Three Minute Thesis: could you explain years of research in the time it takes to boil an egg?

Monday, April 20, 2015
Stephen McCarthy
Stephen McCarthy

By Rory McKeown

Since March 2014, Ebola has killed a reported 10, 704 people  – but what if existing medicines could stop it in its tracks?

The final round of the third annual Three Minute Thesis competition at the University of Toronto showcased the work of fifteen PhD candidates and the winner: Stephen McCarthy of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP) for his talk, “Towards an Ebola cure.”

McCarthy will now defend the university's title at the Three Minute Thesis provincial finals on April 23 at Western University.

The competition, originally developed by the University of Queensland, asks doctoral candidates nearing completion of their thesis to explain their research in less than three minutes, with no more than a single PowerPoint slide for a visual aid. Speak for even one second more? Pick up a prop? You’re disqualified on the spot.

If you think that’s hard, you’re right. Last year, McCarthy didn’t make it to the finals.

“Having done a run at the competition last year was the best preparation,” said McCarthy. “It was really good to do it a year prior to defending, and learn from all the other great presentations from more senior students.”

McCarthy’s research has evolved over the course of his degree, in response to the epidemic in Western Africa. Initially focusing on HIV research, he was struck by the scale of the current outbreak, and came up with a new project: noting the similarity between the HIV virus and Ebola, he hypothesized that anti-retroviral drugs currently in use to fight HIV/AIDS might also block replication of Ebola. Using virus-like particles – specially altered to be safe for laboratory use – he then tested anti-retrovirals for their efficacy alone and in combination. A cocktail of the drugs dramatically reduced the virus’s ability to replicate itself.

The competition gives McCarthy the chance share his research with a broad audience. “One of the Board of Directors from Doctors Without Borders Canada was at the most recent competition and he came to speak with me afterward,” he said. “I’m hoping that this type of networking and exposure will move the Ebola project along.”

McCarthy sees the competition as a chance not just to share research results, but also to drive future research.

“It was really incredible to see all the presentations from across the University of Toronto, a snapshot of the fascinating research that’s being done here, and made me proud to be a part of this research community,” he said. “Regardless of how far I got in the 3MT competition, it motivated me when I went back to the lab to do more experiments for my research project.”

LMP is proud of McCarthy’s achievements and wishes him luck on April 23. “LMP is delighted with Stephen's success thus far in the 3MT competition,” said LMP Professor and Chair Richard Hegele. “He exemplifies the intelligence, drive, passion and commitment to making a difference for which our Department's graduate students are renowned.” 

Watch online as McCarthy competes against 20 other contestants to win the University of Toronto’s third provincial title in the Three Minute Thesis contest (Thursday, April 23, at 3:00 p.m.).