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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Graduate students present research projects at the UC Davis Grad Slam Semi-Finals

UC Davis graduate candidates compete for a chance to represent UC Davis at UC Grad Slam Finals

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org  

You’re up on stage in front of a crowd of eager students who are ready to absorb all that you have to say about your life’s work thus far. There are judges, academics, peers, people who might know more about your topic than you do and friends cheering you on in the back. 

No, it’s not a TED Talk. It’s the UC Davis Grad Slam. And maybe it’s not your entire life’s work, but it is what you’ve dedicated at least four — and in many cases six — years of study to. And it’s probably similar to what you’ll be spending your career doing. 

On Wednesday, April 6, 10 graduate students stood in Walker Hall in front of judges and supporters to give three-minute speeches meant to encapsulate the progress and impact of their research thus far in their respective graduate programs. 

According to the UC Davis Grad Slam website, contestants are judged on three criteria: audience engagement, effectiveness and focus of their presentations and ability to communicate their concepts.

Out of the 10 contestants, five prizes were awarded: first, second, third, people’s choice and the public impact prize. Only the first-place winner advanced to the University of California Grad Slam, but all five winners took home monetary prizes.

Alice Dien, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in biological systems engineering, received the $2,500 first place prize and the $500 public impact prize for her presentation on the innovation of drying in agriculture to reduce energy use and food loss. She will also advance to the UC Grad Slam, where she will compete for additional awards. Savannah Free, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in integrative genetics and genomics, was awarded $1,500 as the second place winner for her speech on the interaction of tumor cells and blood platelets in cancer research. Paige Kouba, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in ecology, received third place and a $750 award for her work looking at the effects of different carbon dioxide levels on trees to simulate future climate changes. Andrea Guggenbickler, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in public health sciences, received $500 as the people’s choice winner for her presentation on how more comprehensive sex education can improve public health and reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.

Dien had one thing that the other winning contestants did not: no experience with public speaking. Free and Guggenbickler said that they had competed in debate in high school, and Kouba had participated in theater. Dien said she was never trained for public speaking, but her confidence came from enjoying the event and being passionate about her research.

“I had rehearsed my speech so many times and tried to deliver it the same way every time,” Dien said. “But actually, it was a little bit different when I was on stage because it really came from my heart. I was just enjoying the moment and being there.”

Dien, like many graduate students, are very passionate about their research. All four of the award winners mentioned how fun it was to present their research to a larger group of people, especially people outside of their fields of study. 

I have always wanted to give a TED talk,” Kouba said. “I think about how exciting it would be to pitch your biggest, best idea or the thing you’re most excited about. I actually ask that of my students a lot, like, ‘What would you talk about if you had the stage for just three minutes?’ So I was kind of putting my money where my mouth is.”

However, Free said that one of the biggest challenges for many of the graduate students who are preparing their talks is taking the technical jargon from their research and translating it into words that the majority of a university-level audience would understand. 

“As graduate students, we get kind of bogged down in the very minute technical details of our work,” Free said. “It’s good sometimes to come up for air, and take a look at your work from an outside perspective.”

Not only did the graduate students need to translate their research, but they also needed to do that within a three-minute speech, which Kouba said proved to be challenging since she could go on for hours about her work. 

The question of how to tell such a big, global-scale story with such a short time frame was a real challenge at the start,” Kouba said. 

Additionally, the presentations needed to be polished. To enter the competition, each contestant submitted a video recording of their speech. The top 10 students were selected and given feedback for revision. Then, they were able to have a one-on-one mentoring session in which their presentations were further critiqued. 

Dien said that she initially had a slide with multiple images that she wanted to use to illustrate the broad range of products that require industrial drying in agriculture. The judges told her that an elaborate slide would cause the audience to focus on the screen behind her, rather than the content of her speech, so she would have to go without it.

Similarly, Guggenbickler said that she practiced her speech endlessly to make sure that the audience could focus on her content rather than any mishaps in the delivery.

“I wanted to sound confident and knowledgeable because I feel like people are more likely to listen to what you’re saying if you’re delivering it in an impactful way,” Guggenbickler said.

The first step was drawing in the audience. Some topics were immediately relatable to the audience, like Free’s research on cancer or Guggenbickler’s research on sex education. Others had to be more creative with their approach. 

Dien said that not everyone knows how important industrial drying is in food systems, so she started by talking about the increase in energy prices. This has raised the cost of drying staple crops like grains and nuts, which could eventually lead to higher prices for these pantry staples. With other options for drying, energy use can be reduced, limiting how energy supply and demand impact the cost of food.

How these important scientific discoveries and innovations are communicated to the public is critical, Free said. 

“I kind of came into the competition thinking that everybody is familiar with cancer,” Free said. “Everyone knows someone who has had cancer, so everyone’s going to have a basic understanding. But even if that’s true, people usually have a more clinical understanding or general understanding. They might not have a very biological understanding.”

The UC Grad Slam aims to allow graduate students to develop their communication skills and engage with a larger community. Each contestant also has the opportunity to describe how their research affects the larger community. Four of the 10 students who presented at the UC Davis Grad Slam were acknowledged as Global Education for All recipients, a designation awarded to research that has a global impact. 

“I like to think I can touch everyone’s life with this,” Guggenbickler said about her work on improving sex education. “And that’s the goal, right?”

For many, the impact of their research has started with their own story. Kouba remembers growing up climbing Douglas fir trees with her sister — now she’s studying how they’ll fare in the future. Free found cancer research to be a “puzzle” that has affected most people’s lives, including her own. Guggenbickler said she grew up in a small town where sex education consisted of two sessions between middle and high school; now, she says she wants to be the one to destigmatize talking about sexual health for future generations. 

Dien is passionate about reducing food insecurity, so she chose to focus her research on  one of the biggest causes of food loss and energy use in agriculture. She said that she plans to bring her best to the UC Grad Slam final on May 6 where she’ll be representing UC Davis.

“It’s exciting, but it’s also a lot of pressure,” Dien said. “I entered into the competition thinking I’m just going to share my research, and now I’m representing UC Davis.”

You can find a recording of the UC Davis Grad Slam semi-finals online and tune in on May 6 to watch the livestream of the final UC Grad Slam on their website.


Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org


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