UCSB Grad Student Headed to UC-Wide Grad Slam


Jack Shea
Staff Writer

Leah Foltz, a fourth year Ph.D candidate in UCSB’s Biomolecular Science and Engineering department, enters into the final round of the University of California’s Grad Slam, an annual competition engaging public interest in leading research.

Grad Slams are first held at every UC campus. The winners then advance to the UC-wide competitions. Inspired by her classmates and lab-mates who participated in Grad Slam, Fultz wins UCSB’s Grad Slam with optimism and encouragement. “It was challenging to cram four years of research into three minutes and make it interesting; overall, it was a fun experience and would definitely recommend it to other graduate students,” Foltz said.

Condensing years of research into three minutes quashes undergraduate stressors. Her graduate student lifestyle equiped her with the skills needed for the Grad Slam venture. What Foltz considers to be a “normal week” consists of a never ending workload: continually reading new publications in the field, writing for publications, writing protocols for the general lab usage, training interns, training undergraduates, training other graduates using the lab, weekly lab meetings, and execution of her own research.  

“We have a stem cell facility here in Bio II [UCSB’s second biology building],” said Folz. Explaining her research, she said, “We study blinding diseases. My professor started out studying age related macular degeneration, which is a blinding disease that affects the elderly. Then, some of the other people in lab and I started studying diseases that are inherited forms of blindness: something that you have in your DNA, a mutation, causing your cells to die. We’re able, in lab, to get cells, from actual patients with these diseases, and study those cells so that we can get an understanding of what’s happening in those diseases.”

Foltz’s research proves that professors and graduate students change society in their laboratories and classrooms. The University of California advocates for these changes and utilizes live-streams of off-campus outreach.

Live-streaming Grad Slams promotes education, making scholarly information “accessible to the public,” as Foltz said. Thanks to this, her family, friends, and students now understand what her research entails and why she always has a heavy workload.

It’s definitely satisfying and validating to be able to explain what you’re doing, why you’re spending so much time in school, why you spend so much of your day optimizing these different aspects of protocols, and, finally, get a chance to take the big picture and justify all that time spent in lab,” says Foltz, describing the rewarding feeling of her family’s and friends’ understanding.

A UCSB undergraduate alumna herself, Foltz’s speaks from experience in achieving a successful transition into graduate school. “My advice to undergrads would not be to just pursue professors but also to connect with graduate students. They are going to be an easier bridge into the lab, and they’re the ones doing the research on a day to day basis” said Foltz, addressing undergraduates desiring research experience and further studies.

Foltz expresses a passion for academia and excitement about her work as a TA, including a current course on regenerative medicine in stem cell research. The interests and passion don’t stop there. “I think I’d really enjoy not just actual physical based science but also being in some kind of communications role [in the private sector] after graduate school.” This comes at no surprise with Foltz’s clear talent for strong communication, explaining complicated information in simple, easy-to-understand language.

“I think it’s extremely important to be able to communicate science to people in a way that gets them excited about it. The more that scientists can connect with the community, the more we’ll bridge that gap between scientists and the community at large,” said Foltz.

Referring to the current times in which the value of science is under governmental debate, from basic clean water to medical advances, Foltz expresses concern.

“I think taking that time to think about how you can translate your research into something that people can understand, appreciate, and learn about will help them be more accepting of science and, especially for something like stem cell research, the more they know tends to help fill the gap between any misinformation they’re getting from other sources,” she said.

The UC-wide final Grad Slam competition will be at LinkedIn’s San Francisco headquarters on May 4.