Campus Grad Slam champion will compete in UC-wide competition

By Matthew Chin

UCLA electrical engineering graduate student Jean Paul Santos is getting ready to engage in a brief, but intense battle of words with graduate students from across the UC system.

As UCLA’s representative in UC’s Grad Slam competition set for Monday, May 4, in Oakland, Santos and other first-place winners from each of the 10 campuses must deliver a compelling, three-minute speech about their research in vastly different disciplines, from powering California with food waste to using stem cells to mend a broken heart. The top three winners of the UC competition will receive a share of $10,000 in prize money.

In Santos’ case, his speech, “How to Talk to Mars,” helped earn him a $3,000 prize at UCLA’s Grand Slam finale on April 16 and the honor of competing in the UC-wide contest. In all, 58 UCLA students competed in the campus’s inaugural Grad Slam. Santos won the preliminary round and advanced to the semifinal round to face 19 other graduate students. To become the UCLA Grad Slam champion, Santos had to out-talk five other finalists.

The contest aims to provide graduate students with career-building skills so that they can communicate clearly about their work with people outside their field and give the public a glimpse of the groundbreaking research they do.

Since winning UCLA’s competition, Santos has been refining his talk and practicing in front of friends from high school and his church. The UC-wide competition will be carried live beginning at 11 a.m. at the competition’s website. UC President Janet Napolitano will emcee the event. The judges’ panel will include Aimée Dorr, UC provost and executive vice president for academic affairs; Jessica Aguirre, reporter and anchor with NBC Bay Area News; venture capitalist Josh Green; and UC Regent Eddie Island.

Santos was a self-described “speech geek” in high school. But his undergraduate — and now graduate studies — in electrical engineering took him in a different direction. So when the UCLA Grad Slam competition was announced earlier this year, he had to revive his talent for public speaking.

“I thought, ‘Can I still apply this technique to what I do now — in research?’” Santos recalled. “I had to practice and come up with a way to digest all this information, and condense it into a three-minute speech that an English major, for example, could understand.”

In geek speak, Santos studies “novel antenna array and its feed network with desired gain, polarization, directivity and bandwidth for space communications,” according to his résumé. Translated In layman’s terms, he is researching how to develop better antennas for communication between Earth and other planets, an important mission for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Engineers know all about the technical details of the design we make,” he said. “But for an English major — they want to know what the impact to society is. And one thing everyone can relate to is cost.”

Currently, Mars Rovers send their data and photos to satellites orbiting Earth, and this information is then relayed to Earth. But launching, operating and maintaining those satellites cost millions of dollars, Santos said. To cut out the middle man — in this case, the relay satellite — future rovers could be equipped with an antenna array designed by Santos and his advisor, Yahya Rahmat-Samii, a distinguished professor of electrical engineering who holds the Northrop Grumman Chair in Electrical Engineering/Electromagnetics. The antenna array would be powerful enough to communicate directly with Earth, but compact enough to fit onto a Mars Rover.

The antenna is composed of 16 low-profile, 9.5-cm-square tiles of lightweight substrate. These square tiles are then grouped together to form the overall array antenna design, which is 38-cm square with embedded electronic components. It’s this novel and modular array design that makes the technology strong enough to send and receive signals across millions of miles of interplanetary space.

Santos graduated summa cum laude from the University of Utah in 2013. He received a UCLA Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellowship, Tau Beta Pi Lynnworth Fellowship in 2013 and a Department of Defense Science Mathematics And Research for Transformation research fellowship in 2014. Santos will receive his master’s degree in June and plans to continue working toward a doctorate in Rahmat-Samii’s laboratory.

Santos said that he enjoyed being in UCLA’s Grad Slam and having the opportunity to hear from fellow graduate students across the campus about their research.

“At UCLA we get so siloed in our lab,” he said. “It was neat to hear about other people’s research and how passionate they are about what they’re doing.”

The runner-up for the UCLA competition was Yibo (Max) Zhang, also a UCLA electrical engineering student. Zhang’s talk was titled, “Lensfree On-Chip Microscope for Cancer Detection.” He is advised by Aydogan Ozcan, chancellor’s professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering.

Update May 5, 2015: Ashley Fong, a molecular biology and biochemistry graduate student from UC Irvine was selected as the winner of the 2015 UC Grad Slam competition. Students from UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego placed second and third respectively. For a full recap of the competition, click here.