Skip to main content

Graduate student Ava Vargason took the top prize during The Graduate School’s annual Three Minute Thesis competition.

Vargason wins first place

Understanding and researching emerging issues takes years of dedication from graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Graduate School’s annual Three Minute Thesis competition finals, an initiative of Professional Development, helps graduate students distill their research topics in only three minutes for a non-academic audience in order to present their groundbreaking research in an easy-to-understand way.

During the 2021 competition, graduate students submitted entries from many areas of campus, including in science and in the humanities, which were evaluated by a panel of judges to determine the top 10 presentations who advanced to the final competition. The finalists showcased their research during Wednesday’s competition, part of University Research Week.

Ava Vargason, a Ph.D. candidate in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy in its Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics, presented her research on bacteria in the gut and received first prize, which comes with $1,000. Her research focuses on the trillions of microbes in our bodies, which are vital for our health. Colon cancer, allergies, and other medical diagnoses have been linked to microbial imbalances. Vargason’s research centers on how to restore the balance of the microbiome by allowing for beneficial bacteria to stay in the intestinal tract and have healing effects. The idea is to have the body recognize and embrace new bacteria, instead of expelling it, in order to allow for treatment—something she has observed in mice through her research.

Ava Vargason standing in front of a sign that reads Beard Hall: Eshelman School of Pharmacy. She is wearing glasses and a blazer.
Ava Vargason

Vargason said completing her Ph.D. gave her the ability to analyze information quickly and draw connections where they’re needed in order to solve a pressing challenge.

“I can use all of these skills,” Vargason said. “Because you have to think so much about information and different sides of a scientific problem, one thing it has given me is a little more empathy for where people are coming from in the ways they understand research.”

Suzanne Barbour, dean of The Graduate School said University Research Week is an opportune time to showcase graduate student research. “This is a time when our university showcases the remarkable and innovative research that’s conducted by our world-renown faculty and outstanding graduate students,” Barbour said. “It’s all about students communicating their complex research to a lay audience in a way that inspires the audience, gets the message across, and ultimately ensures the audience understands not just what the student is doing, but why it’s so very important.”

This year’s juried competition is one of nearly 900 similar competitions around the world and in 85 countries. The Three Minute Thesis is an initiative founded by the University of Queensland in Australia.

Braithwaite wins second place

Danielle Brathwaite received second place for her presentation, focusing on the role the emergency department can play in providing pediatric behavioral health care to younger patients facing mental health challenges. Brathwaite is an MD/Ph.D. candidate in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and at the UNC School of Medicine. Lauren Bates (’20 MS) received the People’s Choice Award, recognition which was selected by an audience of more than 125 people.

Danielle Braithwaite wearing a blazer and smiling.
Danielle Braithwaite

Brathwaite said the COVID-19 pandemic—and the pressing need for graduate students to be flexible and build resilience—prepared her for the 3MT competition.

“Resiliency isn’t built in comfort,” Brathwaite said. “Being okay with going out of your comfort zone, trying something different; it’s about recording a video rather than giving a presentation in person and embracing new limitations and opportunities that come with that.”

2021 First, Second, and People’s Choice Award Winners

  • Ava Vargason—Eshelman School of Pharmacy-Molecular Pharmaceutics; Helping Friendly Bacteria Stick in the Gut.
  • Danielle Brathwaite—Health Policy and Management; Defining the Role of the Emergency Department in Providing Pediatric Behavioral Health Care.
  • Lauren Bates (’20 MS) Human Movement Science Curriculum; STANDING up to Cancer and WALKING Away from Cardiovascular Disease: A Biobehavioral Approach to Reducing Cardiovascular Disease in Endometrial Cancer Survivors.

2021 Three Minute Thesis Judges

  • Debu Chatterjee (’90 MS), prior head of AI for ServiceNow and member of The Graduate School’s Graduate Education Advisory Board.
  • Debbi Clarke, (’04 MBA) associate provost for strategy and special projects at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • Jeff Kelly (’87 Ph.D.), and the Lita Annenberg Hazen professor of chemistry at the Scripps Institute.
  • Eric Johnson’08, director of editorial strategy for the college board.
People’s Choice Award


Comments are closed.