CBS Grad Students Snag First and Second Place in Grad Slam

Two women standing in front of a presentation screen and holding an oversized check
Julia Mouat won the UC Davis Grad Slam with her presentation, “Grandmas, Ghosts and Genes.” Teresa Dillinger, director of the GradPathways Institute for Professional Development, who served as emcee for the event, congratulates Mouat. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

CBS Grad Students Snag First and Second Place in Grad Slam

Talk on "grandma’s genes" named top presentation

The final round of the UC Davis Grad Slam had a flurry of PowerPoint slides, a giant deck of cards and a stuffed monkey, but in the end the top prize went to someone talking about genetic “ghosts.”

The winner of the rapid-fire research showcase Thursday (April 6) was Julia Mouat, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Biological Sciences’ Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group. Her talk, “Grandmas, Ghosts and Genes,” explained her research into whether women’s smoking during pregnancy raises the risk of autism in their grandchildren. The “ghosts” in question are molecules on DNA that are believed to be responsible for switching certain genes on and off.

She will now represent UC Davis at UC’s systemwide Grad Slam, May 5, in San Francisco.

“I was telling people once this was over, I could just forget my speech, but I guess I have to remember it for another month,” she said after the competition, posing for photos with an oversized check representing her $2,500 prize.

Mouat worked as a public speaking coach as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, and those skills served her well during her presentation. Contestants have three minutes maximum and are limited to one slide to help make their points, and must ensure their research is explained in a way that the panel of five judges can easily understand.

“There is an incredible breadth of graduate research going on across our university, with an even larger breadth of impact,” said Jean-Pierre Delplanque, vice provost and dean of Graduate Studies. “Events like Grad Slam are an opportunity to not only celebrate this powerful work, but to show our greater community how this essential work will improve our shared future — and why it deserves our support.”

Female presenter standing beside presentation screen and pointing to an image of a monkey
Nalina Aiempichitkijkarn won second prize with her presentation, “Social Connection as a Double-Edged Sword: Lessons From Monkey Disease Transmission.” (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Second place and $1,500 went to Nalina Aiempichitkijkarn, a Ph.D. student in animal behavior. Her research focuses on the ways social connections among long-tailed macaques contribute to the spread of disease among the primates.

She helped make her point — and explain how she collects samples from monkeys — with the aid of a plush monkey. She said she rolled up a sock to create a tail for the monkey, which was helpful to demonstrate how the animals act when they poop — an important behavior to monitor when the aim is to collect a stool sample from a specific one.

During her time at UC Davis, she has studied macaques in India and Indonesia, and observed them in Brazil during her master’s studies at the University of Georgia. She said she hopes to help create a “common, systematic way to observe behavior” that could be applied to everything from primates to backyard squirrels.

Group of students applauding
Grad Slam participants react to a presentation by a colleague. From left, are: Ph.D. candidates Marcela Radtke, Brandon Cutler, Hans Oberschelp and Nalina Aiempichitkijkarn. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)
Male presenter holding a large playing card
Hans Oberschelp won third place with his presentation, “Securing Data by Shuffling Cards.” (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

The third-prize winner, Ph.D. candidate Hans Oberschelp, explained his math research with the help of an oversized deck of cards that he said he purchased with the gift card he received for being selected to compete in the final round of the campus Grad Slam.

“I'm working at the UC Davis math department to mathematically prove that some algorithms are impossible to crack, and I'm doing this by shuffling cards,” he said, explaining a system called the “swap-or-not” shuffle, in which pairs of cards are paired together and either swapped or left alone based on the results of coin flips. “My advisor and I mathematically proved the exact number of rounds it takes for the swap-or-not shuffle to get so random it's basically unbreakable.”

His research has implications for keeping passwords safe, and for it he received a $750 prize.

Other honorees in the competition:

  • Public Impact Prize, $500 — Yasmin Mendoza, a Ph.D. student in English, for “Don't Say --- : An Exploration of the Censorship of Literature in the United States.”
  • People’s Choice Award, $500 — Brandon Cutler, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, for “Food of the Future: Rethinking How We Look at Plant Waste and Processing Using Magnetic Resonance.”
  • Global Education for All Designation (recognizing participants for embracing UC Davis’ goal of global learning) — Rachael Dal Porto, a Ph.D student in civil and environmental engineering, for “Tiny Particles vs. Global Climate Change”; Lauren Hitt, a master’s student in the Ecology Graduate Group, for “Lawsuits and Laser Beams: Learning the Secrets of Putah Creek Salmon”; and Marcela Radtke, a Ph.D. candidate in the Nutritional Biology Graduate Group, for “Starving for a Degree: The Impacts of Food Insecurity in University Students.”

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