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Zalman wins 3MT hours after successful dissertation defense

When Paige Zalman went to sleep on the night of Tuesday, April 2, she was still a PhD candidate. By the time she went to sleep on Wednesday, April 3, not only was she now Dr. Paige Zalman after successfully defending her thesis, but she was also the winner of WVU’s 3-Minute Thesis competition, capping a day she likely won’t forget anytime soon.

It’s not an ideal circumstance to undergo the stress of a dissertation defense and an intense competition like 3MT within hours of each other. Zalman certainly didn’t draw it up that way.

Zalman, who works full-time at Carnegie Mellon as an associate director of undergraduate research and scholar development while completing her doctorate in higher education, had optimistically marked Wednesday, April 3, on her calendar to denote the finals of the 3MT should she advance to that stage. (Spoiler: she did.) Simultaneously, she was coordinating the schedules of her thesis committee members to plan a date for her defense. The dates of availability from her committee members rolled in like a pull of a slot machine, and the date from the final committee member matched the others: April 3.

“It just kind of felt like, of course, that would be the first day my committee is available,” she says. “I would’ve eagerly defended at least two, three weeks prior, but it didn’t work out that way. I just told myself, ‘Well, I guess this is just going to be a big, fun day.’”

Her dissertation defense began at 12:30 p.m., and lasted until 2 p.m. She was able to be surrounded by friends and family, both in person and online, as she discussed her thesis and answered questions from the committee. She was soon informed she was successful in her defense and could officially be referred to as “Dr. Paige Zalman.”

At that point, the celebration was somewhat short-lived as she now looked ahead to 3MT. She and her partner, Matt Valente, headed to Stone Tower Brews for some coffee and to kill time before the 3MT dress rehearsal at 3:45 p.m. at the Mountainlair Ballroom.

After the rehearsal, Zalman and Valente headed to her favorite Morgantown restaurant, Oliverio’s, although the excitement of defending her dissertation and the nerves of the 3MT prevented her from being able to finish her meal.

Then it was back to the Mountainlair where she took the stage to discuss her thesis entitled, “The Picture of (Mental) Health: A Photovoice, Narrative Inquiry, and Critical Participatory Action Approach to Music Major Mental Wellness.” One of 10 finalists and the eighth to give her presentation, she expertly and immediately connected with the audience with references ranging from Beethoven’s alcoholism to Brittany Spears’ public mental health crisis. Zalman, a percussionist who majored in music performance at UNC Wilmington and earned a master’s degree from WVU in musicology, went on to discuss how music majors are 10 percent more likely to suffer from conditions like anxiety and depression than other majors, including notoriously high-stress majors like pre-medicine. Her research adds to the literature by highlighting the specific challenges of music students which can be used to develop unique supports that can help those students.

After the presentations, the finalists answered a few questions for the audience while the final scores were being tabulated. The second and first runners-up were announced, and then the drama for the winner heightened as it was announced that there was a tie for first place. Denis Ruto, an environmental engineering student in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, was announced first. Seconds later, Zalman was also recognized as a winner, and the two posed together for a photo with an oversized check for $1,000. Just moments after that, Zalman collected another oversized check after being named the “People’s Choice” winner following a vote of the audience.

“It was surreal to be up there,” Zalman says. “Everyone did such a great job, but Denis had an excellent performance, so I was really happy to share that with him. And then, they added that I was the ‘People’s Choice,’ and I was kind of stunned. It was overwhelming and exciting.”

Despite the angst that came along with so much activity on the one single day, Zalman never considered any other options.

“It was a lot,” she admits. “I just have a bad habit of just doing things.”

Some would argue that it’s not necessarily a bad habit to put your head down and just keep going.

“I don’t think it ever occurred for me to do this any other way,” she says. “It was a lot of practicing the three-minute thesis and a lot of practicing my defense, and a lot of trying to figure out what my committee was going to ask me.”

Of course, the defense is the necessary rite of passage for every doctoral student. The 3MT, though, was close to Zalman’s heart through her time working in the WVU Office of Undergraduate Research and program coordinator for the Research Apprenticeship Program before accepting her position at Carnegie Mellon.

“I feel really strongly about the importance of research communication, especially because there is so much misinformation out there,” she says. “I think it’s important for us who conduct research to be able to successfully convey our work to wide and diverse audiences.

“We get stuck in a bubble in academia that sometimes we fail to realize who the research is for and who could benefit from it,” she continues. “That’s why I love the three-minute thesis competition – it’s for a larger audience.”

The differences in Paige Zalman’s thoughts between the night of Tuesday, April 2, and Wednesday night, April 3, are likely wide and varied. But after a whirlwind day of action and triumph, one has to assume she slept much better.

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