Watch Winning Student's Elevator Pitch in UC Contest

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Update Thursday, 2:20 p.m.

Watch the winning presentation

Some of the brightest -- or at least the most loquacious -- graduate students in the University of California system competed in the UC's third annual Grad Slam today.

At the downtown San Francisco offices of LinkedIn, 10 current graduate and Ph.D. students –- one from each UC school -- took the stage to present their research in the form of a three-minute elevator pitch. The jargon-free talks were succinct, but the ideas were far from simple.


Leslie Rith-Najarian, a Ph.D. student at UCLA, won the $6,000 grand prize for her presentation on building an online anxiety and depression prevention program for students.

Other topics ranged from curing blindness to sustainable surfboards.

“Cruz foam does exactly that – taking chitin from shrimp shells and transforming it into foam," said John Felts, the second-prize winner from UC Santa Cruz, in his talk. "Our eco-friendly water-based process involves only water, salts and a foaming agent. There’s no toxic component.”

Third place went to Geoff Hollett, of UC San Diego, for his presentation on  using geometry to create better  birth control.

A people's choice award, voted on by people watching the event online, went to Leah Foltz of UC Santa Barbara, whose presentation was about using personalized medicine to cure blindness.

Students presented to an audience filled with UC alumni from companies like Google, Genentech and Illumina, and they all hung around afterward to network and -- dare we say it? --  perhaps discuss a little funding.

The hope is that these big ideas will translate to the real world rather than find their ultimate expression as an article in a scientific journal.

Communicating to Non-Academics

UC considers the contest a professional development opportunity, said Pamela Jennings, executive director of graduate studies for the system’s Office of the President.

“It used to be when people talked about getting a Ph.D. in particular, you thought about it only as a vehicle to pursue a professorship or teaching at a university or college level,” Jennings said. “And really our students come to graduate school with a mindset to do all sorts of careers. It’s particularly important that they have the ability to translate their [research] in a way that’s relatable to others. We’re seeing that’s very critical on the job market and for entrepreneurial opportunities.”

And — we might say, as we’ve seen around climate change — scientists are not always the best at communicating their research in a way that hits home with the general public.

“It’s very easy if your’e a researcher to speak to your own, because you do that quite often,” Jennings said. “What if you were just talking to someone down the street, you know your mom’s neighbor, your cousin’s best friend? How would you make them understand what you do and why it matters?”

As a side note on today's contest, the event was emceed by UC President Janet Napolitano, who is taking somewhat longer than three minutes to explain a $175 million secret reserve uncovered by a state audit. Napolitano did not look the worse for wear today after having to apologize in front of a joint legislative oversight committee Tuesday for what the state auditor says was interference of the investigation.