MD/PhD student Amritha Yellamilli represented the UMN Medical School this year at the 3-Minute Thesis competition, where she took second place honors from a panel of judges and was also selected as the People’s Choice winner from those in attendance. The idea: condense your thesis into a 3-minute presentation that can be understood by anyone, using only a single, static slide to illustrate your points.

Yellamilli studies cardiac regeneration – the heart’s natural ability to heal itself – in the von Berlo Lab at the Lillehei Heart Institute. Specifically, the team there is seeking to understand exactly which cells are responsible for the process. The 3-Minute Thesis competition, Yellamilli says, is a great opportunity to see the big picture of her work.

“As a scientist, you get so caught up in the little details,” says Yellamilli. “This forced me to take a step back and ask, ‘Why am I doing this? What is the impact I am hoping my research will have?’ ”

For Yellamilli, it’s all about improving heart health. “If we can increase the heart’s natural ability to generate new cells, we can replace the cells that are dying,” she says.

First, the team needs to figure out which cells are responsible for healing. Often, Yellamilli says, stem cells are removed from the heart and studied in cell culture. That is interesting, she says, but her team wants to know what actually happens in the heart – not in a culture.

When thinking of how to communicate the importance of studying the cells in their natural environment, Yellamilli’s imagination turns to nature. Tigers in a circus, she says, behave differently than those in the wild. “If you assumed all tigers behaved that way, you’d be in a lot of trouble. Cells behave a certain way in cell culture, but does that really mean that’s how they behave in the heart?”

The exercise of finding new ways to describe her work, she says, is helpful not only in learning to talk about her work but in exploring new perspectives.

“When you open it up to the public and get everyone thinking about it, you get a lot of interesting perspectives and questions that force you to think about it in a different way.”