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Monday 5 August 2019 8:25pm

The 2019 3MT winners (from left) Master's category winner Jonah Balk, Doctoral category winner Cassie Stylianou and People's Choice winner Jean-Francois (Jeff) Doherty. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Robotic spiders and endometrial cancer – two very different topics, but two very happy graduate students.

Eleven master's and PhD research students spent just three minutes explaining their thesis topics to an audience of laypeople at the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Otago finals on Thursday night.

The judges of the competition were the Dean of the Graduate Research School Professor Rachel Spronken-Smith, Associate Professor of Marketing Lisa McNeill and filmmaker David Hay.

After a lively presentation PhD candidate Cassie Stylianou won the Doctoral category.

Her research in the Department of Pathology and Biomedical Science at the Christchurch campus is called Unravelling the genetic variants underlying inherited endometrial cancer risk.

In her own words this boils down to a question: “how can I harness the power of a genetic destiny to help combat cancer? Or more specifically how can I help the 380,000 women worldwide who are expected to developed endometrial cancer each and every year?”

“For women carrying this risk it's like walking around the top of a cliff blindfolded.

“The longer they remain unaware of this risk and keep walking the far more likely they are to stumble off, but if we know the genetic changes responsible we can start to map their path and work towards steering them away from that cliff-edge with prevention strategies.”

Ms Stylianou says she feels privileged to have won, especially after seeing the quality of everyone else's presentations.

The judges say despite tackling the complicated topic of genetics she was able to use imagery throughout to keep the audience engaged. Her body language and pacing were also complimented.

Ms Stylianou is going to the Asia-Pacific 3MT Finals at the University of Queensland on 4 October.

She won $750 from the Graduate Research School to go towards her research and air travel to the Brisbane competition from HelloWorld Dunedin.

The master's category winner, Jonah Belk, had an interesting challenge for the audience - imagining a world in which robotic spiders could help with disaster relief.

Mr Belk is conducting his master's research in the Department of Zoology looking at Modelling the passive dynamics of spider locomotion through robotic design.

His research involves taking a step back to fully understand animal locomotion and biomechanics in order to take a step forward in robotic design.

“I argue that we can build better bio-inspired robots that move more naturally. These robots will use far less processing power and computing power, leading to an overall lighter, more naturally moving robot.”

After winning the master's category Mr Belk said he was feeling bubbly and satisfied with his performance.

He will be competing in the New Zealand Inter-University Master's Final at 5:30pm on Thursday 22 August at Marama Hall.

He won $500 from the Graduate Research School to go towards his research and a $250 travel voucher from HelloWorld Dunedin.

The People's Choice Award went to another Zoology postgraduate, PhD candidate Jean-Francois (Jeff) Doherty after he wowed the audience with his topic: The “suicidal” cricket and the hairworm.

He won $250 from the Graduate Research School to go towards his research and a travel suitcase from HelloWorld Dunedin.

Professor Spronken-Smith says the standard of finalists for the competition improves year-on-year and as a judge it was hard to pick the winners.

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