Elise Marsan at postdoc slam

Photo by Erik Rotman

Elise Marsan, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF’s Huang Lab, won the first prize of $4,000 with her story, “Who Killed the Neurons?”

Sleuthing, Slaying, and the Cough: Postdoc Slam Returns

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

A sleuthing scientist tracking down culprits of dementia landed the top prize at the 5th annual UCSF Postdoc Slam 2022 on Wednesday, Sept. 21. This also marked a triumphant return of the slam to Byers Auditorium at the UCSF Mission Bay Campus, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I see people, I see props, and I hear people just bursting at the seams to shout and cheer on their contestants,” said Nicquet Blake, Graduate Division Dean and Slam emcee. 

As part of the National Postdoc Appreciation Week from September 19 to 23, Postdoc Slam aimed to showcase UCSF’s almost 1,100 postdocs and the boundary-pushing research they do on a daily basis. The challenge: to present their work in the most compelling and entertaining fashion in just under three minutes, using language that non-specialists understand.

Ten finalists were selected via their video entries in a preliminary round, before they received individual coaching to help them for the final round. Friends and colleagues were struggling to stay seated, excited for the competition as they appeared both in-person and through a livestream of the event.

Elise Marsan, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF’s Huang Lab, won the first prize of $4,000 with her story, “Who Killed the Neurons?” But she took away more than just prize money.

“Making research accessible to the largest audience has always been a pleasure to me,” Marsan told Synapse. “I am delighted when I see people understanding how the brain functions in health and disease.” 

Marsan’s presentation playfully likened her work on elucidating the pathology of a neurodegenerative disease, frontotemporal dementia, to being a detective at a crime scene and looking for clues to crack the case. In addition to microglia, the “usual suspect” in neurodegeneration, Marsan revealed that her single-cell RNA sequencing data suggests that a second cell type in the brain, astrocytes, may also be culpable in causing neuronal death.

Taking a step further, Marsan said, she  “recreated the crime scene in a petri dish” in the form of neuronal organoids to ascertain the astrocytes’ role in the disease. Audiences listened intently, hooked to her seamless storytelling by drawing parallels between research and detective work. With this new revelation, Marsan hopes to further drug discovery efforts targeting this debilitating disease. 

“I am currently wrapping up the project I pitched and applying for a tenure-track faculty position to extend my work to broader neurodegenerative diseases, and I hope that my pitch will raise the visibility of my and my colleagues’ work,” she said.

Deepto Mozumdar won second place and $2,000 with a persuasive speech on allying with bacteriophages in the war against bacteria. Sophie Huddart took third place and $1,000 for her work on an early diagnostic tool that could spot tuberculosis by cough sounds. Sangeetha Kandoi also won the People’s Choice award and $750 for highlighting the squirrel as a model for studying and treating the loss of eyesight with cell therapy.

A fun new segment of audience trivia was also introduced to this year’s iteration of the Postdoc Slam. Members of the crowd answered questions spanning from important figures in science to important landmarks at UCSF and a Pulitzer-award winning book about trees (The Overstory). The crowd buzzed with enthusiasm when each question was asked, relieving tension between each finalists’ turn.

A panel of five judges took on the challenging task of assessing the presentation’s comprehensibility, use of appropriate language for an educated, non-specialized audience, and most importantly, if the Slam piqued the audience’s curiosity in the topic. 

This year’s panel included Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, associate dean and professor in the UCSF School of Medicine, and infectious disease expert, and Mina Kim, award-winning reporter and news anchor and host of the 10 a.m. statewide hour of KQED public radio’s “Forum” program.