Graduate Division

UCI Hosts Historic Virtual 2021 Grad Slam Event

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UCI Hosts Historic Virtual 2021 Grad Slam Event

By: Nedda Bozorgmehri

IRVINE, Calif. - On March 4, 2021, UCI Graduate Division hosted its first ever virtual Grad Slam, where top scholars showcased their research in a three minute pitch for a chance to win cash prizes. The ten finalists spanned a diverse range of disciplines with each student working to leverage their graduate education to make a positive impact in the world.

Grad Slam is a systemwide competition that highlights the prestige and importance of Graduate Education while also increasing graduate students’ communication and presentation skills. UCI’s Grad Slam Champion will compete against the nine other UC champions for a grand prize of $7,000 in the systemwide finals on May 7th.

Amidst the pandemic, the UCI Graduate Division team re-imagined an ordinary pitch competition, creating a fully virtual, yet authentic experience. 

The remote nature provided a unique opportunity for the audience to get to know the finalists both personally and professionally. Each student had an introductory video where they spoke about their passions and hobbies. This video was followed by a three minute research pitch, and a live Q&A session with the host, Bri McWhorter. Each of these moments illuminated the ambition, talent, and diversity of the UCI graduate student body. In addition to being phenomenal grad students, these scholars are: musicians, painters, mountain climbers, rubix cube experts, tennis players, adventurers, and post card collectors. 

Leslie Heid, PhD student in Mathematical and Computational & Systems Biology, was named the Grad Slam Champion. Heid delivered a presentation on quantifying DNA methylation pseudotime to rewrite a cell’s fate to become a different cell. 

In her captivating pitch, Heid described the profound impact of her research: “Some day from a simple swab inside a patient’s cheek we could grow a replacement liver or kidney or replenish bone marrow with a perfect match and my work will be a vital step in unlocking this potential-- once we succeed humanity will be changed forever.”

“Winning is a big confidence boost. Grad Slam is not easy but I feel like I can do anything now. I challenged myself, went outside my comfort zone, and succeeded. I am more optimistic about my PhD career and future prospects,” said Heid.

Jessica Vidmark, PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering, won 2nd place, and Hamsi Radhakrishnan, PhD student in Neurobiology and Behavior/Mathematical Computational and Systems Biology, took home 3rd place. Vidmark presented on deep brain stimulation to treat and understand movement disorders, and Radhakrishnan spoke about using water to image the brain. 

Prizes were $5,000 for the Grad Slam Champion, $2,000 for 2nd place, $1,000 for 3rd place, and all finalists received $250.

The virtual event was full of special surprises, and heartfelt moments. Leslie Heid’s daughter proudly cheered for her mother as she won the Grad Champion award. Family and friends cheered for the finalists from the live audience wall. 

Grad Slam concluded with a warm congratulations from the Graduate Division Dean, Gillian Hayes, “You truly are the beating heart of graduate education at UCI and I am so proud of your contribution to our campus this evening, you each did a wonderful job.”

Check out the full event on Vimeo.