Joshua Chu-Tan is a second-year PhD student in the Provis Group at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University (ANU).
His presentation of his thesis, “Targeting the Root of Vision Loss”, won him top prize at the ANU’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. This event challenges PhD students to present their research in three minutes to a non-specialist audience. Joshua also went on to win the 2016 Asia-Pacific 3MT, which drew 50 contestants from six countries.
We ask him about his research and his experience competing in the 3MT.
1. Tell us about your research. What is its significance and what are your main findings?
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in developed countries with a global cost of over US$340 billion per year. Our group looks at the dry form of AMD, which accounts for 90% of all AMD cases. This happens when light-sensitive cells deteriorate, causing a loss in central vision. There is currently no cure.
We work on gene therapies for dry AMD using microRNA. These molecules are masters in gene regulation: a single microRNA molecule can bind to multiple targets, all of which often work within the same cellular pathway. In this way, we can theoretically regulate entire pathways, rather than single genes. This could prove fruitful for complex, multifactorial diseases such as AMD.
I’ve been able to characterise a number of microRNA in our AMD model and through injections of a specific anti-inflammatory microRNA into the eye, we’ve seen a decrease in inflammation, as well as a slowing in the damage progression of the retina, which has been very promising.
2. How did you hear about the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and why did you choose to enter?
In 2015, I went to watch the ANU 3MT finals. The experience was phenomenal: hundreds of people came to watch students from all departments and faculties condense years of work into a three minute pitch. The interest that people outside of academia showed was inspiring and as I listened to all these brilliant students talk about the bigger impact of their work, I was enthralled. The whole time I was there, I kept thinking of ideas for my own 3MT—I knew I had to give it a crack.
3. Why do you think events like the 3MT are important? What did you gain from your involvement?
I believe the value of science communication is often overlooked in research, especially medical research. As researchers, we’re often invested in a single aspect of a holistic problem, which can result in tunnel vision within our niche. The work we publish uses highly specialised jargon, which is necessary for us to discuss specific problems, but isn’t very accessible for the general public.
Participating in events like the 3MT give us an avenue to convey our work to people outside of our field. We can take a step back and look at the bigger picture: Why should people outside of this field care about our work? What’s the real goal? Even the process of writing a speech for something like the 3MT is rewarding in that it gets us to consider these questions.
The ANU and Asia-Pacific events were also incredible opportunities for me to find out about other people’s research from around the world and consider new ways of looking at a problem. I really think the future of research will be interdisciplinary. We’re all trained to look at a problem in our particular way, but there’s only so much we can achieve within our specialties. Having experts from different fields approach a challenge together will greatly benefit research.
4. Do you have advice for other students preparing for a 3MT event?
- Enjoy it! It’s not an easy task and there will be nerves but really enjoy the moment, be confident in yourself, and take pride in your research.
- Only mention the key points of your work and make the audience relate to it. Write it like a story with a beginning, middle and end, and be true to yourself and how you would like to present it.
- At the events, truly listen to everyone’s work. Soak in all the amazing research that’s being conducted by your peers. This journey wouldn’t have been as rewarding if it wasn’t for everyone I met along the way.
5. What’s next for you?
With the Asia-Pacific win, I now have the incredible opportunity to attend and present at the Falling Walls Lab/Conference in Berlin. It’s a chance to rub shoulders with the world’s brightest minds so I intend to make the most of it.
After this remarkable 3MT journey ends, it’s full steam ahead to complete my PhD with a bang. I intend to stay in the field and attain fellowships that will allow me to complete my postdoctoral training overseas. Hopefully I can then return to Australia to contribute towards the strong research environment here.
You can watch Joshua’s winning 3MT speech, “Targeting the Root of Vision Loss”, here.
Founded by the University of Queensland in 2008, 3MT events are now hosted by over 400 institutions across six continents. The 2016 Asia-Pacific 3MT was sponsored by Springer Nature.