Grad Slam 2024 Finalists

Grad Slam is a systemwide competition that showcases and awards the best three-minute research presentations by graduate scholars. This competition not only highlights the excellence, importance and relevance of UCI graduate scholars and their research, but it is also designed to increase graduate students’ communication skills and their capacity to effectively present their work with poise and confidence. It is an opportunity to share accomplishments with the campus, friends of UCI, the local community, and the broader public. This year’s edition of Grad Slam will be virtual, from the semifinals all the way through UC Systemwide Finals. See below to meet the 10 finalists of the 2024 UCI Grad Slam, our 10th Anniversary Edition!

2024 Finalists

Nnaoma Agwu

Henry Samueli School of Engineering

Restoring a Child’s Heart: The IRIS Valve

Every year, 40,000 children in the US are born with congenital heart defects (CHD), and 1 in every 4 with critical CHD will not live past their first year of life. One of the reasons for this issue stems from abnormalities in the right ventricular outflow tract or damage from the surgical repair of an ineffective pulmonary valve surgery. There is one FDA approved pulmonary valve replacement to restore valve function in young children. The Melody’s valve (Medtronic, Minneapolis, MN) is a 20mm diameter balloon expandable valve implanted with minimally invasive surgery into children with a minimum weight limitation of 44-55lbs. Children less than 44lbs. must wait until they have grown, increasing damage to the right ventricle. To eliminate the wait, we designed and developed a new transcatheter pulmonary valve; IRIS valve. Through in vivo implants in piglets, computational simulations and benchtop testing, the IRIS valve functions as a 12mm diameter balloon expandable valve and growth accommodating ability can be deployed for infants as early as 18lbs. IRIS valve will be implanted to replace the faulty pulmonary valve space at 12mm which will be expanded to 20mm to accommodate the growing size of the pulmonary valve space to maintain function.

Paige Halas

School of Medicine

Discovering the Travel Agent for Cancer Cells

Breast cancer cells, much like enthusiastic travelers, exhibit a fondness for exploration. However, these cells display an aggressive migratory behavior that significantly impacts patient outcomes. My research is dedicated to interrupting this movement. I’ve identified a key player, the gene PHLDA2, which functions like a travel agent, guiding cancer cells from the primary tumor to secondary organs. Notably, PHLDA2 collaborates with another gene, SPARC. Acting like a hotel receptionist, SPARC facilitates the settlement of cancer cells in new environments. Our work is groundbreaking, marking the first association of PHLDA2 with breast cancer and defining its interaction with SPARC. This discovery unveils new possibilities for genetic therapies in breast cancer, essentially creating a ‘no-fly list’ for cancer cells.

May Hui

School of Medicine

Flipping the Switch on Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a complex condition that affects nearly 1 in every 5 adults worldwide, posing a major public health concern. Yet, despite its widespread prevalence, few effective strategies for pain management exist – fueled in large part by our limited understanding of the underlying mechanisms of chronic pain.

In my graduate research, I’ve identified a key neural circuit that mediates both physical and emotional aspects of chronic pain, using cutting-edge viral tracing techniques. Activation of this circuit is sufficient to induce chronic pain-like symptoms even in uninjured animals, while silencing the circuit not only relieves pain hypersensitivity but also mitigates anxiety-like behaviors in injured animals.

These findings not only shed light on the neural basis of chronic pain but also pave the way for more targeted interventions. By understanding how pain is encoded in the brain, we can develop next-generation, neural circuit-based therapies that not only eliminate the addictive elements of current prescription opioids, but also treat pain symptoms more effectively. This is the future I envision.

Onwodi Ifejeokwu

School of Medicine

Kill the cancer; Spare the brain!

Each year, approximately 2 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer. With more effective therapies leading to longer life expectancies, there has been a massive influx of cancer survivors suffering from unintended, debilitating side effects, including cancer therapy-related cognitive impairments. Many will face long-term consequences ranging from lapses in memory, difficulty multi-tasking, and for childhood survivors an inability to graduate from high school. Our lab’s previous chemotherapy and radiation studies have shown that it’s not just the cancer or therapy that can cause brain damage: the immune response raised because of the disease and treatment can cause damage, too. This is of particular concern with the modern wave of cancer treatments known as immunotherapies. Unlike more traditional methods of killing cancer which use toxic agents, immunotherapies utilize the body’s own cancer defense mechanisms to kill the cancer. Unfortunately, these mechanisms can also cause brain injury. The great news is brain damage prevention is possible; we have discovered mitigation strategies for chemotherapy and radiation induced brain injury and will do the same for immunotherapies. We hope that future research will further refine our tools to treat cancer and improve quality of life for survivors.

Bryant Labajo Pahl

School of Physical Sciences

Caves, Climate, and Conservation

Caves are Earth’s natural libraries, hosting books in the form of cave deposits, called stalagmites. Like pages in a book, the layers of these stalagmites preserve chemical signals that can be reconstructed to tell us stories about how the climate above the cave changes over time. But imagine being given such an amazing book in a language you can’t understand. To overcome these language barriers, my research involves going into these cave systems to monitor present-day conditions that help us make the best translations of the signals recorded in stalagmites. In our cave monitoring programs, it is important to understand the structure of these caves to understand how stalagmites form, but accurately mapping caves the traditional way, by hand, is difficult due to the time constraints of our expeditions. In my work, I take advantage of new, highly-efficient, handheld mapping technology to create high-resolution 3D renderings and maps of caves. This allows us to better understand the system that creates these powerful climate records while creating virtual documentations of these caves for educational and sustainability purposes. Ultimately, our goal with this project is to better understand these stalagmite books while also fostering an appreciation for caves, climate, and conservation.

Shu Li

Henry Samueli School of Engineering

Good Fire, Bad Fire: How Prescribed Fires Protect Our World from Wildfires

The increasing threat of severe wildfires in California has raised widespread concern among various stakeholders, including wildfire management agencies, conservation groups, and the public. Their shared objective is to identify effective prevention methods that protect both human communities and forest ecosystems. Fuel reduction techniques, such as prescribed burns, thinning, pruning, and chipping, have emerged as direct and manageable approaches to wildfire control. However, their effectiveness in mitigating fire hazards warrants further investigation. To address this gap, our study examines the impact of prescribed burns on forest fuels, using drone to scan the representative areas in the Sierra Nevada Forest. By employing drone-based Lidar and Multispectral sensors, we collected comprehensive data before and after the prescribed burns. Our analysis, which includes factors such as surface fuel loading and vegetation indices, enables us to compare fire risks pre- and post-burn. Preliminary findings indicate that prescribed burns significantly reduce dry and less healthy fuels, thereby decreasing the fire risk in the treated area. Healthier fuels contribute to lower fire intensity, due to their higher moisture content and the cooler, shaded regions created by denser leaves and vegetation. These results highlight the potential of prescribed fires in building more resilient landscapes and safer communities to combat escalating wildfire risks.

Savannah Plaskon

School of Social Sciences

Small Dollar Donations Versus Big Trends

In the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, a record-breaking number of candidates from marginalized groups, considered by many to be political outsiders were elected to Congress. Despite these record-breaking numbers, women, people of color, and women of color still remain drastically underrepresented in our highest legislative branch. There also has been little systematic evaluation of how outsider political candidates- those who may not have access to large dollar donor networks- have fared in recent election cycles. Using FEC data from 2014-2020, I analyze if grassroots, small dollar donations (donations often obtained by political outsiders) were indicative of electoral success as compared to donations from PACs and interest groups. I find that an increased presence and percentage of PAC and interest group money is associated with candidates winning a higher percentage of the vote share in their election. Conversely a higher percentage of small dollar donations leads to a decrease in a candidate’s percentage of the vote share in their election. I also find that far more candidates running in recent election cycles rely on grassroots donations as compared to those relying on money from PACs and interest groups, indicating the difficulty of tapping into these donor networks. These findings raise important insights into how campaign finance and other electoral systems impact representation in our legislative institutions.

Elena Slominski

School of Social Ecology

Prescription for Change: Transitioning to climate-smart healthcare in the U.S.

Climate change poses the biggest public health threat of the 21st century, leading to unprecedented illnesses, injuries, and deaths. Yet, ironically, the worldwide health sector amplifies this crisis by contributing to climate change. With its intensive energy consumption, waste generation, and environmental contamination, the American healthcare sector is the most polluting health sector in the world. To protect the wellbeing of current and future generations, the U.S. health sector must take urgent action to cut its CO2 emissions. Using a mixed-methods approach of expert interviews, field observations, and geospatial analysis, my dissertation research examines the barriers, drivers, and inequities in the transition to climate-smart healthcare in the U.S. In particular, I am examining strategies hospitals can use to not only minimize their environmental impact but to actually enhance the health of both people and the planet.

Curtis Donovyn Smith IV

School of Social Ecology

Convincing Hope

Hope is one of the most critical predictors of success in any domain. Justice-involved youth, however, face a host of collateral consequences that make hope a privilege (e.g. housing and employment discrimination). My program of research examines how consequential hopelessness is for this population but also potential avenues to preserve their hope for the future through evidence-based, rehabilitative, and developmentally-appropriate practices.

Amy Wu

School of Physical Sciences

Tiny Metal Press

We all use phones and computers daily and charging them feels like a chore. There are many ways to possibly reduce their energy consumption. One of those is to make the chips inside of them more efficient. I make and study a thin metal called bismuth. To make them I use a tiny metal press, then I test to see if they have the potential to make our technology last longer.