February 15, 2019

Grad Slam spotlights emerging UCR scholars and scientists

The annual competition returns to UC Riverside’s Culver Center on March 4 and Palm Desert Center on April 4

Author: Tess Eyrich
February 15, 2019

An at-home test for detecting whether you’ve had a stroke. The virtues of graphene microprocessors. A devastating threat to California’s citrus industry — and what the agricultural community can do to stop it. 

These are just a few of the presentation topics that have netted top honors for graduate students competing in the annual Grad Slam contest at the University of California, Riverside. 

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Part of a systemwide initiative, the springtime event is designed to shine a spotlight on the next generation of emerging University of California scholars. Armed with no more than a three-slide Powerpoint presentation as a visual aid, each participant is tasked with scripting and delivering a three-minute, TED-style talk that’s both captivating and educational to a lay audience.

This year, for the first time, UCR will stage Grad Slam events in two locations. On Monday, March 4, from 3-6 p.m., participants will compete in UCR’s finals for as many as 12 prizes at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts at 3834 Main St. 

They’ll meet again on Thursday, April 4, at the UCR Palm Desert Center at 75080 Frank Sinatra Dr. for a reprise of their presentations while vying for an audience choice award. Both events are free and open to the public, although advance registration is requested and can be completed here (Riverside) or here (Palm Desert). 

“The UC and UCR research mission has long served to promote a healthier, wealthier, and better-informed state,” said Shaun Bowler, dean of UCR’s Graduate Division. “While our research mission comes along with being a part of the best public university system in the world, sometimes that research can be hard to explain.

“With Grad Slam, what we see is the next generation of research and researchers being presented in public and with a public audience very much in mind,” Bowler added. “Everyone is welcome to come and hear and see what that next generation of researchers is working on — and come and see how UCR students are helping shape the world around us.”

Beyond being able to break down their research for a diverse public audience, previous UCR Grad Slam competitors, such as 2014 grand prize winner Aviva Goldmann, said participating in the event is just as advantageous to personal development as professional.

UCR's 2019 Grad Slam finals will take place at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. (Photo by Carrie Rosema)

Goldmann, a fourth-year doctoral student in entomology at the time of her win, delivered a presentation on the Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive pest that spreads a citrus tree-killing disease, and how local insects might be used to counter its dangerous effects. 

“Competing in Grad Slam taught me how to present my research as a story for everyone to connect with,” Goldmann said. “A three-minute talk seemed like a low barrier to entry for the chance of winning such a big prize. I had a lot of experience presenting my work to citrus growers, but not to a general audience.”

A grand prize win and five years later, Goldmann is now a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of William Walton, a professor of entomology at UCR.

She described her doctoral work as a stepping stone to her current research focus: insect vectors of human disease. Specifically, she studies the kinds of invasive mosquitoes that can carry the Zika virus — members of the Aedes genus — and the ways they breed in water-holding ornamental bromeliads.

Goldmann credits Grad Slam with giving her the confidence to meet challenges as a researcher.

“Winning Grad Slam was a huge confidence boost at a time when I really needed it,” she said. “I almost didn’t go to the preliminary round because I was so consumed with graduate work, but I went and ended up winning. That gave me a big push that kept me going in the lab during the next couple of months and inspired me to really throw myself into preparing for the final round.”

Since early February, 53 graduate students at UCR have participated in a similar preparation process over a series of preliminary and semifinal rounds. 

This 2019 entrant pool is one of the most diverse in UCR Grad Slam history, representing the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (20); College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (19); Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (10); School of Medicine (2); Graduate School of Education (1); and A. Gary Anderson Graduate School of Education (1). 

Hillary Jenks, director of GradSuccess at UCR, said this year’s larger number of students from the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, in particular, can be attributed to the implementation of a participation incentive program by the college’s Center for Ideas and Society. 

“Graduate students in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences are doing wonderful work,” said Georgia Warnke, director of the Center for Ideas and Society and a distinguished professor of political science. “Like the Graduate Division, the Center for Ideas and Society thinks it’s important that others know what they are doing and is excited to support Grad Slam’s efforts to get the word out.”

In 2016, UCR engineer Peter Byrley won the systemwide competition with a talk on graphene microprocessors.

At the March 4 event, a six-person panel of judges will award $5,000 in research fellowship funding to this year’s UCR Grad Slam grand prize winner. Five of the six judges have been confirmed so far. They include: 

•    Angelov Farooq, elected president of the Board of Education for the Riverside Unified School District

•    Jay Goth, managing partner of the Murrieta-based Forentis Fund, a life science venture fund focused on precision medicine

•    Nora Moti, retired director of education and nursing research at Kaiser Permanente’s Fontana and Ontario medical centers

•    Drew Oberjuerge, executive director of the Riverside Art Museum

•    Nathaniel Currie, a clinical social worker, educator, social justice advocate, and humanitarian

Additional prizes to be awarded at the March 4 event include $2,000 for the first runner-up, $1,000 for the second runner-up, $1,000 for the winner of an audience choice vote, and $100 each for as many as eight honorable mentions. 

Meanwhile, at the Palm Desert Center event on April 4, a $500 audience choice award will be presented to the recipient who receives the most votes.

The winner of UCR’s Grad Slam will move forward to compete against winners from the nine other UC campuses at LinkedIn’s San Francisco headquarters on Friday, May 10. UC President Janet Napolitano will emcee the contest, the winner of which will receive $6,000 and the “champion” title. The first and second runners-up will take home $3,000 and $1,000, respectively.

The talk delivered by last year’s UCR grand prize winner, Jessica Noll, a doctoral candidate in biomedical sciences, was titled “A Rapid Blood Test for Stroke.”

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