Saturday, April 12, was the kind of early spring day when the entire population of New York City, suddenly drunk on sunshine after months of doing without, seemed to converge on Washington Square Park.
Jackets were shed, shoes kicked off. Color crept into wan cheeks. Groups of newly accepted students, violet-clad for Weekend on the Square campus tours, paraded by with parents in tow. Iced coffees were everywhere. A rhythmic gymnast in cutoff jeans and boots whipped his ribbon through the gentle breeze.
And nearby, but just out of view of the vernal revelers camped out on park benches, a group of scholars found their way indoors to Kimmel’s Eisner and Lubin Auditorium for a different rite of passage: the final round of the GSAS Threesis Academic Challenge, a competition in which masters students faced off to see who was best at condensing reams of specialty research into a smallish chunk of plain English.
The annual Threesis, now in its fourth year at NYU, challenges students to organize ideas and speak persuasively under pressure. To enter, you must be a master’s candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, and willing to squeeze your beloved thesis or final project into a three-minute speech. This year, 164 students applied, but only 56 were ultimately selected to compete in a whirlwind semifinal on Friday.
By Saturday just a dozen finalists remained: One champion would win the $1,000 prize and a wildcard slot for a similar contest in Berlin this summer, while a runner-up and an audience favorite would each take home $750.
At last, Suzanne Collado, assistant director of the GSAS Master’s College and the show’s genial emcee, took the stage to explain the rules: Competitors were to be evaluated on their academic expertise, skill in using accessible, jargon-free language, and pizzazz as public speakers. After each strictly timed presentation, three GSAS faculty judges—Dean for Science Michael Perugganan, Dean for Social Science Michael Laver, and Dean for Humanities Joy Connolly—would have an opportunity to ask the presenter one question each. And after all the speeches had been heard, each spectator would be invited to cast a vote by depositing a ballot into one of 12 boxes at the back of the room.
The 12 students, jittery but well-groomed in suits and dresses, emerged from the wings to take seats in rows on either side of the stage. Then the judges marched out to sit at a table facing them, American Idol-style—and we were off.
As the second hand ticked, Allison Collins drew a parallel between changing ideas about love and partnership in Elizabethan England and the institution of marriage in our own time. Grace Pan revealed that many Village hookah bars frequented by NYU students were subjecting their clientele to the harmful effects of not just nicotine, but coal smoke as well. Shashank Gandhi expressed excitement over his ability to alter the DNA of a sea squirt and disappointment over the “model” organism’s lack of resemblance to Heidi Klum. Emma Mishel outlined a clever method for measuring discrimination against lesbians in the workforce. And Tom Sercu, who’s using movies to teach computers how to see, acknowledged that to machine eyes, an alligator might more closely resemble a green car than an elephant.
But the day belonged to Zhiyang Yu, whose analysis of stock market trends bore a winking resemblance to a get-rich-quick pitch, and to Sarah M. Harris, who used German writer E.T.A. Hoffman’s story about a guy who falls in love with an automaton as a starting point for a spirited discussion about why robots are creepy. Yu took the $750 second-place prize, while Harris won both the judges’ approval and the audience vote—for a total of $1750, plus the opportunity to compete in Berlin (handy since she’s studying German).
Both victors made themselves available to accept congratulations at a postgame wine and cheese reception next door. And afterward, there was still time to walk west to the High Line to catch the sunset on the Hudson.