UC Merced’s Graduate Division wrapped up its annual Grad Slam competition this week, announcing Physics doctoral candidate Boe Mendewala as its campus champion.
The judges awarded two runners-up, Shayna Bennett, a third-year Ph.D. student in Applied Mathematics, and Melinda Gonzales, a first-year Ph.D. student in Environmental Systems.
Mendewala impressed the judges with her talk, “The Solar Solution: Upgrading Energy Technology.” Her research with Professor Sayantani Ghosh studies the optical properties of hybrid perovskite materials for solar energy and lighting applications.
“I'm so grateful for this honor, especially considering the quality of presentations that all the finalists gave this year,” said Mendewala, who grew up in Fullerton after arriving in the U.S. from India at the age of 5. “I feel privileged to have been able to share my research in such a unique format and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of turning a lot of technical information into a digestible and compact three-minute talk.”
This was her first year entering the competition because in previous years the qualifying round fell in March when she was attending the American Physical Society meeting out of town. In the fall, Mendewala will start a faculty position at Mills College in Oakland.
This year’s Grad Slam looked much different from past years due to California’s shelter-in-place orders. Each finalist was tasked with submitting a video of his or her presentation instead of performing it in front of a live audience. While most didn’t have experience with the format, the entrants received individualized coaching sessions with UC Merced Foundation Board Diplomat Jane Binger, Ed.D., who has extensive experience with in-person and online coaching.
“We asked a lot of them while under unusual circumstances. This year was difficult because they didn't have a live audience to react to and to feed them with energy and interest,” Binger said. “The advantage was they could record different takes to get a video they were comfortable with and they now have another skill for sharing their research.”
A panel of eight judges — UC Merced Foundation trustees Kenni Friedman, Lori Gallo, Eileen Hamilton, Daryl Hatano and John Loll; as well as Debbie Ledford, a retired Fresno County teacher; Phil Nova, a software engineer at Google; and Ashley Swearengin, president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation — scored each video and selected the winners.
“I am truly proud of these UC Merced candidates and their research,” Friedman said. “I was just amazed at the quality of all the presentations.”
These young researchers are applying their training to some of the most pressing challenges in our region and developing real and practical solutions. I'm encouraged for the future of the Central Valley and California.
For Swearengin, a first-time judge and former Fresno mayor, viewing the students’ research presentations rendered her optimistic for the future.
"Judging the 2020 UC Merced Grad Slam presentations by the university's top graduate students was inspiring,” Swearengin said. “These young researchers are applying their training to some of the most pressing challenges in our region and developing real and practical solutions. I'm encouraged for the future of the Central Valley and California."
Mendewala will receive a $5,000 grand prize, and Bennett and Gonzales will be awarded $1,000 each. Binger and her husband, Robert Bernstein, M.D., a UC Merced Foundation trustee, made a generous donation to support Grad Slam, as did Hamilton.
“We consider it an honor to be able to support UC Merced research and the Graduate Division,” Binger said. “We both have benefited tremendously from graduate degrees and doctorates. We believe in advanced education and we believe in the power of research for our communities and our society.”