What’s It Take to Win Grad Slam? An Earful

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“Corn Queen” Katie Murphy is wearing a new crown, as winner of the UC Grad Slam last Friday (May 10) — the first UC Davis student to win the systemwide contest in its five-year history.

The competition begins each year at the campus level, where Ph.D. and graduate students present their research in three minutes or less, aiming to give lively, easy to understand talks for a general audience — allowing students to develop and practice their skills in explaining their work.

Murphy, a plant biology Ph.D. student who works in Professor Philip Zerbe’s lab, wowed the judges — first on campus, then at the systemwide competition at LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco — with her talk, “Feeling Sick: How Corn Makes Its Own Medicine.”

She started her talk by asking the audience for a show of hands, “How many of you are looking forward to our lunch today? … Keep your hand up if you’d like to eat lunch in 20 years.”

With population growth, however, “lunch in the future could be a luxury,” she said, leading into her discovery of a new group of chemicals in corn — chemicals that the plant uses to make its own medicine to fight off a fungal disease. “We now know the structure of these chemicals, the genes that control their production and how they’re working as antibiotics to fight off disease.”

Her goal? “Through genetics and breeding, we can make corn varieties and other crops that can make their own medicine,” to bolster the world’s food supply.

UC President Janet Napolitano joined in the puns that always seem to surface around Murphy’s presentations. “Thank you for giving us a real earful,” Napolitano said.

Murphy responded, “It was a little corny.” Hardly. She won the $6,000 first-place award and the Slammie trophy — in the shape of a microphone.

This year’s Grad Slam judges: Jessica Aguirre, NBC Bay Area news anchor; Serenity Bassett, senior at Inderkum High School; Deborah Cullinan, chief executive officer of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Alan Sachs, chief scientific officer, Thermo Fisher Scientific; and John A. Pérez, vice chair of the UC Board of Regents. 

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