By Joe Garvey

Austin Tapp, a Ph.D. candidate in engineering/biomedical engineering, won Old Dominion University's fourth annual 3-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition on Feb. 11.

Tapp, who was one of five competitors representing four academic colleges during the virtual event, claimed a $1,000 prize and will represent ODU at a regional competition hosted by the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools later this month.

The 3MT is an academic competition that challenges graduate students to describe their research within three minutes in a way that a general audience would understand and appreciate its importance and achievement. More than 400 viewers watched the event.

"In just a few years this event, along with other recently launched graduate-focused initiatives, has made a significant impact in our community," ODU President John R. Broderick said. "The University has more than 4,500 active graduate students in more than 100 graduate degree certificate and licensure programs. Graduate students are vital to our research, and yes, our outreach missions."

Tapp's winning topic was "More than a Bone to Pick: Letting the CAT Scan out of the Bag." His faculty mentor is Michel Audette.

His research focused on improving treatment for severe cases of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (an irregular curvature of the spine), which currently requires extensive posterior spinal fusion surgery and a minimum recovery time of six months

"My dissertation seeks to enhance surgical planning, using groundbreaking modeling techniques," he said. "It will make operations, like posterior spinal fusion, more precise and less invasive, improving outcomes and reducing patient recovery times."

To accomplish this, he starts with a specific image for each patient, such as a CAT scan. Next, he uses artificial intelligence and computer algorithms to produce a highly detailed, 3-D version of the patient.

"This imagery construction technique is revolutionary because it allows us to see anatomy that is invisible in current medical imaging," he said. "Ligaments, disks and other soft tissues of the spine are now easily visualized in the patient's model. Surgeons can use this model to plan for operations like never before. The knowledge of the now-visible soft tissues allows surgeons to determine ideal strategies for scoliosis correction. In the case of the posterior spinal fusion approach, this means fewer screws, smaller incisions and better results."

Joedian Morris, a Ph.D. chemistry candidate, took the $750 second prize and $500 People's Choice Award, which was voted on by the audience, for "Gels: The Solution for Water Pollution." Her faculty mentor is Guijun Wang.

Her research is focused sugar-based materials that form gels similar to Jell-O. She said these gels were able to trap a specific dye and remain stable for a long time, showing their "robust ability and mechanical properties, which are much like Jell-O."

"So, are gels the solution to water pollution?" she said. "Well, the results from my research have demonstrated that these gels have the ability to assist in cleaning up the environment from pollutants that come from the textile and other industries."

She added that "sugar-based materials afford many advantages because they are inexpensive, biodegradable and can be made from renewable resources."

The other competitors were:

  • Lenzie Ward, M.S., ocean and earth sciences, "Pieces of the Puzzle: Using Fossils to Reconstruct Climate History," faculty mentor - Matthew Schmidt.
  • Cathryn Janka, M.A., humanities, "Baked with Love: Creating and Preserving Ethnic Identity through Koláče and Other Baked Goods," faculty mentor - Elizabeth Zanoni.
  • Natalie Cruz, Ph.D., education - higher education, "Stronger Together: The Impact of International Students in the United States," faculty mentor - Chris Glass.

Judges for the competition were:

  • Johnny Garcia, founder and CEO of SimIS Inc., SimIS Holdings LLC, and owner of several other businesses. He is CEO/President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, chair of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, chair of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, chair of the ODU Batten College of Engineering and Technology Executive Advisory Board, and chair of the ODU VMASC Industry Association. He received a Ph.D. in modeling and simulation from ODU in 2007.
  • Jim Harvey, a partner in Vandeventer Black with experience in construction, government contracts, land use, permitting, property damage, business and corporate disputes. He is the former chair of the Norfolk Board of Zoning Appeals, past president of the Norfolk & Portsmouth Bar Association, and past chair of the Virginia Bar Association's Construction and Public Contracts Section.
  • Cheryl White, a Hampton Roads native and executive director of the Elizabeth River Trail Foundation. She graduated from ODU with a B.A. in art history in 2003 and a M.A. in humanities in 2006. Her master's thesis included the successful nomination of the Norfolk Botanical Garden to the National Register of Historic Places.

Barbara Hamm Lee emceed the event for the third time. She is the executive producer and host of Another View, a weekly talk show that examines today's issues from an African American perspective and airs every Thursday at noon on 89.5 WHRV- FM. She is also the owner of Sharing Info, LLC, a media/communications consulting company in Norfolk.

To view a recording of the competition, go to this link.

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