Congratulations to Bioengineering graduate students Jenna Wahbeh and Yifan Wu for making it as finalists of 2023 UCLA GradSlam! Out of all 58 students who participated in Grad Slam this year, they made it as one of the top 10 finalists. They presented their research at the Final Competition on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 at the California NanoSystems Institute.

Grad Slam is an excellent way for students to gain valuable skills, including public speaking and research organization, that will prove invaluable in today’s competitive job market. In addition, past participants say the contest helps them focus their research in a way that allows them to better secure grants, land non academic jobs and share the value of their research with people outside their field of expertise.

Read more below as Jenna Wahbeh and Yifan Wu share their experiences and advice to other graduate students who may be interested in participating next year!

Jenna Wahbeh

Title: Redefining the gold standard for patients with degenerative disc disease Abstract: My work focuses on the preclinical evaluation of joint replacements. Specifically, I will assess total disc replacements in the cervical spine by creating a more streamlined and reproducible model for biomechanical testing. Currently there are no available composite models of the cervical spine, resulting in a major gap in preclinical testing of total disc replacements. To better evaluate these devices, our reproducible cervical spine will simulate the properties of the cervical spine. This model can then be used to address common clinical complications in the cervical spine that have yet to be predicted with composite biomechanical testing, such as implant loosening and instability.

Name of faculty mentor: Dr. Sophia Sangiorgio

Q&A: What was your experience like participating in GradSlam? Participating in grad slam was a great experience. It gives you the opportunity to practice explaining complicated research in more general terms. Not only did it help me develop salesmanship of my project, but it helped me understand my research better. To take a very niche and complicated project and boil it down to a simple and easily understandable question allows you the chance to refocus and understand more about how the details of your work are contributing to the overall problem at hand.

Q&A: How did you prepare to enter GradSlam? The workshops from the graduate division were helpful to understand how detailed to be and how to put together a slide, but the most helpful thing to do to prepare is watching previous years’ presentations and seeing the style of presentation. It’s not a “typical” presentation style, like something you would do in a class, so watching videos was very helpful and so was practicing in front of friends and family to get it just right.

Q&A: What is your advice to graduate students who would like to enter GradSlam in the future? My biggest piece of advice would be to focus on the big picture of your research. It’s so easy to get tied up in small details which are important to you and the result of your thesis, but which will go over the heads of a general audience. Identifying the broad purpose of your research and the steps you will take to achieve your goal is the best way to prepare and to get the most out of this experience.

Yifan Wu

Research Title: Mechano-Cues Priming Epigenetic States to Enhance Gene-Editing Efficiency

Abstract: Epigenome controls the cell’s identity. Cell responses to external stimuli including mechanical cues (e.g. matrix stiffness, shear stress, stretch, compression, etc.) with the changes of epigenetic profiles. Using high-throughput sequencing tools to examine and compare the epigenetic profiles of cells treated with and without mechanical cues provides information for us to edit the genome precisely, which has considerable potential to enhance cell reprogramming efficiency and further promotes the development of cell therapies.

Name of faculty mentor: Song Li

Q&A: What was your experience like participating in GradSlam? I enjoyed the journey of Grad Slam a lot! It gives me the opportunity to present my research using layman’s terms, so my friends and my parents can easily understand what I’m doing. The Division of Graduate Education provided practice sessions before each round and sent the scores and feedback from the judges to us afterward, which helps me to find the drawbacks of my presentation skills and improve my talk accordingly.

Q&A: How did you prepare to enter GradSlam? My labmates gave me a lot of great advice on how to present my ‘complicated’ research project in an easy-to-understand way. Before the preliminary rounds, I attended the practice session and presented in front of a small group of participants and former Grad Slam finalists. With their feedback, I adjusted my way to explain scientific terms. I also practiced my 3-min talk with my parents and surprisingly they can almost get the whole picture of the concept, so I used this version for Grad Slam.

Q&A: What is your advice to graduate students who would like to enter GradSlam in the future? It is really helpful to practice with friends and family who have no background and improve the presentation until they fully understand your idea.