Ashley Fong
Ashley Fong demonstrated poise, personality and an expert grasp of how to mend a broken heart – with stem cells in the first-ever University of Californa Grad Slam. She won first place among her graduate student peers at nine other campuses for her three-minute presentation. UCI Graduate Division

When UC Irvine’s Ashley Fong, goes after something, she puts her whole heart into it.

On Monday, May 4, her poise, personality and ability to explain her complex stem cell research succinctly and in a way the general public can understand won her first place and a $6,000 prize in the first Grad Slam tournament sponsored by the University of California Office of the President. Fong went up against nine graduate student finalists from other UC campuses with her talk on “Stem Cells: How to Mend a Broken Heart.” (Click on Fong’s title to go to her time stamp.)

The competitors essentially were asked 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. They were judged on how well they engaged the audience, how clearly they communicated key concepts and how effectively they focused and presented their ideas.

“We are very proud of Ashley,” said Frances Leslie, vice provost and graduate division dean. “All the students did a great job and she excelled. UCI believes that it is very important for graduate students to be able to explain what they do to the general public, and we offer several types of communications training to help them do so.”

It took Fong just three minutes to explain how to mend a broken heart using stem cells. But it’s taken years of study and much practice to perfect her pitch. She 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.

She discovered her passion for stem cell research during a summer undergraduate internship at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco. She continued to 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.

UC President Janet Napolitano emceed the event, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf welcomed participants. The judges were Jessica Aguirre, reporter and anchor with NBC Bay Area News; Aimée Dorr, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UC Office of the President; Josh Green, partner and venture capitalist at Mohr Davidow Ventures; and Eddie Island, member of the UC Board of Regents.

“It’s important for graduate students to explain their research to the general public in ways that are easy to understand,” says Frances Leslie, 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.”