Grad Slam 2022 Finalists

Grad Slam is a systemwide competition that showcases and awards the best three-minute research presentations by graduate scholars. This competition not only highlights the excellence, importance and relevance of UCI graduate scholars and their research, but it is also designed to increase graduate students’ communication skills and their capacity to effectively present their work with poise and confidence. It is an opportunity to share accomplishments with the campus, friends of UCI, the local community, and the broader public. This year’s edition of Grad Slam will be virtual, from the semifinals all the way through UC Systemwide Finals. See below to meet the 10 finalists of the 2022 UCI Grad Slam.

2022 Finalists

Muhammad Twaha Ibrahim

Computer Science

Reimagining Surgery through Global Guidance
Becoming a skilled surgeon requires years of training in an apprenticeship model. Trainees work closely with surgeons and perform surgery under their guidance to acquire sufficient knowledge and skill. After training however, the pace of learning is reduced. Lack of access to expert guidance means that most surgeons practice the same procedures learned as trainees instead of newer, more impactful ones. This results in increasing medical errors, using costly materials/services to compensate for inadequate knowledge/skill, and practicing outdated procedures instead of more recent ones. Thus, surgical outcomes become limited and costly. My research aims to solve this problem using just a projector-camera pair. A surgeon sets up the projector-camera pair over the surgical area. With a click of a button, they generate a live digital 3D model of the surgical area which is transmitted to a remote expert. The expert inspects the digital model and annotates important landmarks and incisions. These annotations get transmitted back to the projector, which projects them on the surgical area, allowing the surgeon to look at them directly and perform the surgery. This framework allows surgeons to transfer knowledge and skill remotely through guidance and collaboration. It allows us to reimagine how we understand, learn and conduct surgery across the globe.

Farzana Khatun

Transportation Science

COVID-19, MODE CHANGES, AND TRANSIT PERCEPTION: Results from a random survey of Californians
I explore how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect mode choice in California based on a late May 2021 random survey of Californians (1,026 respondents) and analyze obstacles to increased transit use. While around 68% of Californians anticipate no mode change, these modes could experience substantial declines after the pandemic. A drop in driving would reduce vehicle miles traveled and help California achieve its greenhouse gas reduction target. However, it is not possible to know if the intentions by 18.9% of Californians to reduce driving will be sufficient to offset the 13.2% who intend to drive more. Results for transit are grim: over 28.3% of Californians intend to use transit less after COVID vs. only 5.0% who would like to use it more. This drop disproportionately affects Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, younger adults, lower and higher-income people, advanced degree holders, women, and people who would telecommute more. The main reason why Californians may not take transit after the pandemic is their preference for driving. Other popular reasons are lack of transit reach/efficiency/frequency, health concerns from COVID-19, and safety issues at the transit stop. My findings will help transit organizations to identify areas to improve by targeting the right users.

Shirin Kianidovom

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Aerogel composites, possible alternatives to steel in construction
According to National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the main reasons the Twin Towers failed is jet fuel poured down through the 12 miles elevator shafts, spread like wildfire. The highjacked airplanes were Boeing 767 and carried 20,000 gallons of jet fuel. The temperature increased up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, melted the steel, and caused the perimeter columns bowing inward, buckle, and eventually collapse. Using 200,000 tons of steel was one of the design strengths of the towers, but after studying the reasons of collapse, it turned into a huge disadvantage. Now, is there an alternative to steel? Maybe. Aerogel is a solid, ultra-light weight material which could be an alternative to steel. According to NASA, aerogels are made by taking out the moisture from a gel while maintaining the structure and the primary dimensions of the gel. Some aerogel composites have bridge-like structures which perform like a spring. The spring behavior of the material makes it strong and flexible. Having both strength and resilience simultaneously is a huge advantage. I believe utilizing aerogel in construction industry will elevate the safety of the future structures.

Desiree Macchia

Physiology & Biophysics

Changing Brain Circuits in Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one of the most prevalent forms of dementia and affects approximately 5.8 million Americans today, making it the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. AD is characterized by the presence of protein aggregates and associated cognitive decline. In clinical trials, researchers have targeted or removed these protein aggregates, yet they were not able to significantly slow AD progression or improve cognitive decline. To reach an effective treatment for AD, researchers are employing new hypotheses and approaches to combat the disease. One of these hypotheses is that AD may begin with brain hyperactivity due to overactive neuronal networks. My research aims to identify and target these hyperactive brain circuits and investigate whether they contribute to eventual memory loss and development of the protein aggregates. The results from my work have revealed novel brain circuits that are associated with the earliest detectable changes in AD and thus these cells and circuits can be targeted for therapeutic interventions.

Audrey Odwuor

Earth System Science

Clearing the air: What’s actually burning in our wildfires?
Wildfires in California have become increasingly intense, largely due to warmer, drier summers and changing forest management practices. In addition to destroying life and property, fires produce smoke containing gases and particulate matter, or emissions, that degrade air quality, influence climate, alter ecosystems, and threaten public health. Fine particulate matter, also called PM2.5, is especially concerning because it contributes to regional-scale haze, can release large amounts of carbon from vegetation to the atmosphere, and can enter the bloodstream and even cross the blood-brain barrier. Fuel consumption, or which fuels burn in a fire and to what extent, is a key metric for understanding fire behavior and estimating emissions and is critical for mitigating the effects of these worsening fires. For my dissertation work, I measured the chemical composition of PM2.5 sampled from a large wildfire in Sequoia National Park to better understand fuel consumption in California’s forest fires. Surprising results from this study have the potential to improve wildfire emissions estimates and evaluate the effectiveness of forest management practices in California and beyond.

Qi Song

Urban Planning & Public Policy

Is It Affordable to Live Near Public Transit?
Many cities and regions in the United States are promoting transit-oriented developments (TODs)—higher-density, mixed-use, and pedestrian-friendly developments near high-quality transit stations—to address sprawl, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide location-efficient housing choices. However, concerns about the unintended influences of unaffordability, gentrification, and displacement on the disadvantaged households living in TODs have been raised to challenge the feasibility of achieving equitable TODs. For households living in TODs, do TODs improve their location affordability, measured as the share of household income spent on housing and transportation costs over time? Do the savings on transportation costs offset the potential increase in housing costs by living near transit? My research focuses on 285 census block groups within a half-mile of 31 rail stations along the Metro Exposition Line and Metro Gold Extension Line in Los Angeles County. Through a quasi-experimental design, it examines the impact of rail transit provision on household location affordability. The findings reveal that rail transit has a significant positive impact on household location affordability during its early operating years. The study also indicates a consistent positive effect of TODs on transportation affordability for typical households during different development stages of rail transit.

Rachel Sousa

Mathematical, Computational, and Systems Biology

Curing Cancer with Math
Math has a bad reputation: many students often complain about math and ask when they would ever use it outside of school. However, math should be better appreciated as there are a wide range of powerful applications for math. I use math to study biological systems and, in particular, cancer biology. My research aims to build a set of equations – or a mathematical model – of the immune system in a cancer environment to identify the critical features associated with the immune system eradicating cancer versus those that allow cancer to persist in the body. With my model, I perform virtual experiments where I study and predict how immune cells interact with cancer cells. Furthermore, I can model the effects of various cancer therapeutics to predict the best combination of drugs, doses, and schedules to use to eliminate cancer. I can then test my model predictions experimentally in mice to validate the results of my model. Once validated, we can use my model to inform human cancer treatment. My research will help us gain a better understanding of the human body and result in more effective cancer treatments, ultimately revolutionizing cancer treatment and saving millions of lives.

Lauren Urban

Microbiology & Molecular Genetics

NetfliX for AntibiotiX
Antibiotics are one of the greatest tools in medicine. However, several bacteria have developed the ability to survive and resist antibiotics designed to kill them. This antibiotic resistance is a leading cause of death worldwide and treating the 6 most deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria costs the US more than $4.6 billion annually. These antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa cannot be killed with traditional treatments. Unfortunately, it can take years to identify new antibiotics and nearly a decade to obtain FDA approval. My work studies how we can repurpose antibiotics to fight these superbugs. I develop predictive models to test how combinations of antibiotics work together against bacteria. Netflix, Google, and even your email spam filter use computational models like this to make predictions about you and your preferences based on your previous actions. I use computational models to predict how bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, will respond to different combinations of drugs. I used publicly available sources of patient data and scientific studies to test and train the model. The results of this work can evaluate how bacteria will respond to combinations and help guide treatment approaches by identifying novel combinations of drugs that are more potent when used together.

Dandan Yang


Breaking Down Barriers with a Storybook App
Millions of immigrant children in the United States struggle to survive at school due to the language barrier. Many of them fall behind in reading and writing, sometimes never to catch up. There are hundreds of apps on the market that help kids learn to read in English. But almost without fail, these apps are designed for solitary use for children, ignoring years of research showing that children learn best together with a loving parent who engages them in authentic dialogues about the story. To help address this issue, I designed a bilingual storybook app with interactive and multimedia features to facilitate parent-child mutual learning. With the supportive features from this story-based learning platform, parents and children, without knowing much English, can enjoy reading an English story and learn new vocabulary together. By empowering families to learn together with a research-based tool, we want to make sure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can thrive on their educational journey.

Karma Rose Zavita

Criminology, Law and Society

Untangling Title IX: Rights, Responses, and Realities
My research explores the ways that victims and survivors of sexual assault navigate campus Title IX proceedings, and formal law simultaneously. Sociolegal scholars have referred to two overlapping systems as Legal Pluralism. I provide examples from my personal experiences and describe the entanglement of campus, legal, and medical processes, rules, rights, technical terms, documents etc. I use legal pluralism as the frame to show the contrasting agendas of Title IX and Law. In an endeavor to make the process easier for survivors to navigate I encourage researchers to bring the victim experience into the scholarship, so that we may be better able to understand the challenges and successes of navigating and untangling Title IX and formal law.