Lily Zhao (PhD, Astronomy)

What made you get into Yale’s 3MT competition?

Truthfully, going in, I was like “this sounds like a fun challenge, I could spend three minutes on this!”  Perhaps instead of truthfully, the correct word would be “idiotically.”  It obviously took more than three minutes (by a lot) to prepare, rehearse, and adapt my final entry, but throughout the process I learned so much about how to most efficiently present my research and thought more deeply than I often get a chance to on how I communicate.  I wish I were insightful enough to know I was going to get that out of this experience from the get go!

 

What did you find most challenging about having to narrow your whole research into just 3 minutes?

It was really interesting how much I could drop from my typical explanation of what I do and how unwilling I was to do it!  A lot of the background it turned out was unnecessary or could be explained on a more intuitive level without needing to define specific vocabulary and concepts I once viewed as fundamental to my research.  The way my field is described had always held the same form throughout all classes and conferences I’ve attended.  Breaking out of that mold was really very challenging despite being immensely doable.

This sounds generic, but I’m talking like the method I use is often called the “Doppler method,” referring to the Doppler effect, i.e. the change in wavelength of moving bodies.  After much convincing I realized it wasn’t even necessary to describe the Doppler effect, literally the name of the method.  It helped to lend a kind of clarity to the work I’m doing and has made me more adaptable in all sorts of descriptions or teaching I now do.

 

Halfway through the competition, you had to adapt to a virtual format. How did you find the experience and which tools that OCS offered you found most helpful?

The OCS was great with workshops and videos on how to use Panopto!  The video was a lot harder to make than I anticipated.  I spent hours sitting in the most boring room I had access to (in order to get a nice plain background) watching videos of myself and judging the angle of my eyebrows.

It’s a completely different skill than giving a live talk, but an increasingly worthwhile ability to develop.  For example, while I’ve been told to scan the room and try to make eye contact with a live audience, I found that moving my eyes around too much on video makes me look very shifty.  Luckily, with just a three-minute video, there was tons of opportunity to practice and make adjustments!

 

Any words for the people trying this year?

Good luck!  Even if you’re just thinking of doing it, I say go for it.  It turns out to be a surprising amount of fun and the very exercise itself teaches you about not just how to communicate effectively, but how to look at your research differently.  Furthermore, it’s a great way to learn about the fascinating research of all participants!  I tell myself I’ll go to the talks every year, but something always seemed to get in the way until I had to give one myself.  It’s absurdly worthwhile and a good way to assure you will attend this upcoming year!

I cannot overemphasize how useful it is to meet with Brian Frenette and Hyun Ja Shin, who are incredibly generous with their time throughout the entire process.  They have a profound ability to help you parse your presentation and ask the right questions to isolate what is worth mentioning in your talk and what can be left out or reduced.  They will help you with your slide, your pacing, the overarching structure of your talk, the list goes on.