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Graduate students at UC Irvine are carrying out impressive research, but how does their work affect our daily lives? The Grad Slam competition bridges that gap between academia and application, helping scholars communicate how their research impacts real-world living. How can qualitative methods for assistive technology impact our lives and the lives of loved ones? Why should we care about spatially augmented reality on deformable surfaces?

Two students from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) perfected their three-minute pitches, answering those questions to take first and second place at UCI’s Grad Slam 2023.

Informatics Ph.D. student Emani Dotch, whose assistive technology helps children with autism, won $2,500 and tied for second place with Earth system science Ph.D. student Audrey Odwuor.

Computer science Ph.D. candidate Muhammad Twaha Ibrahim was named the champion after explaining how a spatially augmented reality system can support remote surgical assistance. His first-place win earned him $6,000 and the opportunity to represent UCI at the Grad Slam Systemwide Finals on May 5, 2023.

Grad Slam 2023 winners (from left): Muhammad Twaha Ibrahim, Audrey Odwuor, Graduate Division Dean Gillian Hayes, and Emani Dotch.

Lights, Camera, Surgery!
“Collaboration — the key to learning and discovery. I’ve realized this as I work with surgeons to solve one of their big problems: remote collaboration during live surgeries,” said Ibrahim at the start of his pitch during the competition. His research into Dynamic Spatially Augmented Reality, or DynaSAuR, uses projectors to illuminate surfaces that might be moving or changing their shape.

There are many potential application areas for DynaSAuR, but Ibrahim focused on the field of medicine. He talked about how the system could illuminate a surgical site (such a patient’s cheek) with annotations, so everyone in the operating room could view the markings for surgery without looking up at a monitor or wearing a bulky virtual reality headset. DynaSAuR makes the process intuitive and immersive. “My research can let surgeons all over the world collaborate with each other,” he said. “And I’m curious to find out what they learn and discover as they roll up their sleeves for some lights, camera, surgery!”

For remote collaboration during live surgeries, a remote consultant will annotate a model (left). The DynaSAuR system can then project that annotation onto the patient (right).

With that, Ibrahim completed his pitch — for a fourth and final time. As noted during his introductory video, this wasn’t Ibrahim’s first time competing. “I’m back again because I’m persistent. I will win Grad Slam or will graduate, whichever comes first.” Just participating in the competitive, three-month-long selection process, judged by external experts, is a worthwhile learning experience.

“As an international student for whom English is not a first language, communicating clearly in English can be quite challenging. Grad Slam really helped me train myself to speak more clearly and confidently,” says Ibrahim, who was then thrilled to learn he had won. “I will never forget when Dean Hayes announced, ‘He’s gonna win before he graduates, folks! Twaha Ibrahim!’”

He is excited to compete in the finals in May, which will be held at LinkedIn’s headquarters in San Francisco and emceed by UC President Michael Drake. Ibrahim also plans to continue working on the system, addressing the problem of surgeons blocking a projector by instead using multiple projectors to illuminate the surgical site. “I find my research on DynaSAuR very exciting and hope to continue working on it even after graduation,” he says. “I want to collaborate with people from different disciplines to explore further applications of DynaSAuR.”

Stop Making that Noise!

Dotch, who is using qualitative methods in designing, developing and evaluating assistive technology to support individuals with autism, presented AudioBuddy. She developed the mobile and smartwatch-compatible application in response to her younger brother, who has autism, asking her to “stop making that noise!” as she closed a takeout box at a restaurant. She hopes the app will empower children with autism to deal with noise sensitivity, giving them ways to regulate their emotions and share their concerns.

“It wasn’t just a win for me, but a win for autism awareness,” says Dotch of participating in Grad Slam. “With this experience, I gained a network that I did not originally have and more confidence in my ability to effectively present my research. Also, winning along-side Aubrey was such a powerful representation of Black excellence and tenacity!”

Grad Slam is a win for everyone. “I always have a little tear in my eye at this time of the night,” said Gillian Hayes, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division, as she wrapped up the 2023 event. “Grad Slam has a way of reminding us all why we do what we do and why we are here.”

— Shani Murray