Key takeaways

  • The annual Grad Slam competition challenges graduate students to briefly explain their research in a clear and accessible way in front of an audience of non-experts.
  • This year’s winner, neuroscience doctoral candidate Melis Çakar, spoke about how activity in a brain structure called the cerebellum correlates with over-responsivity to sensory stimuli in people with autism spectrum disorder.
  • Çakar beat out 52 other competitors and won $5,000; she will now represent UCLA at the UC-wide Grad Slam competition on May 3.

Imagine you’re trying to catch a ball or tie your shoes. It is your cerebellum, a part of your brain, that enables you to do these things smoothly. The cerebellum is also involved in how you understand language, interact with others and experience sensory stimuli. It is the cerebellum’s role in these latter functions, particularly in the context of autism, that UCLA graduate student Melis Çakar is studying, and she does a great job explaining it.

Earlier this month, Çakar won UCLA’s 2024 Grad Slam competition with her presentation “Cerebellum: From (un)Fashionable Research to Pivotal Science,” topping a field of 52 competitors and taking home a $5,000 award. The event challenges graduate students to explain their research to a non-expert audience in three minutes or less, communicating complex ideas in a relatable and accessible way.

Grad Slam at UCLA is hosted by the Division of Graduate Education, which offers workshops and peer coaching to help participants prepare.

As UCLA’s winner, Çakar, will represent the campus at the UC-wide Grad Slam finals at LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco on May 3.

Melis Çakar holds a small trophy and an oversize check for $5,000.
Rich Schmitt
Melis Çakar with her trophy and check.

Çakar’s journey into neuroscience began with a fascination for the brain’s inner workings. The native of Istanbul embarked on her academic career at Pomona College, earning a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in French, then enrolled as a doctoral candidate in UCLA Neuroscience Interdepartmental Program. Under the mentorship of faculty members Shulamite Green and Mirella Dapretto, Çakar has explored the link between the cerebellum and sensory challenges in autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

Her research shines a spotlight on sensory over-responsivity, a common yet often overlooked aspect of ASD. It manifests as an extreme aversion to certain sensory stimuli — loud noises, flashing lights or foods with particular textures — that can profoundly impact the daily lives of autistic individuals and their families. Despite the prevalence of sensory over-responsivity, evidence-based interventions for it have remained limited, prompting Çakar to seek answers in the neural circuits of the cerebellum.

With advanced neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), Çakar investigates how cerebellar activity during sensory experiences correlates with the severity of sensory over-responsivity. Her work represents a crucial step toward understanding the neural underpinnings of the phenomenon and formulating more targeted interventions.

In her dissertation, Çakar seeks to characterize differences in cerebellar function between autistic and typically developing youth, shedding light on the intricate relationship between cerebellar atypicality and severity of sensory over-responsivity severity. By unraveling the mysteries of the cerebellum, her research has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of sensory challenges in ASD, improving the quality of life for countless individuals.

Beyond the laboratory, Çakar is a passionate advocate for science communication and outreach. Through science illustration, animation and community engagement, she strives to bridge the gap between academia and the wider world.

When she’s not immersed in research, you can find her at a nearby café lost in the pages of a good book or catching waves along the California coast.