Moala Keshei Bannavti's winning presentation outlined her research to remediate PCBs in schools
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Moala Keshei Bannavti has firsthand experience with PCBs in schools.

“I grew up in a town with a lot of underrepresented minorities, and we were all from low-income families,” she says. She and her classmates went to an old school with air that likely had high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), an invisible but common compound that she didn’t realize can cause an array of health problems until she became a graduate student at the Iowa College of Engineering.

“They can cause cancer, disrupt hormones, they’re just horrible, and they’re found in the air everywhere,” she says.

To help schools identify and inexpensively remove materials that cause PCBs from their older buildings, Keshei Bannavti is developing a targeted materials-remediation plan as a civil and environmental engineering doctoral student. The research captured first place in the Graduate College’s annual Three Minute Thesis competition earlier this month.

The 3MT competition helps graduate students learn how to articulate their often complex and complicated research to non-experts clearly and concisely in three minutes or less. That isn’t always easy for grad students, most of whom have been taught to go into great depth and speak with a certain language that a non-academic, and sometimes even an academic from another field, may not understand.

The competition, normally held before a live audience in an auditorium, moved online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a preliminary competition with 45 students, 15 finalists recorded their three minutes and uploaded the presentations to YouTube. Judges reviewed the videos, and the winners were announced in a Zoom meeting on Nov. 6. A new traveling trophy was also introduced this year, the Dean’s Cup, which is presented to the college of the winning student.

Keshei Bannavti’s research won the $500 first place prize, as well as a $250 Peoples’ Choice Award, given by students in the AP Research class at City High School. The goal of her research, she says, is to make it easier for school districts, especially those serving underrepresented students and low-income families, to address PCB issues in school buildings built before 1978, when use of the compound was banned.

“This will make PCB removal cheaper, thus more accessible and equitable for all districts,” she says. Removing PCBs is important because the compound accumulates in the blood, so it may not cause health problems until years down the road. She says removing it from schools reduces the likelihood that children will have health problems later by eliminating one source of exposure when they’re young.

But PCB remediation is incredibly expensive, making it a financial challenge for schools to address. A single building can typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to remediate, she says. New York City recently spent more than $1 billion to remediate all of its schools. She says the process often requires massive reconstruction or sometimes building replacement.

“Lower-income schools just don’t have that kind of money,” Bannavti says.

Her materials-remediation research provides a less expensive way to clean a school building’s air by targeting only those materials in a classroom or a building with high levels of PCB. She’s studying how to use robust analytical chemistry methods to compare the PCB signals given off by materials in a classroom to the overall PCB concentration in the entire room. The methods, she says, are so robust, “they can tell us the difference between an elephant and an elephant with a speck of dust on it.”

Experts can then compare the PCB signals from the material from the overall room concentration and see what material contributes most.

“We can take out those specific materials instead of tearing down the entire school,” she says. “This makes it more equitable and accessible for all school districts, making sure more of our kids are healthy.”

Researchers in the 3MT competition say they understand the importance of academics being able to explain their research showing the value of the work they do and why it’s important to a general audience. That means stripping your research down to its bare essentials and avoiding jargon and technical terms that could confuse people outside the field.

“Short, sweet, and to the point,” says Nyema Harmon, a chemistry student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

Competitors say it was a challenge to boil down their research to simple concepts and then present them in such a short time frame. They prepared by practicing with their friends and family members, going over their presentation again and again, reviewing their talking points and practicing their delivery, learning to project their voice and punch up the appropriate words, until it all clocks in at just under the three-minute limit.

“We want them to understand the basic concepts and let them make the connections for themselves,” says Ivy Debrecini, a researcher from the Roy. J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

The Graduate College also held four online workshops to help researchers identify their key points, develop their PowerPoint slide, and whittle it down to three minutes.

The 3MT competition also gives the competitors a chance to rehearse before they hit the job market.

“In job interviews, I’m asked to give a presentation on my dissertation and I’m ready to do that because I’ve done it here,” says Runqing Qi, from the Second Language Acquisition Program in the CLAS.

Last year’s winner, Christie Vogler, says the experience was key for her success after the competition ended.

“I received a huge confidence boost just knowing I could successfully present my research to any audience, and I gained discipline in the way I approached my dissertation defense and job interviews,” says Vogler, who received her doctorate in classical archaeology from Iowa and is now on the faculty of the Department of History at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia. “To this day, I still find myself reciting the opening line of my 3MT presentation almost like a mantra. It gives me that little boost of confidence to get through what has been a very difficult and hectic year.”


Moala Keshei Bannavti, College of Engineering, who is developing a new method of determining the extent of PCB contamination in school classrooms so it can be more inexpensively mitigated by schools serving low-income and underrepresented students.


  • Elmira Jangjou, College of Education, for her study of on campus emergency food pantries and their effectiveness in reducing student food insecurity.
  • Clarissa Shaw, College of Nursing, for her study of the effectiveness of “elderspeak,” a method health care providers use to communicate with patients who have dementia.

PEOPLES’ CHOICE ($250 each, awarded by students in the AP Research class at City High School)

  • Moala Keshei
  • Mariam El-Hattab, College of Engineering, for her research that analyzes the use of human fat cells to heal wounds.