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How can astronomers better determine the planetary evolutionary process, and what does geological evidence show? What made the Earth capable of supporting life, and what other planets can? 

Mackenna Wood (’20 MS), a graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences, tackled these questions and received the top prize during UNC-Chapel Hill’s annual Three Minute Thesis competition, held on October 11 as part of University Research Week. 

A woman in a blue shirt and wearing glasses holding an award.
Mackenna Wood

Wood’s research focuses on measuring ages of stellar associations—or groups of stars that all formed at the same time and place—to piece together a picture of how planets change over time.  

“Rather than look at planets directly, astronomers must study planetary evolution in snapshots,” Wood said during the presentation. 

Lauren Herlihy ’05 (’12 MSN), a graduate student in the UNC School of Nursing, won second place for her research, titled “Early Peanut Introduction in Infants to Prevent Peanut Allergy.” 

Rachel DuMez, a graduate student in the curriculum in genetics and molecular biology, won the peoples’ choice award for her research of the health benefits of popular style of drink known as kombucha.  

The Graduate School’s annual Three Minute Thesis competition final, an initiative of Professional Development, helps graduate students distill their research topics in only three minutes for a non-specialist audience in order to present their groundbreaking research in an easy-to-understand way. 

More than two dozen graduate students from many areas of campus, including in science and in the humanities, presented their research for a panel of judges to determine the top 10 participants who advanced to the final competition. A woman stands at a podium

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. 


The Graduate School’s Dean Beth Mayer-Davis said the Three Minute Thesis is meant to showcase emerging research that has the capacity to solve humanity’s greatest challenges.   

“Graduate students at Carolina are remarkably creative; they conduct research that pushes the boundaries of knowledge—and yet—can relate to our daily lives. This professional development opportunity helps graduate students develop communication skills to convey their research in effective ways—and showcase the value of graduate education in our state and beyond,” Mayer-Davis said.   

Four people stand in front of a banner while holding awards.
Mackenna Wood, Rachel DuMez, Lauren Herlihy, and Town of Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.

2022 Three Minute Thesis judges: 

Debbie Boles  Vice president, research and development  LabCorp 
Kyle Hall  Representative (District 91)  N.C. General Assembly 
Pam Hemminger  Mayor  Town of Chapel Hill 
Ed Samulski  Professor emeritus  UNC-Chapel Hill 
Barbara Stephenson  Vice provost for global affairs  UNC-Chapel Hill 


First-place winner

Second-place winner

Peoples’-choice winner

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