Berkeley Grad Slam winner, Kelsey Sakimoto’s presentation on Artificial Photosynthesis at the system-wide Grad Slam.

Berkeley’s Grad Slam competition was held on March 28, 2016. Ten Berkeley semi-finalists competed before a panel of distinguished judges for cash prizes and the honor of representing our campus in the UC-wide Grad Slam competition on April 22, 2016.
See the article below to learn more about Berkeley Grad Slam.

Grad Slam winners
Mingxi Zheng, Kelsey Sakimoto, and Aparna Krishnamoorthy are this year’s Berkeley Grad Slam winners.

First Place

Kelsey SakimotoKelsey Sakimoto Chemistry
Rewriting Evolutionary History: Cyborg Bacteria for High Efficiency Photosynthesis


Second Place

Mingxi ZhengMingxi Zheng Materials Science & Engineering
Finding Answers in Failures


Third Place

Aparna KrishnamoorthyAparna Krishnamoorthy Metabolic Biology
Unraveling the Wnt-er Symphony


Alexis Shusterman, last year’s Berkeley Grad Slam winner

At the 2016 campus competition last month, 2015 Berkeley winner Alexis Shusterman describes the impact Grad Slam has had on her professional development — and her perspective is slammin’! 

Grad Slam challenges graduate students to pitch their research — projects they may have been working on for several years — in a three-minute ‘elevator pitch’ to a general audience. The presentations are judged on criteria set forth by the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) to evaluate “how clearly they communicate key concepts and how effectively they focus and present their ideas.” Grad Slam was inaugurated last year by UC President Janet Napolitano as a way to “make research accessible by providing emerging scientists and scholars with the skills to engage the public in their work.” Communication is recognized as an essential component of a graduate student’s professional development, and Grad Slam kicks it into high gear, challenging participants to engage and inform diverse audiences.

This year’s first place winner and Berkeley Champion, Kelsey Sakimoto, wowed both judges and audience with his talk entitled “Rewriting Evolutionary History: Cyborg Bacteria for High Efficiency Photosynthesis.” It was immediately apparent from his delivery that he was no stranger to public speaking. In fact, Kelsey considers communicating effectively to the public an essential skill.

Kelsey, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry and a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, explained:

“Grad Slam ought to be a part of not only every graduate student’s training but every researcher’s regular practice. The opportunity to contextualize one’s work within the interests of the general scientific community and the world at large helps guide our investigations in the service of society. It also fosters a productive relationship with the public, whose support and trust ultimately enables all the work that we do.”

A panel of judges assigned scores to each semi-finalist as they delivered their talks. The panel included Ram Kapoor, Chief Marketing Officer at UC Berkeley; Amy Slater, UC alumna, attorney, and UCB lecturer; and Jane McGonigal, Ph.D. alumna in performance studies, game designer, and TED-Talk sensation. The ten semi-finalists represented a wide range of graduate programs at Berkeley, from epidemiology to journalism to nuclear engineering and more.

According to last year’s Berkeley Champion, Alexis Shusterman, Grad Slam is “all about taking a step back to see the big picture. It’s about having something to say when someone encountering your research says ‘so what?'” Shusterman delivered a riveting keynote address that highlighted the importance of being able to convey one’s research to non-specialists in a succinct manner. As Alexis explains, Grad Slam led to much greater exposure for her research:

“Each of the finalists was connected with an editor of the online magazine The Conversation, which gave us the opportunity to share our research with yet another, even broader, audience. And then a few months after my piece appeared in The Conversation, I was contacted by an environmental news writer with Grist who wanted to do a blog post on my research….Grad Slam opened the door for me to further develop my skills as a science communicator.”

This year’s second prize winner, Mingxi Xheng from the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, appreciated the opportunity to compete in Grad Slam, saying that it helped her avoid “getting too caught up in the small details” and that she “enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out a way to explain as much about [her] field and experiments in as little time as possible to a diverse audience.” As the second-place winner, Mingxi will be ready to represent Berkeley at the April 22 system-wide competition should Kelsey be unable to participate.

All ten semi-finalists represented their graduate programs with distinction and significant poise, illustrating for everyone in attendance why Berkeley is regarded worldwide as a premier research institution. Join in wishing Kelsey all the best in the April 22 UC-wide competition!