UC Davis Grad Slam competition features graduate research

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Fourth-year doctoral student Sam Westreich to represent UC Davis in final round

UC Davis hosted its annual UC Grad Slam finalist round on April 14 at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, where 10 UC Davis graduate student finalists were given three minutes each to present their research in front of an audience. Sam Westreich, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Integrative Genetics and Genomics program, was crowned the event’s winner and will represent UC Davis in the UC Grad Slam Finals round on May 4.

The UC Grad Slam provides an opportunity for UC graduate students to share their research findings with the general public through brief but lively presentations.

“Grad Slam is a system-wide contest in which UC grad students compete to deliver the best three-minute, jargon-free TED-style talk about their research,” said Stephanie Beechum, a UC spokesperson, via email. “Each of UC’s ten campuses hold preliminary Grad Slam contests of their own, and the 10 campus winners — all PhD or master’s students in any subject — go on to compete for the system-wide title.”

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The UC Davis Grad Slam drew over 80 proposals from interested graduate students, more than double last year’s number. A preliminary round in February narrowed the competitors down to the 10 finalists who competed on April 14.

Westreich presented “Understanding the Gut Microbiome with Metatranscriptomics,” in which he highlighted how to maintain a healthy immune system, as well as other disruptions that can occur in the microbiome.

“It’s very difficult to study this environment because it’s super complex and it’s inside of us, so it’s hard for us to reach and doesn’t adapt well to growing in labs,” Westreich said. “A lot of the approaches have been in recent years, and they’re big data approaches where the strategy is to sequence everything and sort it out once it’s all on a computer.”

Westreich’s research focuses on designing programs that help sort this data once it has been collected digitally.

With only three minutes to present, summarizing and simplifying years of research can be a challenging task for Grad Slam participants. Westreich attributes practice as a key factor for his success. Prior to presenting, he would give his pitch to anyone who would listen and revise parts that did not seem clear.

“Whenever anybody asked a question, it tells me that the part where they asked the question isn’t clear enough,” Westreich said. “So I would re-work that part and practice more.”

Carina Fish, a first-year geology Ph.D. student, took third-place at the event and a $250 prize for her presentation of “Surface-Deep Connections: Ocean Acidification.” Fish recalls the competition as an exciting experience that introduced her to new people and research

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outside of her department.

“It was great meeting other graduate students who are passionate about their work and and communicating their science,” Fish said. “I think sometimes it can get lost in translation because you get so invested in your own work and you forget to zoom out and connect with other people

around you. It was really nice meeting people outside of my department […] who are doing great things in their fields.”

The UC Grad Slam Finals will take place on May 4 in San Francisco and can be live-streamed on the Grad Slam’s official website. UC President Janet Napolitano will emcee the competition, which will be judged by a panel of leaders in industry, media, government and higher education, according to Beechum. The winner of the final round will receive a grand prize of $5,000.

Westreich’s plan of action is to continue practicing and to revise parts of his pitch that did not seem to flow well during the UC Davis round. He looks forward to representing UC Davis and hopes to take home the event’s grand prize.

“It’s been a really great experience so far,” Westreich said. “I always love not just doing the work, which involves me sitting by myself in the lab, but getting out and sharing my research with people and hopefully encouraging them to get excited about it too.”
Written by: Emma Sadlowski – science@theaggie.org