Kirsten Stoner wins this year’s Three-Minute Thesis competition
Wednesday, December 14, 2016

To explain her research, Kirsten Stoner, a fourth-year doctoral student in the University of Iowa Department of Biomedical Engineering, walks over to a cabinet and retrieves a life-sized model of a human spine. She bends the stiff column of vertebrae as far as they will go and explains that she studies the way abnormal growths or slipped disks can compress the spinal cord, specifically in the neck, causing devastating nerve damage. The condition is known as cervical myelopathy, and her research is helping to develop a computer model to better understand it.

“You know when you hit your funny bone and you get that really tingling feeling?” she says. “What’s happening is you’ve hit a nerve. So the same thing as that happens with your spinal cord in cervical myelopathy, but it’s your spinal cord, which is connecting everything to your brain.”

Friends and family have told Stoner that she talks too much, a surprising declaration considering she recently won the Three Minute Thesis competition. The annual contest, open to master’s and doctoral students and hosted by the Graduate College, asks competitors to explain their research to non-scientist audiences in three minutes or less.

Winners of the fall 2016 Three-Minute Thesis competition:

Masters category
Winner – Sara Knox
People’s Choice – Sara Knox

Doctoral category
Winner – Kirsten Stoner
Honorable Mentions – Vijay Permeswaran, Anh-Vu Do
People’s Choice – Magdelene Ameka

Read about the winners and see their presentations.

According to Suresh M.L. Raghavan, professor of biomedical engineering and this year’s graduate studies director, this sort of communication skill is vital for career development.

“I think from any angle one looks at it, communicating research is very important,” says Raghavan. “We see that the students who are good technically and can communicate well have far brighter career prospects.”

This year, judges from around campus selected 16 finalists from among more than 40 competitors. The first-place winner in the master’s and doctoral categories received $500, and honorable mentions and a “People’s Choice” winner each received $250. In addition to the cash prize, Stoner will also represent the UI at the inaugural Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Three Minute Thesis Competition in April.

While all graduate student researchers are encouraged to participate in 3MT, Stoner and six other 3MT competitors received practice and encouragement from a graduate-student seminar, which this semester focused on training researchers how to communicate with non-researchers. Raghavan led the seminar, and the seven 3MT competitors in the class received feedback from fellow classmates, instructors, and communications staff from the UI Office of Strategic Communication.

In structuring the course, Raghavan was partly inspired by his experience in the Communicating Ideas Workshop, which helped him hone his communication skills. Designed to help faculty researchers concisely describe their research to non-scientists, that workshop culminated in the faculty participants each creating a one-minute video explaining their research.

The Communicating Ideas Workshop is a collaborative effort from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, the Office of Strategic Communication, and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Learn more about the workshop here and watch Suresh M.L. Raghavan’s one-minute video here.

During her 3MT presentation, Stoner wasn’t allowed to use props, but in her office, she freely uses whatever she can find on her desk to explain the computer model of the human neck that she is developing.

Stoner compares a rectangular eraser to a thumb-sized hedgehog figurine and explains—while compressing the eraser between thumb and forefinger—that it’s easy to predict how forces will affect a regularly shaped object made of a single material, like the eraser, but the human neck, like the hedgehog figurine, is irregularly shaped and made of various materials, each of which respond differently to forces and compression.

The surgery to help people with cervical myelopathy isn’t new, Stoner says. The procedure involves removing portions of some neck bones and sometimes fusing other bones together in order to alleviate pressure on the spinal cord.

However, it’s difficult to anticipate which bones, if altered, will yield the best results. Patients sometimes have to undergo more than one difficult and complicated surgery. Stoner’s model will change that by helping the surgeon see how neck bones can push against, compress, and make room for the spinal cord. She hopes the model ultimately will help surgeons understand how cervical myelopathy affects spinal blood flow, neuro-electrical transmissions along the spinal cord, and other poorly understood aspects of the condition.

This spring, Stoner anticipates publishing her work, presenting it at a conference, and graduating with her PhD. She plans to look for work in industry instead of academia, but hopes to continue with research and helping people.

Thrilled by math and science at an early age, Stoner first wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but she felt that biomedical engineering was a better way to serve the community.

“As engineers,” she says, “we can sit here and think of all the coolest things to do, but unless they’re actually clinically relevant, they’re not going to help people. We could think of all the random stuff in the world, but it’s really about what surgeons need, what physicians need, and how we can help them to help people.”