On May 7, 2021, Adélaïde Bernard, a Ph.D. student in metabolic biology, competed against nine graduate-student peers from other campuses at the UC-wide Grad Slam competition. Previously awarded first place in the UC Berkeley Grad Slam in April for her presentation titled, “Hungry Unicorns: How Antennas in Your Neurons Control Appetite,” Adélaïde won third place in the UC-wide competition.
A sixth-year Ph.D. student from Belgium, Adélaïde studies how cells in our brain sense our energy status and modulate hunger and weight gain. Upon completing her Ph.D., she will be looking for a postdoc focused on neuroscience. Having learned English as a second language, Adélaïde was very excited to face the challenge of participating in this competition and sharing her research with a broad audience. In this Q&A, Adélaïde talked with Professional Development Liaisons Allyson Kohen and Allison Gleason about her experience with Grad Slam and her recommendations to other graduate students who might want to participate in the competition in the future.
Thank you for talking with us, Adélaïde! Could you tell us how you heard about Grad Slam and what made you decide to participate in the competition?
When I started my Ph.D., one of my peers participated in a “nerd night,” during which he talked about his research on type one diabetes in a bar in front of an audience that was enjoying their beers. I was mesmerized by how he could present all those concepts in a fun and interesting way to such a wide audience. I did not speak English that well at the time, but I thought to myself that it would be such a cool challenge to participate in something like this when I felt ready. At the university, I first heard about the post-doc slam and then learned there was also a grad student version, so I decided to give it a try!
What was the preparation process for Grad Slam like for you?
It was fun! I’ve always liked to describe what I do in simpler terms so that people who are not in the field can understand my research. I also love drawing and making fun cartoons to illustrate my presentations, so this was the perfect opportunity. Finally, I enjoyed the iterative process of preparing my speech or presentation and getting feedback from different people to make it better. I learned a lot through the process of preparing for Grad Slam.
I also got help from wonderful people to make my speech more impactful for the UC finals. I am particularly grateful to Wendy Tokuda, former primetime Bay Area news anchor and speech coach extraordinaire, who spent a great deal of time helping me strengthen the presentation. I learned so much from her. This helped me make a presentation that I already saw as “simple” even more understandable to a wider audience without taking out too much of the content. I feel like Wendy and others on the GradPro staff helped me make the best of this experience.
I also got help with my diction. As a non-native speaker I was very interested to learn how pronouncing things with different rhythms would impact the listener in different ways.
What were some of the most challenging aspects of preparing for Grad Slam?
Making a presentation that is understandable to a very wide audience within Grad Slam’s three-minute time limit. These parameters require so much simplification; it can be hard as a scientist to accept the constraint of sharing so little of the content of your research. It can even feel like cheating to take so many shortcuts.
At the same time you also have to sell your work. One reason we do this research is to help patients deal with obesity, but I can’t just start my presentation by saying “we will cure obesity” just to get people’s attention. While our research is definitely helping us understand how satiety works, we are far from causing weight loss by hacking the system. But that doesn’t make our discoveries any less exciting! I think this is a common challenge to face as a scientist.
What did Grad Slam do for your professional development and networking skills?
I definitely have a better understanding of how to share my research in a simple manner now, which I think is an essential skill for a scientist. However, I really wish we could have done this in person. All the candidates were wonderful, but we got very few opportunities to interact.
What advice would you give to other students thinking about competing in Grad Slam?
If there is one thing I learned, it is to keep it simple — less is more, really. I really had to think about what would be the simplest way I could present the concepts of my research in a way that was understandable. Also, remember that the main thing is your speech. Busy slides distract from what you are saying and should only be there to help explain things that are hard to conceptualize with words. And most importantly, have fun!
Allyson Kohen is a Ph.D. student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. She is also the Disabled Graduate Student Advocacy Project Director at Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly and a Professional Development Liaison in Berkeley’s Graduate Division.