Accurate detection of cancer from a single breath sample that could save millions of lives. The power of Chilean bees to fight resistant antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. A way to tackle damaging plant diseases that threaten organic crops and force us to choose between the environment or economic growth in low- and middle-income countries.
These are some of the world leading research projects within the U21 network of 28 global universities that have been recognised in this year’s U21 Three Minute Thesis® competition.
The challenge asks PhD students across the globe to explain their complex thesis on video in just three minutes or less to a non-specialist audience. The aim is to explore the importance of communication and showcase some of the fascinating research from talented students internationally. After being named a winner in their own university, candidates can compete for the global U21 prize.
The overall U21 winner for 2022 was UNSW student, Merryn Baker. Her research poses a simple question: what does your breath say about you?
From a single breath sample, Merryn is investigating how chemical changes caused by cancer and other diseases can be detected. Molecules heralding cancer are present in the breath but exist only in extremely low concentrations that are near impossible to detect with current methods.
Merryn’s ground-breaking research passes the breath molecules first through sticky webbing materials, so that a higher volume of the molecules are retained. Secondly, she adds a positive charge to these molecules of interest, causing them to light up on diagnostic instruments to make their detection far easier.
This new method is simple, non-invasive, easily accessible and rapid - and can even make a diagnosis before a tumour grows. With this early detection, the implications for survival rates and lowering treatment cost are transformative.
On winning the U21 global 3MT® Prize, Merryn said: ‘’I'm over the moon to have won the 3MT competitions both at UNSW and globally at U21. The whole 3MT concept has really helped to clarify the purpose and impact of my research on the bigger picture. There is currently so much research being conducted on breath analysis – from how chemicals in the breath are affected by different diseases, to methods of measurement and efficient and accurate ways of analysing the data. I hope I am able to add a small piece to that puzzle and expand our collective knowledge so that disease detection and diagnosis by breath analysis becomes an everyday reality.”
Taking the Highly Commended Prize, Emilio Dal Re of the University of Zurich found his research inspiration in a simple morning ritual – brewing a cup of coffee.
Wanting to purchase organic coffee yet unsure of its real economic benefits to coffee farmers and their local labour markets, led him on a journey that took him thousands of miles to the heart of Central America.
Meeting coffee farmers in Guatemala, Emilio discovered that large numbers of them had switched to organic production in the hopes of making a better living, only to find their crops destroyed by a microscopic fungus known as ‘coffee rust’. The resulting devastation on already impoverished lands was impacting the international migration crisis. Using advanced monitoring techniques via satellite and machine learning, he was able to create a real-time map of coffee rust fungus to prevent its spread, which can already be used by local farmers.
Emilio commented: "I am very thrilled to be the global highly commended award winner of this year’s U21 3MT competition, especially considering how compelling and engaging the other finalists’ presentations were. I hope that my thesis has managed to bring more attention to the topic of sustainable development, and convince people that sometimes good intentions, if not properly executed, can make things worse.”
The 2022 People’s Choice Award, selected via a public vote, was won by Paula Núñez Pizarro of UC Chile. Wanting to show the power of natural Chilean products, Paula’s research investigated the superpowers of native Quillay honey.
One of the most complex and complete foods in the world, natural honey also has antioxidant, antibacterial and hepatoprotective properties that adapt through the plant life and pollen consumption of bees to specific geographies.
Knowing that over 700,000 people worldwide die each year from infections caused by bacteria that has developed an antimicrobial resistance, Paula’s research envisions a natural alternative. She is investigating whether Quillay honey could act as a new, natural antibiotic, as well as being a hepatoprotective product and combatting oxidative damage to the body caused by free radicals.
She comments: “I feel totally honoured to have won the People’s Choice award! Our natural products have great potential, and we must protect them. In Chile we have a unique geography that allows the growth of a privileged flora, and I hope that my thesis demonstrates that we can sustainably exploit them.”
The 3MT Competition highlights the power of international research to change lives and help solve some of the global challenges the planet faces. The judging panel of academics were especially impressed by the quality and real-world impact of this year’s winners.
Emily Chang, founder of STOKE, a professional development organisation supporting systemic change in business, was one of this year’s panel.
She comments: “I was in awe of so many presentations and struck by how impactful many of the research projects showcased can be. The way each of the nominees approached the challenge of explaining their research to non-technical audiences gave me great confidence that our future is in very safe hands.”
Dr Verity Elston, one of the U21 judging panel, from the Université de Lausanne, added:
“I'm always impressed with anyone who dives into the pool of rendering the expertise they've worked so hard to develop into words that make sense for the rest of us and help build the links between science and society. The entries I had the pleasure to evaluate were built on that commitment, courage and talent. I hope everyone who made the dive has come out of the waters with fresh understanding of, and confidence in, the importance of what they do.”
All twenty entries for the 2022 U21 3MT Global Competition can still be viewed here.