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BYU’s 3 Minute Thesis competition ended in an unprecedented three-way tie between female researchers, all from different disciplines. Rachel Messick, Ashley Nelson and Bonnie Young-Petersen each received a $5,000 award for not only doing thesis research with real consequence and impact, but also presenting that research in an interesting fashion in three minutes or less.

3MT Winners
(l-r) Ashley Nelson (Physiology and Neuroscience), Rachel Messick (Statistics), Bonnie Young Petersen (Marriage and Family Therapy) tied for first place in BYU's 3 Minute Thesis competition.


Rachel Messick—Statistics
“Saving the Planet with Spatial Statistics”

Rachel Messick explains water consumption.

Messick is using statistics to reduce water overuse in the farming industry. Her innovative technique takes just a few measurements (at varying depths and locations) to characterize the water needs of the soil across the entire field.

With Messick’s data, farmers can give their crops the exact amount of water needed—and no more. This type of “precision irrigation” isn’t a new idea, but Messick’s method of gathering data is cheaper and easier. That’s huge in an industry using 80 percent of the nation’s consumable water—especially in times of severe drought.

“Drought is only one mechanism of water scarcity, and though it is a real problem, there are others that are just as concerning and more constant, like growing urban populations and decreasing ground water levels,” Messick said. “Water is always a concern to farmers, and any solution requiring less water is attractive.”


Ashley Nelson—Physiology and Neuroscience
“Alcohol Addiction: What’s Going On in the Brain?”

Ashley Nelson presents her research on alcohol addiction.

Nelson’s work focuses on how alcohol addiction affects the brain’s reward system and convinces an addict that alcohol solves problems instead of creating them. Ashley used an example of driving a car to illustrate the effect: The reward system is composed of dopamine (the gas pedal) and GABA neurons (the brakes). Drinking alcohol effectively takes out the brakes by disrupting the GABA neurons’ activity during and after consumption.

Because of this alcohol-induced imbalance in the brain, addicts continue to drink even when their drinking messes up other parts of their life. It’s difficult to convince addicts to stop drinking when dopamine and alcohol are making them feeling good. Understanding how alcohol causes these neurons to work differently is critical for the development of better treatments for real people struggling with addiction.


Bonnie Young-Petersen—Marriage and Family Therapy
“Pornography and Young Adults”

Bonnie Young-Petersen talks about the stigma of pornography.

Young-Petersen investigates pornography use among young adults to understand its prevalence and how it affects their relationships. She analyzed an international sample of two thousand men and women aged 18-30 and found that while 85 percent of people surveyed had viewed pornography, only 10 percent reported behaviors that could be considered “addictive.”

The sample also found that porn use is associated with anxiety in relationships, especially for men and religious young adults. Men were less likely to talk about pornography in relationships and consequently have relationships end because of it. Religious people were more likely to believe that porn use made them “damaged goods” and an incapable relationship partner.

Kendall Thacker won the People's Choice award.

“Fear and anxiety can lead partners to sometimes overreact when learning about porn use,” Young-Petersen said. “Often these reactions aren’t based on reality, but more about the fear that has been created in the culture surrounding the topic.”

Young-Petersen stresses that these statistics are evidence that young adults need to be talking about pornography use in a healthy way so they can reduce anxiety and create more stable relationships.

People's Choice Award: Kendall Thacker—Engineering and Business

In addition to the three-way tie for first place, College of Engineering and Technology and Marriott School student Kendall Thacker received the People's Choice award and a $1,000 prize. Thacker's thesis research aims to improve cookstoves in developing countries.


Writer: Brooke Adams