U of M PhD student excels at Western Regional 3MT competition

The winner of the University of Manitoba Three-Minute Thesis competition (3MT) recently represented her university well at the Western regional competition in Calgary.

Andrea Edel, a PhD student studying the positive effects of flaxseed on lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels, was awarded the third place and people’s choice awards at the event in May.

When Edel entered the competition at the U of M, she never expected to end up at the Western finals and originally had a conference booked in Toronto during that time. Her only goals for entering were to promote the research and challenge herself.

Ultimately, however, Edel’s presentation brought her to Calgary where she competed alongside 11 other graduate students, presenting on a topic that many can relate to. As she explains in her 3MT presentation, Edel’s research relates to her personally. Both her grandparents and her mother have been affected by high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“Most people know someone who has high blood pressure and high cholesterol problems,” said Edel. “So I think it’s a paramount problem.”

She explains that her interest in chemistry began early on, when she was searching the course catalogue at the beginning of her university degree. After completing her master’s degree in chemistry, Edel’s interests shifted toward a more biological field.

Now in the midst of her PhD, she described how her two supervisors, Dr. Grant Pierce and Dr. Michel Aliani, have different backgrounds and have provided both the instrumentation and analysis side and the cardiovascular side of the research.

“Merging those two disciplines really allowed me to facilitate the project that would fit me best,” explained Edel.

In her presentation, she described a clinical trial she was involved in that showed the incredible results flaxseed could have on this “paramount problem.”

The 2008 trial involved 110 participants with peripheral arterial disease. Within the 110 individuals, 75 per cent were on blood pressure and cholesterol lowering medications. The control group began by eating 30 grams of ground flax seed in a variety of food products, while their blood pressure was monitored at three different points over six months. They ended up experiencing significant decreases in the two different types of blood pressure ­– systolic and diastolic.

“We weren’t even looking for that being an outcome at first. We were looking for outcomes in changes in heart attacks or strokes, for example. So this was a very exciting surprise.”

A desire to present this research to a wide audience was what attracted Edel to the 3MT competition. After hearing about the event in 2013, she was intrigued but did not have the time to enter.

“[The] second year came around and I thought, ‘What the heck! Let’s try this. This is totally out of my comfort zone but I really want to challenge myself to see if I could do this.’ ”

Edel admitted that the 3MT required heavy preparation. Condensing the research into three minutes while memorizing the presentation in a way that did not seem robotic  was particularly difficult, Edel explained.

“I didn’t actually anticipate how much work it would be for three minutes.”

Ensuring fluidity, appearing friendly and relaxed, and properly presenting the information proved to be challenging and the months prior to the U of M event brought about some setbacks.

Edel recalled practicing shortly before the first competition to the 2013 3MT winner and realizing that she needed to completely revise the ending.

The preparation proved successful, however, when she finished first at the U of M competition.

While she presented a nearly identical 3MT presentation, Edel described the differences between the actual events at the U of M and the Western Finals in Calgary.  While the Alberta competition was very well done as well, she praised the U of M for going above and beyond.

“U of M did an outstanding job in marketing, in promoting [ . . . ] the evening was very professional.”

Not only were the events themselves different, Edel’s personal experience varied between the two competitions.

“I was so nervous for Calgary [ . . . ] because you had the cameras on you, and you knew it was online and you knew people were going to be watching and voting [ . . . ] that was very stressful.”

Edel expressed her gratitude to all of the voters who helped her to secure the people’s choice award at the finals, which is bestowed upon the presenter who’s video presentation has the highest number of likes.

After returning to Winnipeg with the third place and people’s choice awards, Edel has experienced an increase in networking and more awareness of the effects of flaxseed.

“I think the benefit has been obviously more awareness for my supervisors, and just people coming up and talking to me and saying, ‘I really like what you’re doing.’”

Edel explained that people are approaching her and telling her that they saw her presentation and began to eat flaxseed. She admitted that it has been humbling to see her PhD research affect people’s health in this way.

While the preparation and overall experience had its obstacles, Edel emphasized the benefits of the event.

“It’s a huge challenge and out of your comfort zone but so rewarding. And it would have felt just as rewarding had I won or not won because just to get up there is something that is so different.”