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Doctoral student Katy Switzer makes a point during her Three Minute Thesis presentationDoctoral student Katy Switzer took top honours in UWindsor’s Three Minute Thesis competition Monday.

Toad talk leapfrogs student to victory in Three Minute Thesis competition

After conquering giant tarantulas attacking her atop a New York skyscraper, delivering a winning lecture to a room full of people was a cakewalk this week for doctoral student Katy Switzer.

Switzer, a biological sciences student supervised by Dan Mennill and Stéphanie Doucet, took first place in UWindsor’s Three Minute Thesis competition Monday with her presentation “Don't call me mellow yellow: stress and colour in a tropical toad.”

She practised for the competition by donning a virtual-reality headset that simulated her standing on a plank dozens of storeys in the air while six-foot-tall spiders attacked her.

The simulations were her boyfriend’s idea, Switzer said.

“I’m not a good public speaker — I get anxiety.”

She said her boyfriend theorized correctly that if Switzer could deliver her speech while conquering her fear of heights, she would shine in the real competition. The giant spiders crawling toward her in the simulation he threw in for good measure.

Switzer researches how male toads in Costa Rica turn from a brownish-black to a bright lemon yellow for a single day during breeding season. She has taken blood and colour samples from specimens and run experiments that show the toads undergo the dramatic transformation when in the company of other toads — male or female — but the colour fades when they are kept in isolation.

It is the second year running that a student in Dr. Mennill’s lab has won the competition. Last year, biological sciences student Ian Thomas won for his talk on how the chirping of the savannah sparrow may help researchers understand the development of human language.

Second prize this year went to biological sciences student Kiirsti Owen, whose research under Mennill involves placing wildlife recorders in regenerated forests in Costa Rica. Her research shows biodiversity is increasing as once-cleared forests grow back.

“I’m incredibly proud of Katy’s first-place win and Kiirsti’s second-place win,” said Mennill, associate dean of science, graduate studies and research.

“They are conducting research on the leading edge of the fields of behavioural ecology and conservation biology. It is so exciting to see them communicate their research with such dynamism and enthusiasm.”

Third place went to doctoral student John Freer from the Faculty of Education, who developed a 12-lesson program for Grade 4 students which his research has shown prevents discriminatory behaviour and negative attitudes toward people with disabilities.

In all, 16 students entered the contest. They included an array of disciplines — nursing, computer science, engineering, psychology, chemistry and sociology, anthropology and criminology.

Mennill said he was heartened to see the breadth of research on display.

“It was inspiring to see the diversity of research projects in the competition, across faculties and across disciplines,” he said. “By the end of the 16 presentations, it was clear that University of Windsor graduate students are outstanding researchers and communicators.”

As the UWindsor champion, Switzer won $1,000 and moves on to the provincial competition next month at McMaster University in Hamilton.

The University of Windsor has participated in Three-Minute Thesis since 2013. The competition is held at university campuses in 53 countries around the globe. It encourages students to hone skills they will need after graduation, including public speaking and using plain language to explain academic research to a non-specialist audience.

─Sarah Sacheli