UCLA Grad Slam 2020 winner earns 2nd place in virtual UC-wide competition, with help from a superhero

An-Chieh Feng, a native of Taiwan, used Batman to explain complex principles of DNA.

Recent UCLA doctoral graduate An-Chieh Feng could say she owes some of her success to Batman.

Dr. Feng, who earned her PhD in molecular biology, used the caped crusader in her UCLA Grad Slam 2020 presentation, “99% Useless?” to help explain how the structure of DNA changes in the immune response in the body.

“When Gotham City is in danger it activates the Bat Signal,” an enthusiastic Feng explained to the audience while flashing a Batman sticker on her left palm. “Similarly, our immune cells must turn on the danger signal in the form of changing their chromatin structure from closed to open to initiate the immune system.”

If that sounds a bit esoteric, don’t worry — that’s the point.

Grad Slam is an annual competition in which graduate students must explain their thesis — embodying years of complex research — to the public in an interesting, accessible way in just three minutes.

In the time it takes to microwave a cup of coffee, Dr. Feng laid out her theory that 99% of human DNA regions thought to be useless actually can change our chromatin structures, which allows our cells to fight off invaders.

“By sequencing the whole genome, which could be the target to our immune system, I found over 60,000 of these useful DNA regions, which could be the therapeutic targets to reshape our immune system,” Dr. Feng told a rapt audience during her March 2020 presentation. “Piece by piece, I believe we will complete the treasure map of human genome, which will guide us to perfectly understanding the immune system.”

Dr. Feng won the UCLA Grad Slam competition last year and went on to earn second place in the UC Grad Slam competition earlier this month, taking home a combined $9,000 in prize money.

Dr. An-Chieh Feng

Not bad for a Taiwan native who, as a first-year grad student, was so self-conscious about her English she blanked out during a class presentation — an experience that haunted her throughout grad school.

“Originally I thought second or third would be well-deserved, but I’m surprised that I won first place,” Dr. Feng says. “The whole lab at UCLA supported me and gave me the confidence to say, ‘You can do it. You have the best to win,’ and don’t worry about I’m not a native speaker.”

Knowing her calling

Dr. Feng knew she wanted to become a surgeon from childhood, but eventually she realized becoming a doctor was not enough for her. “My family told me if I do research, I can save more lives,” she says.

She earned her medical degree in 2009 in Taipei, Taiwan, where she trained as a surgeon, with a specialty in liver transplantation and a subspecialty in breast surgery. After working for several years, she elected to pursue graduate school at UCLA, where she’d be able to indulge her passion for research.

“UCLA is very collaborative and open-minded. I felt the whole environment was very friendly, especially for me as an Asian,” Dr. Feng says. “And I also joined a great lab.”

She credits Stephen Smale, PhD, vice dean for research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, for providing the support that enabled her to finish grad school in her goal of 4½ years. He also encouraged Dr. Feng to enter the Grad Slam competition, she says.

“He just gives us a lot of freedom, not only in doing science, but in doing whatever we want, even though it takes time from our research,” she says. “He supported me for all the competition, from preliminary rounds until the final round and for all my stages of competition he participated and gave me feedback as well.”

Dr. Stephen Smale

Dr. Smale says Dr. Feng stood out among graduate students.

“Despite the fact she had done lots of liver transplants and been successful at that for her career, she was willing to dive into a field that she knew nothing about and work unbelievably hard,” he says. “She was eager to explore a broad range of potential projects, and was just very pleasant, and also took a leadership role in the lab in wanting to make sure everything was done properly.”

He notes she was the only Grad Slam finalist for whom English is not the first language.

“Even in the UCLA competition there are very few nonnative speakers, and I think that’s one problem the competition has recognized, that those who are nonnative speakers have to be extra bold to do this,” Dr. Smale says.

Now back home in Taiwan, Dr. Feng plans to continue her research and focus on becoming an “independent and well-practiced surgeon.” Her goal is to one day run her own lab and to help bridge the gap between clinical research and basic science. She notes that it is often hard for clinical doctors to design studies to understand phenomena observed during daily practice in a fundamental and mechanistic way.

“That’s my unique characteristic, that I can connect the two sides very well,” she says. “That’s why I try to make myself very well prepared on both sides.”

Preparing for Grad Slam

By her second year at UCLA, Dr. Feng had become a more comfortable English speaker. Her role as a teaching assistant, a requirement for graduate students, not only furthered her English skills, it paved her way to enter Grad Slam, she says.

Dr. An-Chieh Feng shows off a simplified DNA model. (Photo courtesy of Dr. An-Chieh Feng)

“I taught virology, and a lot of details are hard to explain to the students. So, I had to practice a lot to find out a really great analogy to help the students understand what I want to say,” she says.

Dr. Feng knew her research on the structure of DNA was sound; her dilemma was how to bring it to life for an audience of nonscientists. “It’s very difficult to condense it into three minutes and the worst part is how can you talk about genes or the chromatin structure in an interesting way? It’s just too far away from a general audience.”

Dr. Feng sought feedback from her lab colleagues, and especially another grad student in her lab, Allison Daly, who had taken second place in the 2019 Grad Slam competition. UCLA held workshops to help the students focus their topics, advance their presentation skills, craft their presentations and design their visuals.

The competitors also engaged in small group workshops to practice and help each other.

“I practiced with a lot of people from different fields to see if they understand what I’m saying, but most said, ‘No, if there isn’t a very interesting comparison, it’s hard to understand,’” Dr. Feng says. After much brainstorming, she and her friends came up with the superhero analogy.

“Originally, it was Iron Man, but eventually we considered Batman was a better example,” Dr. Feng explains. “It’s also easier to find the tattoo.”

UCLA Grad Slam 2020 began in February that year with four preliminary rounds and two semifinal rounds. Forty-three students competed, representing more than two-dozen areas of study. Presentations were scored on clarity, organization, delivery, visuals, appropriateness, intellectual significance and engagement.

The final round was held March 5, less than two weeks before a global pandemic shut down the world. When Dr. Feng took the stage that night, she was in her element.

“I feel very confident standing on stage talking to the audience, because it’s just talking to people,” she says. “I feel like it’s my stage; it’s my time.”

Dr. Feng wouldn’t take the “stage” again until May 7 of this year, when the University of California hosted a virtual UC Grad Slam 2021, featuring the winners of the 2020 competitions from the 10 UC campuses.

By then, she had returned to Taiwan where she’d spent a grueling week performing liver transplants.

“I feel I didn’t do the UC Grad Slam very well,” she says. “Part of it is because I was exhausted at the time, and also the virtual platform makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s not like talking to people.”

Still, second place is an honor, she says. Moreover, Grad Slam helped her overcome her traumatic first year of grad school and her insecurities as a nonnative speaker.

“I know I have to conquer it, otherwise it will follow me all my life,” she says. “That kind of traumatic memory forced me to work, and I’m glad that I conquered that fear. Now I have more confidence about myself.”

Learn more about the UCLA Grad Slam competition and the UCLA Graduate Education program.

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.