Stopwatch and spotlight on cancer research

Blood smear to show leukaemia INSIDE UNISA

Describing research into cancer biology and the energy production in cells would be a challenge for a PhD student to explain to their peers in a lecture hall over the course of an hour.

But to present that research in captivating fashion, to the wider public, in just 180 seconds demonstrates a level of skill that has led to PhD student Mahmoud Bassal becoming both the People’s Choice and overall first prize winner in this year’s UniSA Three Minute Thesis competition.

As one of nine PhD students taking part in the final, Mahmoud, of the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, spoke easily on a research project that is anything but – studying genetic and metabolic changes in those with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.

Adhering to the strict rules of the competition, Mahmoud conveyed his project within a three minute time frame with the aid of just one slide. His was one of a variety of PhD projects outlined in the competition, showcasing a range of topics, all aimed at finding solutions to real world issues.

Over the course of 30 minutes, those attending and voting in the competition could learn, among other subjects, how imaging techniques are enhancing robotic function, how blood vessel development relates to melanoma, what measures are being taken to solve the problem of fingerprint residue on touch screens and how acoustic tomography is adding to our understanding of the climate.

Mahmoud’s talk demonstrated a clear passion for his research, and when prompted, he’s happy to offer a one minute thesis of his topic.

“The current theory in the scientific community is that cells become cancerous as they gain random mutations in their DNA,” Mahmoud says.

“We can see different mutations across different cancers and even within the same patients, while they have the same disease.

“My research is looking at a trait that’s common across cancers, a change in how the cells produce their energy, but studying it specifically in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.

“I’m characterising the different characteristics of patients’ samples to see how the energy production circuitry and machinery in the patients has changed. This will help us understand what came first – was it the mutations or the change in energy production in cells?

“By discerning whether it is mutations or change in energy production, it will change our understanding of how we perceive cancer, as to whether it’s a genetic disease or a metabolic disease.”

As to the importance of communicating research within such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it format, Mahmoud is unequivocal.

“It’s essential,” he says.

“There’s so much incredible research at this University which is brilliant but because some of it is just so complicated it can be difficult to explain it to other people. When that happens it’s a missed opportunity and that is something which the Three Minute Thesis tackles.

“It’s an opportunity to translate back to more people the research you are involved in so they can understand what it is you are doing and the significance of it.

“I’m constantly having to change what I do at work to speak about it in manner that people understand, so to do it competitively is good fun, although a little nerve-wracking.

“In my younger days I was shy and told many times I couldn’t present well, so to win is a thumbs-up.”

UniSA’s Dean of Graduate Studies, Professor Pat Buckley, who hosted the event, says the Three Minute Thesis is one of the hardest talks PhD students can give.

“Communicating complex research in everyday language is a valuable skill and it’s a challenge to do that succinctly and compellingly, within three minutes,” Prof Buckley says.

“There isn’t the luxury of time, or a proliferation of slides and visual cues – just one slide. And the audience, whilst intelligent, is not directly involved with their research interests.”

Rising to the challenge, and with little evidence of any nerves, each candidate spoke fluidly on their topic, leaving the audience eager to learn more while offering a carousel of some of the most impressive and diverse research that is taking place within the University right now.

Bastian Stoehr’s talk about his PhD project which focuses on the next generation of easy-to-clean coatings for touch screens, resulted in him achieving second place in the competition whilst Daniel Griffith’s robotic-related research saw him take out the third prize.

Mahmoud will compete in the Trans-Tasman Three Minute Thesis at the University of Queensland next month.

This year’s Three Minute Thesis finalists were: Mahmoud Bassal from the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences; Ming Sum (Andy) Chan (School of Management); Daniel Griffiths (School of Engineering); Simone Marino (School of Communication, International Studies and Languages); Kevin Rogers (School of Engineering); Bastian Stoehr (Mawson Institute); Sarah Quinn (School of Education); Lih Yin Tan (School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences); and Minhua Yang (School of Commerce).

The 3MT finalists.

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