The prevalence of sugary foods in our diets has contributed to the rise of diabetes – now the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. Human bodies aren’t equipped to handle so much sugar, but mammals adapted for sugary diets, like fruit-eating bats and primates have the ability to lower their blood sugar faster.
Wei Gordon, a PhD student in UC San Francisco’s Tetrad Program, is studying the genetic secrets of these sugar-eating animals and her talk on this work won first prize in this year’s UCSF Grad Slam.
She was among nine finalists in the sixth annual UCSF Grad Slam, held March 31 – after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic – competing to inform and entertain with three-minute talks based on their own research. Their talks reflected the broad range of science research conducted at UCSF, from designing culturally competent care for COVID-19, to fighting bacteria with phages, to understanding the misfolded proteins that lead to dementia.
The live event was held in front of a limited but enthusiastic audience in Byers Auditorium and live-streamed online. Nicquet Blake, PhD, dean of the Graduate Division and vice provost of Student Academic Affairs, provided opening remarks and awarded prizes, and Elizabeth Silva, PhD, associate dean for graduate programs, emceed the program. A panel of judges selected first-, second-, and third-prize winners. Both in-person and online audiences were able to vote for the “People’s Choice” winner.
Gordon, who is a PhD student in the lab of Nadav Ahituv, PhD, took home the $4,000 first-place prize with her talk, “Uncovering the Sweet Secrets of Fruit-Eating Mammals,” which described her research into the thousands of DNA mutations present only in fruit-eating mammals. In particular, she is focusing on so-called gene regulatory regions, which serve as the “conductors” directing the work of genes, or the “instruments.” She impressed the judges with her confident delivery, which she credited to her love of theater.
“I know that I’m a very expressive person, so I tried to make sure to have some fun in the presentation,” she said. The process of preparing for Grad Slam showed her the difficulty of breaking down scientific terms and also the power of metaphors to communicate complex ideas, she said.
Gordon will go on to represent UCSF at the UC system-wide Grad Slam event on May 6.
Coming in second place, with a prize of $2,000, was Rachel Nakagawa, a PhD student in the Biomedical Sciences Program. In her talk, “Deconstructing Tumor Cell Interactions,” Nakagawa outlined the challenge of treating solid tumor cancers, which consist of diverse communities of cells that can work together to thwart therapies. Parsing these interactions is like “trying to eavesdrop at a crowded party,” she said, so she is deconstructing them into simpler parts that could one day be targeted by drugs.
Lucía Abascal Miguel, a PhD student in the Global Health Sciences Program, won the third-place spot with her talk, “No le Pidas Peras al Olmo/Don’t Ask the Elm Tree for Pears,” – the first UCSF Grad Slam talk given in Spanish. Abascal Miguel described the language, cultural and socioeconomic barriers that have contributed to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the Latinx community in California. Studying these barriers allowed her to help develop effective targeted interventions for these communities.
The “People’s Choice” award – chosen by the live and remote viewing audiences – went to Gokul Ramadoss, a PhD student in the Biomedical Sciences Program. In his talk, entitled “Get Your Genes Tailored,” he discussed his research into tools that could potentially treat the genetic “typos” that lead to devastating brain diseases like ALS.
These were the other finalists in this year’s live competition:
Neha Prasad (Chemistry and Chemical Biology), “Our Friend, the Phage”
Jack Stevenson (Chemistry and Chemical Biology), “Learning the Tricks of the Most Valuable Protein: How Your Cells Decide to Divide”
Megan Chong (Tetrad), “Nobody’s Perfect, But Dividing Cells Can Work It”
Colin Germer (Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics), “Bursting Every Stress Bubble the Eye Can See”
Kelly Montgomery (Chemistry and Chemical Biology), “Paper Cranes and Paper Balls, Unfolding the Causes of Dementia”
The finalists were selected by a panel of screening judges from entries submitted by video.
The judges of the live event were Erin Allday, health reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle; Won HA, MA, UCSF’s vice chancellor for communications; Catherine Lucey, MD, executive vice dean, vice dean for education and professor of medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine; Leticia Márquez-Magaña, PhD, professor of biology and director of the Health Equity Research Laboratory at San Francisco State University; and Don Woodson, MEd, director of UCSF’s Center for Science Education and Outreach.
“All the finalists did an incredible job weaving in the creative use of metaphor and simile into their presentations on topics of such complexity,” said Ha. He added that the judges had a robust discussion in deciding on the winners from a very competitive field.
Graduate Dean Nicquet Blake, PhD, who joined UCSF in December, remarked “Grad Slam was the most fun I’ve had since I arrived in San Francisco. I was told it was an awesome event, and it did not disappoint! It was gratifying to see our students’ creative approaches to making really important and timely research accessible for a general audience. In the process, they honed their science communication and advocacy skills that will serve them well no matter where their career path takes them. I congratulate all the finalists on a job well done, and I can’t wait to tune in and cheer Wei on at the systemwide Grad Slam on May 6!”