Justin LeeOn May 6, 2022, Justin Lee, now a fourth-year 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 his presentation titled, “Jamming the SARS-CoV-2 Copy Machine,” Justin also took first place in the UC-wide competition, bringing the coveted Slammy award back to Berkeley.  

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

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

I first heard about Grad Slam through another graduate student in my program, Adélaïde Bernard, who had previously competed in Grad Slam and went all the way to win third at the UC-wide competition. The news spread around in our department of her incredible work and presentation and it got me to learn more about the competition event, as well as the diverse breadth of graduate research being conducted here at Berkeley and at the other UCs. When the call came out the following year for Grad Slam, I knew I wanted to try my hand at it! Especially with the ongoing pandemic, there were not a lot of opportunities to practice public speaking and communication skills, and I was hoping to brush up on those skills with Grad Slam! 

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

Preparing my presentation for Grad Slam was almost like living a version of Goldilocks, except there was not going to be a family of bears visiting me when I am done. It was all about finding the right balance in the presentation length, speech syntax, and visual aids. In the early iterations, I relied a lot on family and friends to troubleshoot and provide feedback about my presentation. The GradPro team was also a great resource to help refine my presentation. It was a lot of fun to learn how people interpreted my talk, whether my intentions were properly communicated, and readjusting to make sure the right message got across. 

For the UC-wide competition, I was super fortunate to be connected with Wendy Tokuda, former KPIX news anchor and speech coach extraordinaire, who was a wonderful mentor in helping me strengthen my presentation even further! I learned so much from our coaching sessions from speech syntax to tonal fluctuations to pacing delivery to help emphasize certain aspects of my presentation. At the end of the day, the process was all about fine-tuning the nuances to make it easy for the speaker and impactful to the listener. 

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

This is actually a funny story! When I first learned about Grad Slam, it was a completely virtual event due to the pandemic. All of the talks were pre-recorded prior to the live event. So, when I signed up, I thought, “I could do that! If I mess up a recording, I can record again and again until I get a perfect take of my presentation since it is not live.” So, for the campus competition, I spent a lot more time focusing on the content of my presentation and pacing to fit into the recording time limit. 

However, when I learned that the UC-wide competition would be done live in-person, my preparation went into overdrive! It is very different to record a presentation from the comforts of your own home than to have to present in front of a crowd on stage! I had not given a large, in-person presentation for years at that time. I had to simplify and condense my presentation to be more in-person friendly to deliver. It was so hard to take out certain parts and phrases because I had grown attached and it was ingrained in me from the campus competition. We also had to work on presence and better utilizing visual aids on stage.

It may have taken weeks of copyediting, readjusting, rehearsing, memorizing, and even more practicing but it was so rewarding to take on the challenge with such great support and to see the improvement in the end product. I learned so much about my communication style that I still carry with me today! 

“The Grad Slam process has taught me most about how to present impact. As graduate student researchers, it can be hard to translate our passion and research into a bite size presentation that is comprehensible to a broad audience . . . I have learned how to better communicate my research to quickly highlight why my work is important versus the technical detail as to how it is done.”

Justin Lee
Justin LeeUC-wide Grad Slam winner and Ph.D. student in metabolic biology

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

The Grad Slam process has taught me most about how to present impact. As graduate student researchers, it can be hard to translate our passion and research into a bite size presentation that is comprehensible to a broad audience. We are so intimately involved with our projects, but the Grad Slam format forces us to really hone in on the most important pieces of our work to share. I have learned how to better communicate my research to quickly highlight why my work is important versus the technical detail as to how it is done. Plus, with a refined pitch, it makes talking research at mixer introductions and family dinner parties so much easier! 

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

Do it! It may be nerve-wrecking to put yourself and your work out there for the world to judge, but finding the courage to do so can be so rewarding. Not only can you learn about your communication style, but you never know who is watching and what network or opportunities you may be introducing yourself to. 

As for preparation advice, I am sure previous Grad Slammers will advise “less is more” and “practice, practice, and practice,” but my personal advice would be: Be explicit about your message. Sometimes we can forget to state the obvious because we assume the audience will pick up on our messages or we think it is common knowledge, but through it all, the actual message could get misinterpreted or lost in translation. 

As an exercise to help wire your brain to present concepts of your research in the simplest way, try to recreate your favorite coffee or pizza order without using any of the words on the menu. I really had to think about how to break down a complicated product into terminology that someone who has never seen the product could envision it the same way I did. One of my favorite coffee table books that I think captures this idea really well is “Thing Explainer” by Randall Munroe which uses only the thousand most common English words to explain some of the world’s most complex subjects. I highly recommend it for an amusing, casual read! 

But above all, enjoy the constructive process, embrace the people you meet along the way, and have fun! 

What is next for you? 

It is back to the lab for me to continue my research and finish up my degree. Since Grad Slam, our research team has been continuing to develop and pursue our genetic technology and broadening our research scope to see what other diseases we can combat. I look forward to a future career that will apply my research skills in the greater scientific community and I am sure the communication skills from Grad Slam will come in handy when that comes around!