The stakes were high Saturday morning when eight University of North Texas Toulouse Graduate School students showed off their prowess and contended for cash in a battle of academia.
But by noon, materials science and engineering graduate student Xiaonan Lu was crowned as victor in UNT's Three Minute Thesis contest, winning $3,000 and advancement to the regional round of the competition.
Lu, an international student from China, will take on about 200 other Southern regional division finalists in February at the University of Arkansas.
The contest originated in 2008 at the University of Queensland in Australia, where competing researchers were given three minutes each to identify a problem in their area of study and then identify possible outcomes or solutions through their work.
Winners are awarded cash prizes to continue their research and studies. UNT is now one of more than 350 universities worldwide that participate in the competition.
UNT's runner-up, biological sciences graduate student Amith Reddy, received $2,000; and the people’s choice winner, counseling psychology graduate student Nick Ross, received $1,000.
Contestants were measured on the weight and complexity of their work, possible real-world implications, and oratory engagement with the audience.
“The projects must have closure,” Barbara Gill said during a commentary segment with the four judges after the competition. “They must have ‘What is the next step?’”
Lu apparently had what the judges were looking for.
“Nuclear waste poses a serious threat to all forms of life in the environment,” Lu said during her presentation, engaging the audience. Her project, titled "Composition and Structure Study of Nuclear Waste Glasses With Experiments and Computer Simulation," offered perspective on an intricate glass-making, environmental opportunity.
She detailed her studies on vitrification with nuclear waste — turning a substance like radioactive waste into glass.
With a joke, she captured audience members' attention, ensuring them that she doesn’t just keep a stockpile of nuclear waste on the UNT campus.
“So now the question is, ‘Am I in contact with radioactive nuclear waste on the UNT campus?'” she said. “The answer is no, everybody relax.”
The crowd laughed.
She detailed her work on nuclear waste glass, and spoke of the possibilities of major environmental change, quoting late-night television show host John Oliver saying he is afraid of the environmental impacts of storing of an estimated 71,000 tons of nuclear waste on U.S. soil.
By the end of the competition, and after a short reception with crackers, dips and cheeses, Lu was awarded an oversized check and a leg up into the research competition.
“I found glasses [to be] really very interesting, and so then ever since, I started working on my project,” Lu said after the competition.
She said she was given the opportunity by her professor to work and study at a national research lab. She spent six weeks at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington, and in 2013 began her research work.
Her professor, Jincheng Du, of the College of Engineering materials science and engineering department, stood by her side to congratulate her on her studies and her accomplishments.
“She’s doing a great job on her research and I’m glad she participated in this competition,” Du said. “I think in many ways this will be helpful for her career.”
Lu said she’s nervous about competing in the next round, but is excited to see where it will take her.
As for the future of her career and her research, she hopes to continue her current research and become a professional researcher, employed at a national lab, like the one from her previous experience.
“Right now I want to study different compositions of the glass and how it works, more focused on the basic science and how the glass corrodes and how it behaves in the environment and all,” Lu said. “And maybe it can improve waste glass performance.”