Planets coming out of my ears

Rohan Byrne, geodynamics doctoral candidate at Melbourne Uni has storytelling down to a fine art. Image: Image:  Jo Condon ,  NASA/Wendy Stenzel  and  Mo Khodajouei .

Rohan Byrne, geodynamics doctoral candidate at Melbourne Uni has storytelling down to a fine art. Image: Image: Jo Condon, NASA/Wendy Stenzel and Mo Khodajouei.


How does one distill a PhD project in just three minutes for a non-specialist audience?

Rohan Byrne, geodynamics PhD candidate in the School of Earth Sciences at Melbourne Uni has it down to a fine art, winning a 3-Minute Thesis competition in June. Rohan explains his project and tips for sharing science.


Congrats, Rohan! Could you explain your project in just one minute?

One minute? Three was hard enough!

Well, at heart, the question is: why are some planets stagnant and still, while others are full of activity? 

That’s the headline, but on a day-to-day basis what I mostly do is run big computer models of very sticky fluids. It’s all made possible by Underworld, a geodynamic numerical modelling code supported by AuScope and developed by Louis Moresi and others based at UniMelb, Monash, Sydney University, ANU, and beyond.

Together we’re chipping away at some of the big questions regarding the origins and uniqueness of Earth’s life-sustaining plate tectonic processes. Along the way, I’ve developed a new suite-modelling tool I call ‘PlanetEngine’, which makes it easy (and rather fun!) to commission, aggregate, and analyse very large arrays of Underworld planet models.

Academics and students pose for a pic after the 2019 Three Minute Thesis presentation at The University of Melbourne. Back row, L-R: As Prof Andy Martin, Prof James McCaw, Prof Aleks Owczarek, Dr Graham Phillips and Dr Robyn Schofield. Front row, L-R: Dr Wing Chan, Dr Jen Martin, Runner-up Giles Adams and Rohan Byrne. Image: Rohan Byrne.

Academics and students pose for a pic after the 2019 Three Minute Thesis presentation at The University of Melbourne. Back row, L-R: As Prof Andy Martin, Prof James McCaw, Prof Aleks Owczarek, Dr Graham Phillips and Dr Robyn Schofield. Front row, L-R: Dr Wing Chan, Dr Jen Martin, Runner-up Giles Adams and Rohan Byrne. Image: Rohan Byrne.

In your Three Minute Thesis, I hear you talked about ‘planets coming out of your ears’?

That line always gets more laughs than I expect! But it’s true. The code is so easy to use now, I’ve gotten into the habit of sending off a couple of hundred models to run whenever I leave the office, just so I have something new and exciting to look at in the morning.

Sounds like fun! Can you share some top tips for science communication?

I guess the number one thing is, if it excites you, it will excite others. The sense of the thrill of discovery is what keeps the general public enthralled in what we do. And often our research is commonwealth funded — so it’s crucial that we share our research journeys with everyone!

Apart from that, it all comes down to practice, practice, practice.

If you’re feeling tongue-tied, try these tips from Melbourne Uni, they really helped me put together my talk. And keep an eye out for Pint of Science events and other things like that. Even an unwitting family member can make a good sounding board to help you hone your scientific yarn.

I hope my experience with the 3-Minute Thesis competition will encourage everyone in our AuScope family to reach outside those university walls and bend a layperson’s ear over what you do. You’ll be amazed how receptive people can really be.

And finally, can you tell us a bit more about the 3-Minute Thesis competition, how can others participate?

The Three Minute Thesis has really become a bit of a lodestone for early-career science communication around the world. Participants who do well gain a platform to promote their research and their community to the general public.

Most universities, and even individual faculties, will have their own chapter of the competition. So reach out to your local communication office and get involved!

 

 
 

INTERVIEW
By Jo Condon (AuScope) with
Rohan Byrne (Melbourne Uni).

AuScope supports the Underworld earth modelling software used in Rohan’s PhD.

MORE INFO
Rohan Byrne
0404 943 550
rohan.byrne@gmail.com or
rsbyrne@student.unimelb.edu.au
buildmeaplanet.com
@buildmeaplanet
github.com/rsbyrne/planetengine

Jo Condonscicomm