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  Bren PhD student Mengya Tao, UCSB Grand Slam winner

2018 UCSB Grand Slam: the art of communicating science succinctly

21 April, 2018
By Dr. Sangwon Suh

As today's research stretches to ever narrower branches of science, communicating our research with broader audience is a challenge. Moreover, in the age of information-overload, researchers are increasingly facing the need of brevity in their communication. Grad Slam aims to nurture next generation leaders in science by arming them with the skills that allow effective and succinct communication. This UC-wide competition requires the contenders to present their research within three slides in three minutes.

Today, the final round of the 2018 UCSB Grad Slam took place at the Corwin Pavilion. This year, three brave Bren school students made to the final round, one of whom was my PhD advisee, Mengya Tao.

Mengya's talk, "A Safer World with Fewer Regrettable Chemicals" explained why understanding the environmental and human health implications of chemicals is increasingly challenging, and how her research under the CLiCC project addresses the challenge by integrating multiple domains of science and techniques including life cycle assessment (LCA), environmental sciences, data science, and artificial intelligence.

She started with a picture of a humidifier, stimulating the audience's intellectual curiosity right from the beginning. Then she told the story of a humidifier disinfectant, polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), which is suspected to be associated with over a thousand victims, making the need and importance of her research immediately clear. From there, she went right to the research gaps and how her research addresses them. Mengya struck the right balance between scientific depth and accessibility, probably thanks in part to the multidisciplinary research environment at Bren that she has been exposed to.

It was a spectacular talk. And, to our great excitement, Mengya landed this year's UCSB championship. Mengya will compete against the winners from other UC campuses at the LinkedIn Headquarters in San Francisco on May 3rd. In addition to Mengya, Lauren Menzer, a second year Bren MESM student won a runner-up. So our students took two out of three awards from a campus-wide competition. It was a great day for the Bren school. For my lab, Mengya is the second UCSB Grad Slam awardee after Jessica Perkins, who took a runner-up two years back.

I believe that Mengya, as an international student, had to make a lot of extra efforts to prepare for her Grad Slam talk. Public speaking in general, and that on one's own research in particular, is an intimidating task even to native speakers and seasoned scientists. But, ironically, challenges often forge us to work harder, sometimes leading to extraordinary outcomes. I believe that her extra effort only makes this achievement all the more meaningful for her and for the rest of us.

Mengya went on compete at the University of California Grand Slam Finals where she won the People's Choice Award!