Grad Slam winner on stage.

Deepa Rajan, a graduate student in the Tetrad Program whose faculty mentors are Wallace Marshall, PhD, and Adam Frost, MD, PhD, won both First-Prize and the People’s Choice Award at the 2023 Grad Slam competition for her dissertation research titled, “Learning Without a Brain,” that she presented to the campus community at Byers Hall, at UCSF Mission Bay.

Photo by Susan Merrell

Learn Without A Brain? You Bet!

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

A surprise fire alarm did not stop 10 outstanding UCSF graduate student finalists from competing at the seventh annual UCSF Grad Slam 2023, held on April 4 at the UCSF Mission Bay Campus.

Deepa Rajan, a Tetrad graduate student from the Marshall lab, captivated both judges and the audience, walking home with both the first prize and audience’s choice award, worth $4,000 and $750 respectively. 

“I was most excited today because people in the audience and online are people who have supported me and are in my community at UCSF,” Rajan said. “Home is not the place but the people here, and I feel gratified that I won the people’s choice.” 

UCSF Grad Slam poses a difficult but exciting challenge to its graduate students: can you present your dissertation research in a compelling and entertaining fashion, in just under three minutes?

Ten finalists were selected based on video entries in a preliminary round, before they received individual coaching from the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) to help them polish their talks for the final round. 

Deepa Rajan, a Tetrad graduate from the Marshall lab, captivated both judges and the audience, walking home with both the first prize and audience’s choice award, worth $4,000 and $750 respectively. 

In “Learning Without a Brain” Rajan answered the question, how can a single cell, devoid of neurons, learn?

She presented research revolving around the trumpet-shaped, single-celled pond organism, Stentor coeruleus, and how she is using this fascinating little ciliate to study habituation, a decrease in response after repeated stimulation.

Stentor, when detecting a tap in a pond, display an escape response from predators, where they switch from an extended state into a contracted state. 

“However, when [Stentor] get repeatedly tapped, such as from harmless ripples in the pond, they actually learn to ignore it, and they remain in their extended form,” said Rajan.

To investigate how Stentor coordinates this without a brain, Rajan built a device to tap many Stentorrepeatedly, and measuring their contractile behavior. 

“What I found was that each cell undergoes a single start switch, from a naïve state, in which they’re mostly contracting, to a learned state, in which they’re mostly extended.”

Furthermore, this learning process in Stentor may be mediated by proteins like the ones involved in human short-term memory.

“By studying habituation at the level of a single cell, we can learn more about the origins of intelligence across different life forms.” 

Rajan hopes it will lead to a more fundamental cellular understanding of human disorders of habituation such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). 

“OCD is a disorder of habituation, and to get treatment for it you practice getting habituated to uncomfortable emotions over and over. If a single cell can get habituated, then surely, we can do it too.”

Rajan shared some tips for future participants of Grad Slam.

“You want to make people feel like they’re in a dream for the span of three minutes, and never lose their attention for a second … because a lot of what draws me to science is storytelling,” said Rajan. “I think it’s the job of a presenter to make it engaging for the audience.”

Rajan will represent UCSF in the UC systemwide Grad Slam competition on May 5. Catch her talk, “Learning without a Brain” via this livestream.

Jaysón Davidson, member of the Butte lab and a graduate student from the Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics Program, emerged in second place, winning $2,000. 

Davidson’s talk, “Improving healthcare bit by bit,” discussed how social determinants of health, such as home location, could help identify patients in need of better healthcare. 

In a true test of nerves, when an unexpected fire alarm erupted halfway through his talk, but Davidson bolstered on without missing a beat.

“All I thought in my head was: this could not be happening!” Davidson later told Synapse. “People were so engaged and trying to understand what I was saying […] so I stayed calm and finished it. That right there in itself, whether win or lose, is pretty remarkable.”

Davidson said he prepared for the contest by reaching out to past Grad Slam winners.

“They helped me figure out what exactly I needed to emphasize to make my talk better,” he said. “My PI also helped me along the way.”

Olivia Teter, a Bioengineering program student of the Kampmann lab, took third place and $1,000 for her work on dysregulated synapse “pruning” by microglia “gardeners” in the brains of people with neurodevelopmental disorders, entitled “Nipping Neurodevelopmental Disorders in the Bud”.

She found that microglial signals that guide proper pruning could be hijacked in people with those disorders and hopes to develop drugs that promote proper pruning. 

Teter advised future contestants to take advantage of Grad Div resources.

“Especially the preparatory workshop before video submission,” she said. “And even just right now, having an elevator pitch ready will always help your work.” 

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. 

“Listening to all these talks is so inspiring, because of the way your work is going to translate into lessening the suffering of the people who come to seek help here at UCSF,” said panel judge and neurology professor Daniel Lowenstein. 

The panel also included Elise Marsan, first prize winner in the 2022 UCSF Postdoc Slam, Florie Mar, global medical science director in medical affairs at Genentech, and other UCSF alumni and faculty. 

This year’s event also marked UCSF’s first-ever Graduate Student Appreciation Week celebrations held in conjunction with Grad Slam. 

“Basic science is foundational to everything we do at the university, and discovery science would not occur at the quality it occurs here if it wasn’t for our graduate students,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood.