Editor’s note: This page was updated on May 5 to reflect Brandon Tsai’s victory at the UC-wide competition.

UCLA medical student Brandon Tsai won the 2023 University of California Grad Slam competition, besting competitors from the nine other UC campuses with his presentation about next-generation COVID-19 vaccines.

The competition, which took place today in San Francisco, challenges UC graduate students to communicate their research clearly, concisely and engagingly to nonexpert audiences, in three minutes or less.

Tsai and the other contestants were introduced by University of California President Michael Drake, who also interviewed the presenters after their talks. The judges were UCLA professor Susan Cochran; Mieko Hatano, executive director of the Oakland Symphony; Ana Matosantos, a member of the UC Board of Regents; Lanita Pace-Hinton of CalMatters; and Sergio Sanchez, a San Francisco high school student.

Full video of the 2023 University of California Grad Slam competition. UC President Michael Drake introduces Brandon Tsais presentation at 40:29.

Tsai is the second UCLA winner in the history of the competition, following Leslie Rith-Najarian, then a UCLA graduate student in psychology, in 2017. 

Tsai studies evolutionary genomics — the ways in which genes and genomes have changed over time. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes that his research focus might ultimately lead to better approaches for developing new, more effective vaccines for COVID and a range of other diseases.

In March, Tsai delivered a talk about next-generation COVID vaccines as participant in UCLA’s 2023 Grad Slam competition, and his presentation was a hit. Tsai beat out 57 other competitors to win a $5,000 fellowship and the opportunity to compete against the winners from the other UC campuses at the UC Grad Slam. 

“I think research communication is an important skill for all researchers to learn because a lot of our research is funded through public funds,” Tsai said. “Personally, I’ve seen a lot of distrust in science and medicine — especially in the area of vaccines — so I hope that by educating people about the underlying science and allowing them to engage with the researchers, we can start to repair that relationship.”

Participants not only get an opportunity to develop communication and presentation skills, but also to showcase their research and build their professional networks. The competitors are invited to take advantage of workshops on presentation skills, audience engagement and slide design, as well as small-group coaching sessions led by Grad Slam alumni.

“I’m very appreciative of winning the UCLA Grad Slam because I’ve put in a lot of work not only into the research but also making sure that my research topic, which is very relevant to the general population, can be understood by the general population,” said Tsai, who works in the UCLA lab of Dr. Paul Boutros and is in his second year of study toward an M.D.Ph.D.

“COVID-19 vaccines have been critical to the world’s response to the pandemic,” he said. “Yet, COVID-19 is not going away, and we need to consider novel and improved vaccine strategies moving into the future.”

Tsai also earned his undergraduate degree from UCLA, in 2017, majoring in microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics and working in Dr. Xia Yang’s lab. After graduating, he stayed at UCLA as a full-time researcher with Dr. Owen Witte before joining the UCLA–Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program in 2019.