Last spring, Madison Browne, now a fifth-year Ph.D. student in psychology became Berkeley’s 2023 Grad Slam Champion for her presentation, “Shedding Light on Alzheimer’s Disease.” Madison went on to compete against the nine other campus champions across the UC system. 

In this Q&A, Madison talks about her experience with Grad Slam and her recommendations to other graduate students who might want to participate in the competition this year or in the future. 

If you would like to compete in Grad Slam, read the guidelines for this year’s competition and submit your three-minute video by January 31!

Q&A with 2023 Berkeley Campus Grad Slam Winner Madison Browne

Q: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Madison! Could you tell us how you heard about Grad Slam and what made you decide to participate in the competition?

Madison: Of course, I am happy to continue to be involved in Grad Slam! A former member of my lab, Neta Gotlieb, participated in the competition in 2021 and it was so interesting to see her parse down the work I’d seen her spend years carrying out into a 3-minute summary. I was assisting with her project at the time and was moved when reminded of the broader impacts of our scientific findings, something we often forget in our day-to-day work. She spoke highly of the experience and how she grew through it, so I planned to participate toward the end of my own PhD!


Q: What was the preparation process for Grad Slam like for you?

Madison: I approached Grad Slam as a commitment to carve out time and energy for my own professional development. Synthesizing my results for the public paired well with where I was in the research process, as I was analyzing years of hard-earned data and I realized that I was making real scientific discoveries!
Grad Slam was half writing and half public speaking practice. I wrote the initial draft of my talk and quickly found that, like all writing, the hardest part would be in editing it! I rewrote it entirely multiple times. I kept a running document and wrote down any ideas I had as they came to mind, and then I spent every Sunday during the semester editing, practicing, timing, and filming my video drafts for feedback from the Graduate Division coaches. They helped me alter my language for broader audiences.

The weeks between the campus competition and the UC-wide competition were much more intense, and I practiced my script, delivery, and even hand gestures whenever I had 3 minutes to spare, or someone was willing to listen!


Q: What were some of the most challenging aspects of preparing for Grad Slam, both the campus and UC systemwide competitions?

Madison: Like many people, I would rather do almost anything other than watch videos of myself speaking. It was difficult for me to learn to constructively criticize myself and objectively look at weaknesses in my content or delivery. When your talk is so short, every word influences how your audience will interpret your meaning. I wrote my script carefully but memorization is not my strong suit, so it took patience to turn my writing into natural and effective verbal communication.

Also, one of the main reasons that I decided to participate is because I felt that one of my shortcomings as a scientist is my fear of public speaking. The virtual campus competition seemed manageable, but when I won and realized that I had to speak to a live audience at the systemwide event, fear consumed me. Luckily, I had a lot of support from resources and public speaking mentors provided by the University!


Q: What did Grad Slam do for your professional development and networking skills?

Madison: This process helped me to form a better relationship with myself and to take ownership of my personal growth and accomplishments during my graduate school experience. It motivated me to reflect on what aspects of my career bring out my passions and to begin thinking about career options, while feeling supported by the broader UC Berkeley community.

At the UC-wide competition, attendees from all over the state came up to chat about my findings, and that was an invaluable networking opportunity in itself. Being in this competition helped me gain connections to people that I never would have met otherwise, and I now feel that I could find ways to speak to people in multiple different science careers of interest.

The most important takeaway is that I feel more confident in my expertise, and that mindset shift is evident in my overall speaking style.


Q: What advice would you give to other students thinking about competing in Grad Slam?

Madison: I left the experience feeling that my work adds value to the world in a way that is easily forgotten when we have our heads down in the lab or within our specific niche fields. Being able to communicate your research effectively is just as important as being able to come up with ideas and carry out the work. If you have the ability to participate, I would highly recommend it — it was worth all of the time and effort that I put into it.

For those who do compete: one thing that helped was envisioning that I was simply talking to a person in my life with no background in my realm of research. Keep it conversational and don’t use jargon!


Q: What is next for you?

Madison: I am currently in my last semester of graduate school and on the market for a job! I am looking for a science writing, consulting, or industry research position in the realm of human neuroscience, psychiatry, and mental health.

I’d love to be a part of pushing forward the understanding and development of non-traditional psychiatric treatments, such as psychedelic therapy and non-invasive interventions.


If you would like to compete in Grad Slam, read the guidelines for this year’s competition and submit your three-minute video by January 31!