gene therapy could repair mitochondrial damage, this may be equivalent to giving back “cellular mojo” to enable cells to repair and save the lives of Fabry disease patients.
My presentation won the 2016 UCL Final and came runner-up in the 2016 Vitae 3MT UK National Final, held as part of the annual Vitae Career Researchers international conference. Participation in the 3MT competition not only improved my presentation and communication skills but inspired me in public engagement, teaching activities, and a successful grant application to the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at GOSICH that funded the final phase of my project.
So when you are next knee deep in PhD mountain snow, struggling to write your thesis, don’t panic. Get a clean sheet of paper, a cup of tea, and create a story-board of your project. Sign up for the next 3MT competition and get involved with public engagement activities. Like a mountain drag-lift, this process will help you to complete the climb and finish your thesis.