And Our Grad Slam Champion Is …

Sam Westreich gives Grad Slam presentation.
Sam Westreich hits a “Grad Slam” in his presentation about the gut microbiome last week. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

“Let me tell you about the 5 trillion stowaways hiding inside your body right now … the gut microbiome, the collection of bacteria that lives inside our intestinal tract.”

That’s how Sam Westreich grabbed the audience’s attention as he began his UC Davis Grad Slam presentation last Friday afternoon (April 14) in the Community Education Room at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. Westreich is a fourth-year Ph.D. student with three faculty advisors: Danielle Lemay, associate professional researcher, Genome Center; Ian Korf, professor, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology; and David Mills, professor, Department of Food Science and Technology.

Westreich presented on “Understanding the Gut Microbiome with Metatranscriptomics.” Under Grad Slam rules, he had only three minutes to describe his research and to do so in a lively, interesting manner for a general university audience.

“Just a couple decades, we had no idea that these bacteria did anything for us. We considered them to be parasites, freeloaders. Today we know that’s not the case. A balanced and stable microbiome contributes to regularity — yeah! — and to nutrient absorption.

“But a disruption in the gut microbiome leads to obesity, it leads to the development of food allergies in children and leads to life-threatening autoimmune diseases,” Westreich said. “And, even worse, one in three adults will suffer from a disruption to their microbiome at some point during their life.”

Sam Westreich and big check
Westreich and his big prize.

A member of the Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group, Westreich described his work in metatranscriptomics — simply put, "big data," he said — a new method of studying the gut microbiome with greater resolution via super computers. And he told how he created Simple Analysis of Metatranscriptomes through Sequence Adaptation, or SAMSA, “a program that handles this complex data and analyzes it from beginning to end.”

He said he has released SAMSA as open-source code, free of charge, and researchers are starting to use it around the world. “With the roadmap of metatranscriptomics, we will finally be able to decipher the mysteries of the 5 trillion passengers that live inside every single one of our digestive tracts.”

This year’s Grad Slam drew more than 80 proposals, more than double last year’s number. A preliminary round in February narrowed the field to the 10 finalists who competed last week.

Prasant Mohaptra, vice provost and dean, introduced and interviewed the finalists — and announced the award winners, starting with Westreich in first place.

He earned a $1,000 prize and the right to represent UC Davis in the UC Grad Slam on May 4, against nine other campus champions. Six other finalists have been picked.

The UC Davis Grad Slam also awarded prizes for second and third place:

  • Second place, $500 — Maci Mueller, Animal Biology, who presented “Mess With the Bull — Don’t Get the Horns”
  • Third place, $250 — Carina Fish, Geology, who presented “How Humans Affect the Deep Sea: Ocean Acidifcation”

The judges: Ralph J. Hexter, interim chancellor; Ken Burtis, interim provost and executive vice chancellor; Paul Dodd, associate vice chancellor, interdisciplinary research and strategic initiatives, Office of Research; Susan Savage, owner, Sacramento River Cats; Traci Van, senior business impact consultant, Van & Associates; and Dan Wolk, former mayor, city of Davis.

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