Sydney student named runner-up in Trans-Tasman 3 Minute Thesis

5 October 2011

(L-R) Matthew Thompson, UWA Dean of Graduate Research School Alan Dench, Suzie Ferrie and Jack Rivers.
(L-R) Matthew Thompson, UWA Dean of Graduate Research School Alan Dench, Suzie Ferrie and Jack Rivers.

The University of Sydney's Suzie Ferrie has been named runner-up in the Trans-Tasman Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, overcoming 41 other students from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji to take home the $2000 prize.

In just 180 seconds, Suzie managed to convince the non-specialist audience and judges at the University of Western Australia of the importance of her research on nutrition for intensive care patients.

Matthew Thompson from the University of Queensland won first prize for his presentation on the misidentification of crime-scene fingerprints, while Jack Rivers from the University of Otago took out the people's choice award for his presentation on the future of medicinal marijuana.

"I was so excited to have won runner-up and to have taken part in the final," says Suzie.

"It was really interesting to hear the huge variety of topics that everyone had been working on. A lot of the research is really important, but because it's at mid-research PhD phase it's not yet out in the public eye. I felt really lucky to be there and hear about the research," she says.

Competitors in 3MT are challenged to give a three-minute rundown of their research projects. Other topics in the final included how travelling abroad affects women's thinking, how Australian lamb meat could become a good source of beneficial omega-3 fats, and the benefits of talking to yourself and how these can be taught to autistic children.

"The atmosphere at the finals was really great. Everyone was cheering each other on and giving positive feedback when other competitors finished their presentations.

"I didn't expect people to be nasty or overly competitive, but I was quite touched about how enthusiastic everyone was about each other's research. That was the thing I took away from the competition," Suzie says.

As a dietitian in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Suzie was concerned about whether the right amount of nutrition formula was being given to patients and the inability of hospitals to accurately assess patients' nutritional progress. It was this gap in information that inspired her to take up her research project at the University of Sydney.

"I rang all 182 ICUs in Australia and New Zealand to ask how they know they're feeding patients the right amount, and found that nobody actually knows for sure. Worldwide, the best practice is to make an estimate and wait until a problem arises before making any changes."

With patients' vital statistics monitored so closely in the ICU, nutrition can tend to come as a bit of an afterthought, Suzie says. However, if patients are not given enough nutrition, their wounds don't heal and they are more likely to pick up infections. If they are given too much they may have difficulty breathing.

By using data from biochemical tests that are commonly available and already routinely performed in hospitals, Suzie is developing a way of accurately measuring patients' response to nutrition. Because the data being used is from tests that already take place, her method can be used even in small hospitals.

Winning the $2000 prize will be extremely valuable for Suzie's research, which is currently unfunded. The money will be particularly useful in covering the costs of lab testing, which can reach about $30 for each of the 200 patients tested.

Suzie hopes to have developed a usable tool by 2012, when she will begin conducting controlled trials.

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