Inserting and opening a stent – a tiny scaffold implanted in an artery to hold it open and improve blood flow to the heart – causes slight damage to a vessel wall, which leads the body to try to repair it; the ensuing scar tissue results in one in 10 patients needing another stent within a year.
Yiqi Cao, a bioengineering graduate student in the lab of Tejal Desai, PhD, professor and chair of bioengineering and therapeutic sciences at UC San Francisco, won the top prize at the fourth annual Grad Slam for her talk about her research on how to improve stents to reduce scar tissue.
With a simple change in the surface of the stent material, Cao said she hopes to convince the body to give the stent a chance to prevent heart attacks.
The Grad Slam competition, held in front of an energetic, packed Byers Auditorium at Mission Bay on March 22, challenged PhD students to use straightforward yet engaging language that non-specialists can understand to describe their intricate research – in three minutes or less.
Graduate Division Dean and Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, emceed the event. This year, for the first time, the talks were also live-streamed to Parnassus, where Daniel Lowenstein, MD, executive vice chancellor and provost of UCSF, welcomed a smaller crowd. Both audiences voted for the “People’s Choice” winner.
Cao won the People’s Choice award of $750, in addition to earning the $3,000 first-place prize.
Her winning talk, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart … Again,” presented a lively overview of how she uses a chemical cocktail and electricity to zap the material of a stent and introduce a pattern on its surface to physically slow down the growth of scar-creating cells, much as stepping stones, compared with smooth asphalt, would slow down a walker.
“Grad Slam was an incredible opportunity to challenge myself,” said Cao. “It's definitely not easy to distill the complexities and nuances of many years of research down to a meaningful three minutes,” she said, noting the importance of being able to do so to inform policymakers, grant-making agencies, investors “or just our friends and family who are curious about what exactly we do in graduate school.”
Inez Raharjo earned the runner-up prize of $1,500 for her talk, “Do You Listen to Your Vowels?” an entertaining demonstration of how she secretly manipulates what a speaker hears in her quest to understand how speech is processed in the brain.
Raharjo, who studies under professor of radiology Srikantan Nagarajan, PhD, has uncovered something previously unknown: that when people hear themselves speak they subconsciously and actively correct the sound of their vowels.
“This is a small, but sure step toward an integrated understanding of how the brain controls speech in general. And hopefully in the future we can help everybody with speech impediments, including those who stutter, to produce beautiful, intelligible speech,” she said.
An integral part of the Grad Slam experience is the enthusiasm of an audience of peers, who hold up encouraging signs and banners between the talks.
“I could feel that the audience was engaged and could understand what I was saying, and I really appreciated that,” said Raharjo.
“This contest is a reflection of the Graduate Division’s commitment to helping our graduate students learn how to talk about their research and to become better advocates for the research enterprise,” said Watkins. The UCSF Graduate Division sponsors and organizes the annual event and contest.
“We hope that the skills the students have acquired and the poise they have gained in participating in this difficult communications challenge will serve them well as they move into their eventual careers,” she said.
Since 2015, the competition has been held across all ten campuses of the University of California. The winner from each campus will compete in the system-wide Grad Slam contest on May 3.
This year’s rapid-fire presentations spanned topics from how astrocytes contribute to learning and memory to the health consequences of immigration policy, included a demonstration of a rat dance, and imagined cell development as a repeated game of tug-of-war and bacteria as bad roommates.
The other finalists in the live competition were:
- Katie Cabral (Bioengineering Program), “Building Blood Vessels”
- Frances Cho (Neuroscience Program), “Looking Toward the Stars”
- Jennifer Hu (Bioengineering Program), “Cells as Living Building Blocks”
- Ashley Libby (Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program), “Winning the Developmental Game”
- Steven Moss (Chemistry and Chemical Biology Program), “Don’t Your Roommates Make You Sick?”
- Claire Tang (Neuroscience Program), “How Your Brain Hears the Melody of Speech”
- Meredith Van Natta (Sociology Program), “Life, Death, and Deportation”
- Tess Veuthey (Neuroscience Program), “(Learning to) Move to the Music”
The finalists were chosen from video submissions by a team of nine preliminary judges that included scientists, a librarian and previous winners of the similar Postdoc Slam.
A panel of five live-contest judges decided the winner and runner-up, based on how well the presentations conveyed research to a lay audience and piqued the listener’s interest to learn more about the research.
The judges panel included Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS; Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Outreach Renee Navarro, MD; Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy Keith Yamamoto, PhD; Ann Reid, executive director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education; and Jacob Ward, science journalist and television correspondent.
“It was a really tight race,” said Ward. “I think it is so impressive when somebody can speak directly from the center of their research, describe it in plain language and yet make it vivid and exciting and bring it to life.”