Grad Slam brings TED style to students’ research projects

In business, it’s known as the “elevator pitch” — a short, easily understandable description of your project that instantly attracts interest and support. Now, UC Berkeley graduate students, whose research is often breathtakingly complex, are adding that skill to their academic arsenal, encouraged by a competition called Grad Slam.

For this year’s campus event, 10 Berkeley grad students will face off against each other on March 28, pitting their own TED-style presentations of their research against one another to win cash and, for one student, a chance to compete in the UC-wide Grad Slam, where celebrity judges will pick the winners in LinkedIn’s shiny new San Francisco headquarters in late April.

Alexis Schusterman

Chemistry grad student Alexis Schusterman won Berkeley’s 2015 Grad Slam and went on to compete in the UC-wide contest.

Berkeley’s 10 competitors were selected from among 25 master’s and Ph.D. students who submitted videos to the contest. Their goal, according to the sponsoring Graduate Division, was to “TED-ify” their work, meaning to translate their years of painstaking research into something simple and inspiring enough that it could be a TED Talk — a three-minute one.

That means Katya Cherukimilli, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, will have three minutes to excite the judges about “Developing an Ultra Low Cost Fluoride Remediation Method Using Mildly-Processed Bauxite.” Or Joshua Yang, a master’s student in translational medicine, will try to connect with a talk on “Kidney Transplant Monitoring: Putting the ‘You’ in Urine.” Or Kelsey Sakimoto, a Ph.D. student in chemistry, will translate into everyday language his work on “Rewriting Evolutionary History: Cyborg Bacteria for High Efficiency Photosynthesis.” The full list of competitors and their subjects is below.

“Grad Slam participants hone their skills in translating research into accessible language and demonstrating the relevance of their work to pressing current-day issues,” said Graduate Dean Fiona Doyle. “It’s win-win for students, policy makers and the public at large.”

UC President Janet Napolitano launched the first UC-wide Grad Slam last year, and will emcee this year’s finals. Grad Slam grew from the belief that for researchers, being able to communicate their work outside their field is increasingly important. As public funding for research and higher education grows more competitive, “academics who can articulate the value of their research have an important edge,” according to a UC article on the 2015 Grad Slam. The event aims both to sharpen students’ skills and to let the public see the breadth of UC students’ research.

Berkeley’s winner at last year’s UC-wide competition was chemistry grad student Alexis Shusterman, who flashed an engaging smile as she launched into her talk on “CO2 monitoring in HD” by saying: “We live in an era of high definition. We watch movies in HD. We like our sports in HD. Whatever it is, we know that having more pixels is better. So my research bring the benefits of everyday HD into the world of atmospheric chemistry.”

This year’s UC-wide finals will be part of the California Workforce of the Future Summit, presented in partnership with LinkedIn, the Bay Area Council and UC. Judges will be leaders from industry, government, media and higher education. The winners will share $10,000 in prizes, and all finalist videos will be posted afterward. http://gradslam.universityofcalifornia.edu/

But first, Berkeley’s 10 competitors will take the stage from 3 to 5:30 p.m. on March 28 at International House. The event is free and open to the public. It will be livestreamed at http://bit.ly/1p2iCRh

The judges will be Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. alumna in Performance Studies who is a game designer, author and frequent TED speaker; attorney Amy Slater, a UC alum and lecturer; and Ram Kapoor, Berkeley’s chief marketing officer.

The Berkeley students competing represent a wide range of academic disciplines:

  • Katya Cherukimilli, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, speaking on “Developing an Ultra Low Cost Fluoride Remediation Method Using Mildly-Processed Bauxite.”
  • Joyce Chery, a Ph.D. student in integrative biology, on “Evolution of the Strange Anatomy of Woody Vines.”
  • Lakshana Huddar, a Ph.D. student in nuclear engineering, on “How to Build an Advanced Nuclear Reactor in a Laboratory.”
  • Aparna Krishnamoorthy, a Ph.D. student in metabolic biology, on “Unraveling the Wnt-er Symphony.”
  • Leigh Martin, a Ph.D. student in physics, on “Wiring Up a Quantum Computer.”
  • Kelsey Sakimoto, a Ph.D. student in chemistry, on “Rewriting Evolutionary History: Cyborg Bacteria for High Efficiency Photosynthesis.”
  • Gabriel Sanchez, a master’s student in journalism, on “Lapse in Care and Deaths of Inmates in the California State Prison System.”
  • Robert Snyder, a Ph.D. student in epidemiology, on “Slums: An Outbreak Story.”
  • Joshua Yang, master’s student in translational medicine, on “Kidney Transplant Monitoring: Putting the ‘You’ in Urine.”
  • Mingxi Zheng, master’s student in materials science and engineering, on “Finding Answers in Failures.”

More information on the Berkeley campus competition is on the Graduate Division website.