Ilina Bhaya-Grossman

Ilina Bhaya-Grossman

The Magic of Language Understanding Wins Grad Slam

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How does your brain interpret different sounds as distinct words, instead of a singular mess of phonetics?

This was the subject of Ilina Bhaya-Grossman’s submission to this year’s Grad Slam science communication competition, which took the top $4000 prize on April 3.

Bhaya-Grossman’s research investigates how brains solve the problem of turning auditory signals into interpretable words.

“In natural speech, there are no clear pauses between words,” Bhaya-Grossman said. “In fact, there are no reliable sound cues that tell you how to group sounds into words at all.” 

And yet, our brains interpret that cacophony into meaningful communication. To understand how our brains do this, she works with patients with electrical sensors embedded into their brains and contrasts how their brain reacts to hearing language that they know versus language they don’t know.

“Excitingly, I found that you can tell when someone’s listening to their native language by looking at their brain activity. You look at moments when one word ends and another begins, also known as a word boundary.”

She found that your brain tracks word boundaries in language that you understand, but not in language that you don’t understand.

Bhaya-Grossman said she is now working on a paper that will elaborate upon the results of her research and she’s got an eye towards the future. 

“I’m excited about a couple of other projects all related to language,” she said. 

Simone Kurial took home the second place prize of $2000 for her talk on understanding Alagille Syndrome, or more specifically, its cause — the failure of the formation of the biliary tree, which is the system of vessels that directs these secretions from the liver, gallbladder and pancreas through a series of ducts into the duodenum.

“Children born with this condition have biliary trees that are absent or severely truncated, and three quarters of these patients will require a liver transplant by the age of twenty,” Kurial said. “But what if instead of relying on a liver transplant, we could regrow the biliary tree from the inside?”

By finding the genes responsible for the formation of the biliary tree, she hopes to prompt the liver into growing the system of vessels, providing a new strategy for treating Alagille Syndrome.

This year’s Grad Slam also had the unique distinction of being the first one to have two third place winners. Reuben Hogan’s talk on how sugar markers affect protein folding clinched him a third place prize and $1000. And Sydney Williams took home $1000 for third place, while also winning an additional $750 for the People’s Choice Award for her talk on the role of RAB GTPases on blindness.

The Grad Slam competition is held each year at Byers Hall Auditorium to celebrate graduate student research as part of Graduate Appreciation Week. Ten finalists give a three-minute talk of their research. Imagine American Idol but for nerds.

What makes these talks compelling is that they are designed with non-specialists in mind, which meant that the focus of each talk was on clarity and distillation of years-long research into the most interesting points.

It’s also a chance to get a snapshot of the breadth of research at UCSF and appreciate all the ways that the university is serving humanity through research.

“This is a national week of observation for our grad students,” said Graduate Division Dean Nicquet Blake, who hosted the event. “We recognize that you are a critical part of the research ecosystem here at UCSF and across the country, in fact across the world.” 

This year’s judges were Erin Allday, science reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle; Raynee Chiang, the director of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District; Brian Feng, a Principal Investigator at Calico Life Sciences; Kristen Harknett, Sociologist professor and director of the sociology PhD program at UCSF; and Laura Persson, winner of the 2023 postdoc slam and wormnado expert. D’Anne Duncan was the MC of the event.

If you want to take part in Grad Slam next year, there are three easy steps to apply.First, submit an intent to enter which is a simple online form. Second, attend the Grad Slam Workshop and start constructing your talk.

Third, submit a three-minute talk. 

As an added incentive, everyone who submits an ‘eligible video entry’ gets a $50 Amazon gift card, so if nothing else you can use that hot and new fad you want to spend money on as motivation to get you to practice the craft of science communication.

If you want tips on how to craft the perfect Grad Slam talk, the winners imparted some advice:

“You really have to think hard about the essence of your project and it’s going to help you with everything,” Kurial said.

“Enjoy the process of writing up your science,” said Bhaya-Grossman, “because I think part of what I think makes science so fun is communicating the process.”

“Spend a lot of time thinking about what’s the best, simplest point from A to B about explaining what your talk is,”Hogan said. “Using OCPD coaches, they are phenomenal. My coach Rick had such great feedback and honestly, I think it worked so perfectly because of him.” 

“First, be confident in your project,” Willams said, “whatever you’ve done is enough. And my second would be just keep practicing; be ready to change it up and take the advice from the people around you.”

All of the speakers emphasized the importance of practice. 

“I was practicing it even in my seat before I walked up!” Kurial said.

Ilina Bhaya-Grossman’s first placement win earned her a spot in the UC-wide Grad Slam that took place on May 3.The top three winners for the UC wide competition were: 

  1. Iris Garcia-Pak, UC San Diego. The brain: An exclusive VIP club
  2. Kacie Ring, UC Santa Barbara. Healthy forests, healthy humans (People’s Choice Award winner)
  3. Shannon Brady, UC Riverside. Thinking out loud: Is self-talk a secret to success?

If you missed UCSF Grad Slam 2024  and want to see it, or if you’re someone hoping to win a Grad Slam in the year 2025 or beyond and want to study the winners (in which case, good luck and hello from 2024!) you can watch a live replay of the event here