Quick thinking! PhD student Adarsh Suresh takes first place in Three Minute Thesis competition

Adarsh Suresh came to the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago in 2018 to work on alleviating global water stress. He also joined an improv team at the Revival in Hyde Park.

Both of these passions later came together in a somewhat surprising way.

In May, the graduate student competed in UChicago’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. Inspired by his students and his improv team, he compressed years of research into a compelling three-minute presentation—and took first place among 13 entrants. He won $1,000.

Adarsh Suresh at the South Side Science Festival
Adarsh Suresh talks with South Side Science Festival attendees.

The 3MT competition, which UChicagoGRAD brought to UChicago in 2018, is an ideal forum for sharing research with global impact potential because the presentations are aimed at a non-specialist audience. Students get the chance to hone their academic, presentation and research communication skills with a presentation limited to three minutes and a single slide.

Since 2021, 3MT at UChicago has been a collaboration between UChicagoGRAD and Alumni Relations and Development, and the competitions have attracted a broad audience of alumni, students of all disciplines, family, staff, postdocs, faculty, journalists and friends.

Suresh’s presentation was all about challenging the notions of where strength comes from.

‘Why didn’t this thing break?’

He stepped into inspiration in the lab.

“I was working in a lab that makes polymers and electrodes for water purification. One day, purely serendipitously, I stepped on my electrode, and realized that it was actually quite strong because it didn't break, even though it’s a very porous, fragile model. And then I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute! Why didn't this thing break?’ I stepped on it again, and it still didn't break. I’m thinking, ‘This is super interesting.’”

Suresh found himself questioning a universal law of materials that metals are strong and dense and foams are light and weak. Looking to natural materials, he observed the combination of strength and lightness all around: bone, wood, bamboo and honeycomb are remarkably light for how strong they are, and vice versa.

He became interested in the challenging the trade-offs of materials, determined to develop a material with an intricate architecture of differently sized pores. “It doesn’t sound like lighter and stronger go together, but I say that it’s possible because nature has been doing it.”

Well before stepping on the electrode, Suresh pitched his interest in engineering a scalable material designed for water purification to two labs in PME. Stuart Rowan, the Barry L. MacLean Professor of Molecular Engineering, had a material that was very porous but did not have water purification capabilities, and Chong Liu, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering, is an expert in selective extraction of ions from water.

They agreed and Suresh got to work, recruiting undergraduates and high schoolers to assist him. The research led to his first first-author publication, “Macroscale Fabrication of Lightweight and Strong Porous Carbon Foams through Template-Coating Pair Design.” Suresh and his team are continuing to work on expanding the capabilities of low-density, high-strength carbon.

“Think bricks that can be used as construction materials that simultaneously absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. The pipe dream here is to disrupt the construction industry by replacing traditional construction materials (cement, bricks, etc.) with lighter, stronger, and more sustainable, CO2 sequestering bricks.”

Leading junior science cafes

Suresh is passionate about communication and for translating skills—especially from the improv stage to the classroom. As one of PME’s Science Communication Fellows, Suresh leads junior science cafes for high school students.

In one of Suresh’s favorite junior science cafe activities, he asks high school students to attempt to support a tower of books using only Post-it notes. He has seen all kinds of approaches and always responds with the “Yes, and …” mindset of improv theater.

“Instead of trying to replace someone’s understanding or say no, I try to assist their schema, and help them understand how the world works by giving them the scientific tool to understand how the world works, rather than telling them how the world works.”

Eventually, he shares his approach with them. He rolls the Post-it notes into individual pillars, 15 of which can hold up a textbook and then some. Students are astonished. Suresh invites them to add another book and then another and a water bottle, until they are marveling at this unlikely tower.

The activity once prompted a student to ask, “Where does strength come from?”

Suresh thought it was a brilliant question. It helped shape his presentation for 3MT, which he titled “Light and Strong?”

Improv techniques inform Suresh’s pedagogy and research presentation skills and have much in common with the instincts of scientific observation and the openness to expect the unexpected. His improv experience also helped Suresh think about how he could most effectively engage his 3MT audience.

As with stepping on the electrode, there was some serendipity to the 3MT preparation. “I didn't put in as much time into memorizing my speech as I should have, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I was able to improvise.”

Suresh found he knew the shape of the presentation because talking about it beforehand effectively shaped it into a three-minute talk. Though nervous about the strict cutoff, he was able to react in the moment, gauging how the audience was feeling about what he was saying.

“Improvisers are experts at telling complex stories with limited amounts of information about their audience, right? They don't know much about their audience, but they're constantly trying to engage them.”

Knowing he would have a broad, non-specialist audience, Suresh incorporated many relatable concepts, including examples from nature and the construction of the Eiffel Tower to create common ground. 3MT competitions take place regionally, nationally and internationally. Suresh is considering entering a regional competition.

He also wants to continue his work at research universities. Looking ahead, he wants to be part of education reform in India, where he’s from. He hopes to facilitate activities where students learn by deconstructing something—for example, a weight scale.

“We take it for granted; we just stand on it. But with students, I break it apart and then put it back together, and we ask, ‘Does it still work in the same way? Make all the mistakes you want as you deconstruct, then reconstruct it and see what happens.’”

—Article originally appeared on the UChicago News website.