Women Dominate at Grad Slam

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Just in time for the closing of Women’s month, nine of the 10 finalists in this year’s Grad Slam were women, including the victor. Yiqi Cao won both the first place prize and the people’s choice award for being the most engaging speaker in a contest that challenges graduate students to summarize years of complex scientific inquiry in just three minutes. 

Cao said every student should attempt the exercise that Grad Slam presents.

“It was a fun challenge to see how far you can distill [your research],” Cao said. “For me, and I know for grad students in general, it’s hard to know which details you can let go of because we’ve been studying it for so long.”

The UCSF graduate students finalists took on the fourth annual Grad Slam competition hosted by Dean Watkins and the Graduate Division on March 22. They were selected during a preliminary round in February, and all but one finalist were women.

Cao, of the bioengineering program, described her work improving the stents used to prop open blood vessels to ensure proper blood flow. Native human cells, recognizing the stent as a foreign object, attempt to repair it, which can cause complications in many patients. Cao is developing a type of stent that takes advantage of the natural ways cells travel to prevent them from interfering with the device’s function.

Cao used a “stepping stone” analogy to help the audience visualize the cells’ movements.

“It changed a lot from when I started because I had many different metaphors in mind, but they were all things we could relate to,” she said.

Top marks went to those who could best express scientific research in words any non-scientist could understand. So Cao advised future contestants to practice with non-scientists, which helped her tremendously.

“People in lab gave me very different advice from friends who were not in science,” she said. “It was great to have both perspectives.”

Second place prize went to Inez Raharjo, who explained how the brain self-regulates during normal conversation. Her studies look at how people use real-time auditory feedback from their own voice to help guide their speech patterns.

A first and second place prize were awarded after deliberations by the five celebrity judges, whose ranks included prominent UCSF scientists as well as Jacob Ward, the former Editor in Chief of Popular Science Magazine.

Given our current climate, effectively communicating science research is more essential than ever. Understanding its importance, UCSF started the Grad Slam event to encourage students to practice creatively explaining their research to a broad audience.

Other UC schools are also hosting their own Grad Slam competitions, and winners from each will compete against each other in the UC-wide Grad Slam on May 3.

Be sure to catch it and support Cao in the next round!