Chemistry PhD student wins Three Minute Thesis for explaining single-molecule protein-sequencing technology

Arts & Science graduate student Emily Majaesic has won first place at U of T’s tenth annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Majaesic was one of nine finalists in the yearly annual contest that challenges graduate students to explain their research to a lay audience in just 3 minutes, using only one static slide. The popular competition is held in 900 universities in 80 countries every year.

Majaesic will receive a prize of $1000 and move on to the Ontario Regional Finals at Queen’s University on May 17. 

For many graduate students, communicating research to the general public might once have taken a backseat to things like peer-reviewed articles, essays, and dissertations – the traditional metrics for success in graduate study.

But with increasing numbers of graduate students taking up careers outside academia, practicing smart and accessible communication has become an essential skill. (Read the Toronto Star article about the 3MT)

“Scientific communication is always important,” says Majaesic. “Nothing happens as an individual pursuit. You need the support of the public and you need the support of taxpayer dollars. You need to inspire people so they can understand why what you’re doing is important.”

Majaesic won first place for her presentation titled “Catch A Protein By Its Tail,” a clever nod to her work on a new application of the enzyme ClpX (read: “Clip -X”) that could potentially revolutionize the way we study protein levels in the body.

She plans to modify the enzyme – which can unravel protein strands – then integrate it with the machine that is currently used to read the sequence of nucleotides that make up DNA. In theory, once the enzyme has detangled a protein string, the sequencer should be able to count the individual proteins, much as it does DNA.

Majaesic is hoping her research will provide a more accurate method to detect changes in the body’s protein levels than the current technology in use – mass spectrometry. It’s an innovation that could mean a major improvement in how we use proteins to detect the onset of major illnesses.

Since 2013, the 3MT at U of T has been organized by the School of Graduate Studies’ Centre for Graduate Professional Development. Alongside the new Connaught PhDs for Public Impact Fellowship Program, it is one of the Centre’s two signature programs focusing on public engagement for graduate students.

“At SGS, we believe it is vitally important for graduate students to learn to talk about their research with people outside academia,” says Kelly Lyons, Acting Vice-Dean, Research and Program Innovation at SGS. “Whether it’s pitching a project to potential investors or writing grant applications or explaining vaccine science on the radio – you need to be able to persuade your audience.”

Throughout the different stages of the 3MT competition, participants have access to a variety of training and supports, including workshops led by the Graduate Centre for Academic Communication.

For Majaesic, who won a TA Teaching Excellence Award last year after being nominated by her students, winning the 3MT has reinforced her interest in a communications-oriented career where she can talk about the downstream applications of research.

“Winning has validated that I am actually good at this. It’s not just my friends giving me compliments now!” she laughs. “But if I hadn’t done the 3MT, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say that.”

“I’m so glad I signed up,” she continues. “Usually, I get bogged down in the research. But the 3MT has re-inspired me to focus on why I started this project, why I love it, and what I’m trying to do.”

The 2023 winners also included Nidhi Sachdeva from OISE, who placed second for her work on integrating micro-learning modules into online courses, and Amel Sassi from the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, who won third place for her presentation on a bone-on-a-chip platform. Nandita Menon from the Faculty of Dentistry took home the People’s Choice Award for her talk on using saliva as a health indicator.