Thursday, November 23

Q&A: UC Grad Slam winner talks clinical psychology research, competition


Leslie Rith-Najarian, a graduate student in clinical psychology, won $6,000 on Thursday in a competition between the seven University of California campuses. (Courtesy of UCOP)

Leslie Rith-Najarian, a graduate student in clinical psychology, won $6,000 on Thursday in a competition between the seven University of California campuses. (Courtesy of UCOP)


Leslie Rith-Najarian, a graduate student in clinical psychology, received $6,000 on Thursday as the winner of the UC Grad Slam, a competition between the seven University of California campuses that tests graduate students’ ability to explain their research concisely.

She spoke with the Daily Bruin about her experience as a competitor.

Daily Bruin: Why did you participate in the Grad Slam?

Leslie Rith-Najarian: I think a lot of grad students joke about this, but you do spend a lot of time in grad school focusing on what has to be fixed, what you’re not doing well enough and all the things that can go wrong. I recognized that I really needed to focus on why I’m excited about my research. I also really like presenting, since there’s not that many opportunities to do that kind of thing in this type of context. It was reinvigorating.

DB: How do you move through each round?

LRN: Each UC (campus) does it a bit differently, but first you have to submit a proposal. Then you (participate in) workshops and preparation events, after which you go on to the pre-elimination round. There were over 100 proposals submitted at UCLA, of which 70 went on to participate in the pre-elimination round. Twenty-six moved on past that, and 12 people went on from semifinals to the UCLA finals. The UC-wide (round) was held at the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco.

DB: Tell me about your research.

LRN: I’m working on an online anxiety and depression prevention program. At its core, it comes down to how you draw people (into these programs) in the first place, since the programs are not intended for individuals who already have disorders.

The program is advertised as bringing about a habit change instead of anxiety/depression prevention. I’ve been recruiting using “habit” language as well as “prevention” language by running the same program under multiple names – “The Happiness Challenge” and “ReBoot Camp.” Branding it as “The Happiness Challenge” produces 60 percent of the sign-ups, but “ReBoot Camp” produces the most male sign-ups, especially males from the physical sciences.

I’m doing a randomized control trial of the programs this fall to confirm in a rigorous assessment that the program holds up as effective before offering it publicly. (Currently it’s being offered among) UCLA students, and the program has been piloted at multiple universities.

So far it’s been funded by research grants, but if it proves effective in the fall, we’ll probably get a nonprofit registered, and campuses could purchase an annual subscription.

DB: How have you been trying to reach the student body with information about the program?

LRN: Fortunately, I have been able to send out mass emails to the whole student body, though most never open or read it. In theory, the marketing is reaching every student. I also use printed flyers, social media posts and department email lists.

DB: How difficult was it to fit the presentation in three minutes?

LRN: It’s really hard – it’s what I was most stressed about. If you get too lost (when you’re speaking) then you run over the time limit and you lose points. In between each round you get feedback from the judges, and they usually want something else, and never (suggest) anything to cut. Because of the time constraint, I really minimally changed it.

DB: How nerve-wracking was the competition?

LRN: I was more nervous for the UCLA final than the UC-wide one. You don’t even envision going to the UC-wide one. I didn’t even plan on getting there, but when I was there, I felt like I got to enjoy it more because I had done the presentation so many times, so I knew I was not going to forget what I was saying. I was most nervous before the semifinals, but then I had a perspective shift. Before, I was focused on doing well so I could feel like I was doing something right in grad school, but then I had a realization that I needed to start doing it for the process.

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