Competing for hearts and stomachs in the name of research

6 June 2019

PhD research student Bozana Pasic says transforming her research into an egg-shaped cake complete with chocolate balls helped her rethink exactly what her thesis focuses on.

The ANU Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES) student was crowned the 2019 Bake your PhD champion after a panel of judges - including the School's Director Professor Steve Eggins, last year's champion Tharika Liyanage and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Keith Nugent -  who  taste-tested 10 cakes to decide on a champion.

The judges judged the cakes on three criteria - how the cake represents the research, the overall presentation and, most importantly (in this writers opinion), how it tastes.

Bozana's (or Boz as she's known) winning creation of chocolate balls encased in a chocolate egg represents her research around an electron microscope image of silica spheres within a black opal.

"You think you know something about your PhD and then, when you have to tell someone about it, you realise just how much you don't understand," Boz says, when asked how challenging the task was.

"So this really forced me to go back to fundamentals and get out of my hole of chemical reactions and into the basics of how I would explain what an opal looks like for someone else."

Boz says it's ironic she was crowned the champion after she and fellow contestant Robin Grun, who created a blue cake to represent his time on the CSIRO-owned ocean research ship, the RV Investigator, made a bet with each other to see who would win.

"One of the main reasons why I did this was just so he wouldn't win," she says, adding it was actually a lot harder to create than originally thought.

"A PhD topic is really broad for the most part. There are so many things you can go for. I kind of picked something that would be the most visually interesting to present because I could have done different flavours and different textures to represent the chemistry of it.  I figured that sometimes the things that are the easiest to represent are the things that are more visually appealing and easier to explain in that way.

"A lot of research came out in the last few months with my topic that I have incorporated into it, so I had to go back to the drawing board and think about how I'm going to represent the structure."

The winning cake took a year of planning to execute, including hours of research into the different ways of working with chocolate

"It feels really nice to win because at least I know the 10 hours of work that I've put into baking it and the research into which type of chocolate sets which way, how to paint chocolate and colour it, has made it all worth it."

Second place went to Rebecca McGirr, who is based in the Geodynamics group at RSES, for her creation that replicated gravity data from grey satellites to estimate the temporal gravity field over Antarctica.

"What I'm trying to do is measure the surface change which is caused by melting ice, snowfall variations in the ocean and the sub-surface, which is caused by changes in the mantle," McGirr says. "So that's what I've tried to represent with all the different layers.

"I love to bake but I'm really traditional with my baking so I rarely go into anything too creative or ever go over the top with decorations or anything like that."

Like Boz, Rebecca says a lot of time, including 10 sketches, was spent designing her cake.

"I feel that having to present my PhD research in cake form has forced me to really think about the building blocks of what's going on with my project," she says.

Robin Grun, who placed third in the competition, says his their creation focused on the time he spent on the RV Investigator, a major part of his PhD.

"I'm doing ocean science so it's on an ocean and there are many different layers," he says. "You've got the surface ocean which is the caramel layer with macadamia nuts. And the macadamia represents the biological matter - phytoplankton and diatoms. Below that there is a dark blue raspberry cake, which represents the deep ocean.

"Below that is the sponge which represents the ocean crust. And we've got a whale tail in there because I saw some whales in the October voyage."

As the 2019 champion, Boz will return in 2020 to be a judge at the next Bake your PhD competition.

"That's the benefit of this. It goes back down to those core science communication skills where you need to be able to understand your subject matter in order to communicate it effectively," she says.

The Bake your PhD competition is held every year as part of a higher degree by research student conference hosted by Research School of Earth Sciences students. During the conference, a separate photography competition was also held, with student work judged via the categories 'RSES on Holiday', 'People's Choice', 'RSES Samples', 'RSES in the Field' and 'RSES in the lab', while students were also awarded for giving high-quality presentations.

The winners of the photo competition were:

-RSES on Holiday - Jess Hargreaves
-People's Choice - Geoffrey Bonning
-RSES Samples - Matt Valetich
-RSES in the Field - Ilya Bobrovsky
-RSES in the Lab - Peter Lanc

 The student conference best presentation winners were:

-Katie Harazin
-Caleb Bishop
-Pratyusha Madhnure
-Claire Patterson