3MT winner tackles new phage in anti-microbial war 

Courtney Davies delivering her winning presentation at the Masters Inter-University Challenge (photo/Victoria University)

A good virus, also known as bacteriophages, is good news for health – and a winning topic for an academic X Factor-style competition.

Communicating her research on phage as an alternative treatment in an anti-biotic resistant future has seen Courtney Davies take the national title in the Masters Inter-University Challenge for the Three-Minute Thesis competition. She is the third Massey University student in a row to win the 3MT Masters contest since its’ inception in 2015.

Ms Davies, a student in the College of Sciences’ Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at the Auckland campus, outperformed seven other finalists from each of New Zealand’s universities to take out the title for her ‘elevator pitch’ presentation; Are phage the future? at the national 3MT masters finals at Victoria University last week. She won Massey’s Albany campus heats in July and the Massey University finals in August.

She won $1000 and a $300 JB Hi-Fi voucher, on top of the $1000 prize for in the Massey finals.

The concept of 3MT – a global event for PhD students, with a Masters-level competition held nationally for the past three years – is to communicate a thesis topic to a non-specialist audience in a compelling, clear way in three minutes, using one slide as a prop. Judges assess presentation skills, taking note of a competitor’s ability to catch the audience’s attention, tell a good story, explain complex information and ideas succinctly, and convey passion and excitement for the project.

Ms Davies says her passion and motivation for studying phage is because; “they offer the best hope to combat anti-microbial resistance, which is predicted to kill more people than cancer by 2050.”

Phage are, she explains, viruses that infect bacteria and “unlike antibiotics with a large host range, phage have specific hosts so they're a great alternative.”

Her research, under the supervision of Dr Heather Hendrickson, challenges the idea that viruses are bad for us. Other captivating phage facts include: “there are more phage on planet Earth than there are stars in the observable universe,” she says.

Courtney Davies with her prize at the Massey 3MT Masters finals 

Multidisciplinary research has appeal

Ms Davies, who gained a Bachelor of Natural Sciences at Massey, says she enjoys science discoveries. She particularly enjoys the novel, multidisciplinary area of studying phage, which involves laboratory experiments, computer analysis and good communication skills.

She says there are different types of phage that can be commonly characterised by their types of tails (amongst other things). “Phage are very small and can only be viewed under an electron microscope. They can be around 100nm (nano metres) in size. However, we look for phage presence through ‘plaques’ which are clearings of infection on bacterial agar plates.”

Through taking part in 3MT she says her communication skills and confidence grew during her progression through the Albany heats to the finals held in Palmerston North, as she learned from observing fellow participants and from judges’ comments, refining her presentation along the way.

Ms Davies’ other academic successes include being the only non-American to attend the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science Symposium at the Janelia Research Campus in America in August last year.

She was also the first Massey student to ever attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Voices Youth Summit, which was held in Peru late last year.

Previous Massey winners of the 3MT Masters final were Hannah Young (School of Psychology) in 2015, and Siti Anurddin (Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences) in 2016.

Massey’s 2017 winner of the PhD 3MT final, Sherina Holland, will join 50 other finalists in the Asia-Pacific 3MT finals on September 29 at the University of Queensland. Her topic is on the interactions between breast cancer cells and immune cells.


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