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Three Minute Thesis Finalists

Three Minute Thesis logo

Could you present an 80,000-word thesis or dissertation to a general audience in three minutes with only one presentation slide? In the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, that's exactly what graduate students are asked to do. The Graduate School is hosting Penn State's 3MT competition, and the final round will feature eleven Ph.D. students from nine graduate programs. 

Join the event online or in person on Saturday, March 23, and watch the students present their research and compete for prizes—then vote for your favorite in the People's Choice award, sponsored by the Graduate and Professional Student Association. Prizes include $1,000 for first place; $500 for second place; and $500 for People's Choice. 3MT is an academic research communication competition developed by the University of Queensland, Australia.  

Event Details

Saturday, March 23, 2024
10:00 -11:15 a.m.
The Penn Stater Hotel & Conference Center
Online via livestream 

Watch the Final Round


Deepit Bhatia Deepit Bhatia
Doctoral student in Biology, Eberly College of Science
“What do we need to know to eliminate infectious diseases?” 

Deepit Bhatia is a doctoral candidate in his fourth year at Penn State. He uses models and observed data to study how to plan for eliminating communicable, vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, especially in settings where sustained control efforts exist, and few cases are observed.   

Before coming to Penn State, Deepit worked as an infectious disease epidemiologist in Toronto, focusing on preventing and managing COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care homes. Before that, he worked at BlueDot Inc., working to help government and industry stakeholders better understand infectious disease risk. Deepit received a bachelor’s degree at McGill University in the School of the Environment, and his master of public health degree in Epidemiology at the University of Toronto. 

After graduating, Deepit aims to work in public health, and hopes to continue to bridge the gap between theoretical and applied public health, to ensure a safer and healthier world for all, and particularly for the most vulnerable.   

Auja Bywater Auja Bywater
Doctoral student in Food Science and Technology, College of Agricultural Sciences
“Improving Food Safety: Exploring Bacterial Diversity in Hydroponic Farming” 

Auja Bywater is a doctoral student in the Department of Food Science. She received a bachelor’s degree in Public Health from Brigham Young University in Idaho, specializing in epidemiology. Her interest in public health and infectious diseases led her to Virginia Tech where she honed her expertise in microbiology and food science. During her studies, she characterized foodborne pathogens collected from the Chobe Region of Botswana.  

Auja’s current research is focused on controlled environmental agriculture (CEA), where she studies the microbiological aspects to ensure the safety of food products. She strives to better understand the complex microbial communities in various CEA systems. Her goal is that her research will allow fresh food to be more accessible year-round to all populations, increasing global food security.  

Auja is also pursuing a dual-title degree in International Agriculture and Development. She has always found joy and inspiration in diverse cultures and aims to have an international component in her career. This summer she will be traveling to the Galápagos Islands to work with local hydroponic farmers. She is also part of a water-energy-food nexus cohort that is focused on using research to improve sustainability, resource management, economic development, and climate resilience. Auja is grateful to be studying at Penn State and is looking forward to her future endeavors.  

Jorge Diaz-Gutierrez Jorge Diaz-Gutierrez
Doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering
“Evaluating the Impacts of Variable Message Signs on Airport Curbside Performance Using Microsimulation”

Jorge Diaz-Gutierrez is a transportation engineer researching how people and goods move within the cities, known as urban transit. He has experience working and researching transit demand and design, urban mobility, land use, traffic impact studies, curbside management, and freight. His research skills include statistical models and analysis, data mining, geography information systems, spatial analysis, static and dynamic modeling, and programming (R, Python, and Stata). He also enjoys going to the gym, gaming, and anime during his free time.  

Paul DiStefano Paul DiStefano
Doctoral student in Cognitive Psychology, College of the Liberal Arts
“Is a Hotdog a Sandwich?: Measuring Overinclusive Thinking and Creativity” 

Paul DiStefano is a second-year student pursuing a dual-title doctoral degree in Cognitive Psychology and Language Science. He works in the Cognitive Neuroscience for Creativity Laboratory with Dr. Roger Beaty. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Integrative Neuroscience from Binghamton University and a master’s degree in Psychology from Penn State. His research is centered on understanding how humans represent and use information to be creative, employing behavioral, neuroimaging, and computational methods. He also focuses on the study of individual differences in cognition and creativity, as well as automated creativity assessments using large language models. His long-term goal is to bridge the gap between cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence to develop new ways to assess and enhance creative thinking. 

Abigail Gancz Abigail Gancz
Doctoral student in Anthropology, College of the Liberal Arts,
“Ancient Oral Microbiome Insights into Health & Disease” 

Abby Gancz is a graduate student in Anthropology working with Dr. Laura Weyrich. She received a bachelor’s degree in Public Health and Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019. Her research focuses on the applications of ancient oral microbiomes to paleoepidemiological research. Her current research focuses on the intersections of systemic disease, frailty, and microbes in ancient populations. 

Kalei Kowalchik Kaléi Kowalchik
Doctoral student in Nursing, Nese College of Nursing
’It takes a special person’: Exploring Undergraduate Nursing Students' Emotional Needs while Providing End-of-Life Care” 

Kaléi H. Kowalchik, BSN, RN is a fourth year BSN-PhD Candidate in the Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing. She graduated from Penn State with a bachelor of science in Nursing and a minor in Human Development and Family Studies in May 2020. During her doctoral program, she received certificates in nursing education and primary palliative care. Throughout her program, Kaléi has worked clinically as a registered nurse in home health, home hospice, and inpatient hospice settings. During her program, she has served as DSO vice president and has led the Ph.D. Peer Mentorship Program.  

Kaléi’s research interests are around improving students’ end-of-life care knowledge, attitudes, and experiences across undergraduate programs. She is also passionate about improving community members’ accessibility and knowledge of hospice care and its resources in the United States. During her time as an undergraduate and graduate student, she has received several internal and external grants to fund her research projects. Upon graduating, Kaléi aspires to obtain a job in higher education as a teaching professor to make a difference in students’ education experiences in end-of-life care. She also hopes to mentor undergraduate nursing students who are passionate about nursing research and end-of-life care to improve the current state of the science and the future of the nursing profession. 

Makenna Lenover Makenna Lenover
Doctoral student in Anthropology, College of the Liberal Arts,
“Irritable Bowel Syndrome: An Evolutionary Medicine Approach” 

Makenna Lenover is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology and also holds an MPH from the Penn State College of Medicine. While she loves studying human culture, she is passionate about applying public health intervention methods to better people’s health and wellness.

As a longtime sufferer of irritable bowel syndrome herself, she took her frustrations with the lack of treatment and used this energy to form her dissertation. She is studying how lifestyle, behavior, and cultural environments contribute to chronic disease, investigated via quantitative and qualitative survey design methods. In addition to presenting her work in traditional ways, like publications and conference presentations, she also is a board member of PA Eats to promote healthy eating and nutrition in the commonwealth.

Outside of working on her degree, Makenna loves to bake, cook with her husband, and search for antique and vintage treasures at the thrift shop.


Shabnam Rahimnezhad Shabnam Rahimnezhad
Doctoral student in Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering,
“NMES for Achilles Tendon Rupture (ATR)” 

Shabnam Rahimnezhad is pursuing a doctoral degree in the Department of Mechanical Engineering under the guidance of Dr. Daniel Cortes. Her research focuses on biomedical projects, particularly in the areas of rehabilitation and imaging. 

She enjoys working in Dr. Cortes' lab due to the supportive and welcoming environment, and the feeling that she can be accepted as herself. She particularly enjoys the opportunity to interact with patients. 

Prior to her doctoral studies, she obtained both bachelor's and master's degrees from the Iran School of Automotive Engineering. Her interest in understanding injury mechanisms led her to delve deeper into biomechanics, prompting her to pursue a second master's degree in Biomedical Engineering from Wayne State University. Following her academic pursuits, she gained experience through a year-long stint at Henry Ford Hospital and Xenith football helmet. 

She decided to advance her education by pursuing a doctoral degree. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she found herself at Penn State, where she earned her third master's degree in Mechanical Engineering. Despite the challenging circumstances, she remained committed to her studies. 

Outside of academia, she has a background as a professional athlete, having competed as a 400-meter sprinter in Iran. Although no longer competing at a professional level, she enjoys engaging in casual sports. She also has a passion for baking and takes pride in making delicious cakes. 

Aditya Sapre Aditya Sapre
Doctoral student in Chemical Engineering, College of Engineering,
“High Throughput and Cost-Effective Ways of Protein Identification” 

Aditya Sapre is a chemical engineering graduate student who is part of Dr. Ayusman Sen’s research team. His research focuses include microfluidics, enzyme chemotaxis, soft lithography, protein identification and separation, and similar topics. He completed a bachelor’s degree from Vellore Institute of Technology in India, and a master’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering from North Carolina State University before attending Penn State. He spent eighteen months working for India’s National Chemical Laboratory as a research assistant followed by a senior project assistant. His career aspiration is to join the pharmaceutical industry for drug discovery and development as a research scientist. 

Tahiya Tarannum Tahiya Tarannum
Doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering,
“Leveraging duckweed as a fertilizer” 

Tahiya Tarannum was born and raised in Bangladesh. After graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, she embarked on her journey in the water industry, dedicating three years to enhancing water management systems and infrastructure. She always wanted to pursue higher studies and broaden her horizons, so she moved to the United States in 2019, and earned her master's degree from the University of Kentucky.  

Throughout her academic and professional journey, Tahiya has delved into a diverse array of research projects, exploring environmental and water resources engineering. She gained experience in geospatial analysis and water distribution system modeling as an undergraduate and for her master’s thesis. She was excited to join Penn State for her doctoral degree because she found an opportunity to design and carry out her own experiments in the laboratory.  

Tahiya’s research is centered on evaluating the environmental impact of nature-based solutions to reduce nutrient loading. By mimicking natural processes within soil columns in her experiments, she aims to assess nutrient losses and identify strategies to enhance sustainability. She aspires to a career in environmental engineering where she can witness tangible improvements in the ecosystem. She is open to both industry and research positions and is eager to contribute her skills and expertise to meaningful projects that shape a more sustainable future.  

Yue Yan Yue Yan
Doctoral student in Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering,
“NEW Personalized Immunotherapy for Bladder Cancer: Microbial Product Cocktails (MPC)” 

As a Penn Stater who completed a bachelor’s degree and is nearing the end of her doctoral program, Yue Yan says she has been deply immersed in a culture that celebrates innovation, fosters collaboration, and cultivates resilience. Her journey began in the Systematic Biology Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering working under the mentorship of Dr. Pak Kin Wong. There, she discovered a passion for cancer research, igniting a fire to pursue a deeper understanding of this field through a doctoral program. 

Under the continued guidance of Wong, her doctoral research has been dedicated to pioneering a novel approach to bladder cancer treatment using microbial product cocktails. Their development of the AI-guided drug screening microfluidic iCARE platform and nanotechnologies could revolutionize the identification of effective treatments tailored to individual patients. This innovative work not only represents a significant advancement in cancer treatment but also lays the groundwork for a new era in personalized medicine.  

Upon graduation, Yan will join Dr. Song Li’s lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, as a postdoctoral researcher. She hopes to continue her passion for advancing cancer therapy, collaborating with experts at the forefront of the field. She is driven by the hope of leading advancements in this field, leveraging the foundation laid during her years at Penn State to impact future generations, contribute to the fight against cancer, and facilitate access to necessary medical care for individuals globally. 


The in-person judges that will be judging these finalists include:  

  • Bimal Balakrishnan, professor and associate dean for research, College of Arts and Architecture, Mississippi State University, and Penn State alumnus 
  • Kathy Drager, associate dean for research and graduate education, College of Health and Human Development, and professor of communication sciences and disorders  
  • Esther Obonyo, associate professor of architectural engineering and director of Penn State’s Global Building Network  
  • Priyanka Paul, doctoral student in Human Development and Family Studies 
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