Rosie Ford tells her experience as winner of Bristol’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition

Rosie recently won the University of Bristol’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition for her talk on ‘Fungal secondary metabolites: exploring a kingdom of possibilities.  Rosie tells us about her experience and some top tips about presenting your research in a virtual world.

3MT® (or Three Minute Thesis) is a competition for doctoral students, originating from the University of Queensland, which stipulates that competitors must present their research in just 3 minutes – any longer and they are immediately disqualified. Normally, the competition is held in person, in front of an audience, but due to COVID-19, in the past two years, the competitions have been moved online, presenting a new challenge – how do you engage an audience who can walk away from their screen at any time?

I decided to take part in Bristol Doctoral College’s 2021 3MT competition for several reasons. The first, to improve my presenting skills, especially in a virtual world I wanted to teach myself how to adapt to this. Secondly, I hadn’t set foot in the lab since December 2020, and I was just about to head back to research after a PIPS placement when I submitted my 3MT application – I needed to refamiliarize myself with my research and what made it so exciting (how better to do this than explaining your project and arguing why it is important in a concise way). Lastly, I’d heard great things from colleagues who had taken part in the Bristol Doctoral College 3MT in the past so why not give it a go myself?

The whole experience was hugely rewarding, and the support is given by the Bristol Doctoral College and the other candidates was key in my success. There were never any feelings of intense competition but rather mutual support and a desire to communicate research in an accessible manner. Potentially winning the competition was simply a bonus to all the skills you picked up along the way. So here are the key things I learnt:

1. Eye contact is crucial – we know that this is true for in-person presentations, you can’t stare at the floor the whole time, but how do you convey this when you’re using a computer or laptop? Look straight into the camera. The temptation is always to look at your audience to see how they are responding to you, as you would normally, but if you are looking at your screen you don’t seem as prepared. Perhaps the easiest way to teach yourself to make eye contact with a virtual audience is to record yourself and watch it back. This also helps you to see what your body language is like and if it adds to or distracts from your talk. Not only this but looking at the camera does actually help with nerves since you can ignore anything else going on in that video call and just focus on presenting.

2. Check your presentation is appropriate for your audience by practising it in front of people in your target group. This could be friends, family, or colleagues, and they don’t have to listen to the whole thing, even just 1 slide or the first 30 seconds would be useful. If you’ve lost them already, you need to rethink things. Even though I was lucky enough to be the winner of this year’s competition, I’m definitely guilty of this too. In my first version of my 3MT talk, the first word I said was “peptide”. Admittedly this was key to my presentation but perhaps not the most exciting way to start off, especially if your audience doesn’t know what a peptide is – something my fellow 3MT competitors pointed out to me. On that note, if you have to include something technical or complex in a presentation to a lay audience, give yourself plenty of time to explain it and metaphors can really help with this – but make sure you use something most people will know (i.e., you shouldn’t need to explain your metaphor too).

I’m looking forward to going onto the next stages of the competition, seeing what other doctoral students across the UK are up to, and picking up some useful skills as I go along.

Rosie Ford, SWBio DTP student

 

Our newest lecturer, Dr. Jordi Paps Montserrat, talks to us about his latest research

Introduced to us by his long-time friend and now co-worker Dr. Davide Pisani, Dr. Jordi Paps showed us how he analyses ancestral genomes to reveal bursts of novelties associated with major evolutionary transitions.

Originally from Barcelona, Dr. Paps moved to England in 2010 to work with Peter Holland at the University of Oxford. He then continued his work at the University of Essex in 2015, to finally join our team at Bristol, to the delight of his friend Dr. Pisani.

“Animals are one of my favourite clades”

Specialising in animal phylogenetics, Dr. Paps said he had been inspired by the work of Ernst Haeckel. He declared from the start of the seminar: “animals are one of my favourite clades”. Indeed, he went on to remind us that animals are but a small branch of the “tree of life”. However, animals distinguish themselves by being multicellular. Several functions derive from multicellularity, for example cell differentiation or immunity (i.e. differentiating self from non-self).

For the last 5 years, Dr. Jordi Paps has been investigating the origins of those functions. Having access to ancient genomes enabled Dr. Paps to run comparative analyses on 64 genomes. Combining BLAST search and MCL analysis, Dr. Paps wrote his own Pearl script humorously entitled Phylogenetically Aware Parsing Script (PAPS).

His analysis revealed 6331 homology groups in the genome of the first animals. Using gene ontology, Dr. Paps then classified the functions of these homology groups to reveal that most of them are associated with gene regulation and metabolism. Moreover, 60% of the human genome descends from these homology groups. In the words of Dr. Paps, the first animal genomes were already “quite animaly”.

Number of new homology groups

However, what set the animal genomes apart was the number of new homology groups. Indeed, animals had twice the number of homology groups that other ancestral genomes did. By considering homology groups that are retained in all present animals, Dr. Paps identified 25 “essential new animal homology groups”. Of these 25 “essential groups”, 15 predated animals, differing in the processing of input and output. However, the rest were completely novel groups associated with cell adhesion, cell cycle, receptors and synaptic exocytosis. All of these functions are associated with multicellularity.

Thus, Dr. Paps presented evidence that genomic novelty is associated with the major evolutionary transition that led to the advent of the animal kingdom.

What about other multicellular groups?

But he did not stop at that. “What about other multicellular groups?”, he asked the audience. Dr. Paps then went on to describe how, in association with Alexander Bowles, he ran a similar analysis to investigate the origin of plants (streptophytes) and land plants (embryophytes). This time running the analysis on more than 200 genomes, Dr. Paps said that “the amount of novelty puts animals to shame”. Functional characterization of homology groups then revealed that most of the novelty was associated with multicellularity functions for streptophytes and terrestrialisation for embryophytes.

Associated with Cristina Guijarro, Dr. Paps used this analytical method once more to investigate the role of novelty inside the animal kingdom. They found that the novel homology groups were associated with cephalisation in ancestral Bilaterians. However, surprisingly, losses were also important at a finer scale. At phylum level, nematodes and tardigrades were “major losers”. Dr. Paps says that this is to be expected due to their simplified morphologies. Nevertheless, these phyla are amongst the most successful animals. Therefore, Dr. Paps demonstrated that loss of genomic groups is more important than previously thought when considering major evolutionary transitions.

On another humoristic note, Dr. Paps mentioned press releases relating his findings to evidence for creationism or panspermia. He sarcastically declared he appreciates the attention.

Through the use of his novel analytical tools for phylogenetics, Dr. Paps has been able to shed light on not only the origins of animals, but also the origins of plants and other animal clades. Finally, he concluded the seminar by announcing that he will now be working on the genomic evolution of parasitism.

Wielding sharp wits and a bright mind, Dr. Jordi Paps is undoubtedly a brilliant addition to the academic team of the University of Bristol. Welcome aboard Jordi!

Written by Violette Desarmeaux (year 4 MSci)