Ashley Fong
Ashley Fong will compete in the first annual “Grad Slam” event in which one graduate student from each University of California campus will present their research in a three-minute pitch. The program is designed to help scientists become effective communicators to the general public. UCI Graduate Division

It takes Ashley Fong just three minutes to explain how to mend a broken heart. But it’s taken years of study and much practice to perfect her pitch.

The molecular biology and biochemistry doctoral candidate who explores how stem cells can be used for alternative heart disease treatments is UC Irvine’s entrant in the Grad Slam event, which will be held May 4 at the University of California Office of the President in Oakland. Her topic: “Stem cells: How to Mend a Broken Heart.”

Grad Slam is a contest to communicate research, and Fong will compete against nine finalists from other UC campuses for a $10,000 prize. The participants – all current graduate students – are judged on how well they engage the audience, how clearly they communicate key concepts and how effectively they focus and present their ideas.

UC Grad Slam asks these students to take years of academic toil and present it to an audience in just three minutes, free of jargon or technical lingo. Think of it as a TED talk on steroids or the ultimate in elevator pitches.

“It’s important for graduate students to explain their research to the general public in ways that are easy to understand,” says Frances Leslie, vice provost and dean of the Graduate Division who hosted the campus-level competition in April. “And it’s also critical for the taxpayers of California to see the benefits of their support of graduate education.”

Fong researches the heart microenvironment and how that affects stem cell-derived heart muscle cell growth. The type of stem cells that turn into heart muscle cells are initially immature, making them unsafe and ineffective for use in transplantation or drug screening.

Fong and other researchers’ objective is to mature these potentially new heart muscle cells. They do this by transferring them to the microenvironment’s extracellular matrix, or scaffold proteins outside the cell. Researchers and clinicians can now use the maturation strategy to develop treatments and pharmaceuticals.

Fong discovered her passion for stem cell research during a summer undergraduate internship at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco. She continued work with stem cells in the lab of Chris Hughes, professor and chair of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Fong now holds two fellowships – one with CIRM and a second with UCI’s LifeChips program, which is part of the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeships program. She and her team also won the 2013 Business Plan Competition at the Paul Merage School of Business.

“There are so many great opportunities to be a part of meaningful research at UCI and I’ve been fortunate to be able to take advantage of the,” Fong says. “I’m interested in joining the biotech industry after I graduate this fall, and hope to be involved with a company that makes therapies so I can help improve and save patient lives.”

UC President Janet Napolitano will serve as emcee for the Grad Slam finals. The UC Irvine community is invited to an on-campus viewing party scheduled for 11 a.m. in the Graduate Resource Center, complete with refreshments. UC community members may access the live streamed event at: