Linguistics Ph.D. student says Grad Slam has helped reaffirm ‘why my research matters to me’

Published: March 19, 2024
Portrait of Ekaterina (Katya) KhlystovaKhlystova will compete in the UCLA Grad Slam finals on April 2. (Photo: Sean Brenner)

Emma Horio | March 19, 2024

Ekaterina “Katya” Khlystova to vie for UCLA championship on April 2

At a dinner party a few months ago, someone asked Ekaterina Khlystova about her job. She was three full years into her doctoral research on linguistics at UCLA, but she hesitated.

Khlystova’s work examines how cognitive processes influence language development in children, and she was used to thinking about it in complex, scientific terms. How could she make it sound accessible to someone who didn’t have a background in linguistics?

“I had my usual one-sentence spiel, but then they started asking me more questions and I found it really difficult to explain without getting too technical,” said Khlystova, who goes by Katya. “Once you get into more detail, it’s hard to break it down.”

That experience reminded her of a conversation she had in 2023 with Professor Megha Sundara, chair of the UCLA Linguistics Department, who had suggested Khlystova try out for Grad Slam.

Grad Slam is an annual University of California–wide competition in which graduate students give three-minute TED Talk-style explanations of their research. The catch: Contestants have to make their presentations easily understandable for a general audience, even if the research they’re describing is highly technical.

Khlystova decided to enter the 2024 event, thinking it would be a good opportunity to practice explaining her work. And so far, that practice has been rewarded. Khlystova has already advanced through two rounds of competition, and on April 2, she’ll face off against nine other UCLA graduate students in the campus finals at the Luskin Conference Center.

Tune in here on April 2 at 5:30 p.m. for the livestream.

“Being able to explain my research with this level of accessibility is definitely a new experience,” she said.

The winner of the UCLA finals will receive $5,000 and advance to take on representatives from the nine other UC campuses on May 3 in San Francisco for a $7,000 grand prize.

Khlystova’s presentation, “Learning to Understand Sentences,” is an engaging overview of her research on the link between cognition and language. In her lab, she works with children ages 3 to 5 to learn how executive function and working memory processes influence how people learn language.

“There’s a lot of mental flexibility that has to happen with trying to keep an experiment controlled, but still making it fun for kids,” Khlystova said. “The social aspect of being able to work with children for my dissertation definitely keeps it fun and helps motivate me as I’m finishing up my research.”

After Khlystova defends her dissertation this summer, she plans to pursue a career outside of academia.

“I’m very open to a lot of different possibilities, but I want to do something research-based — like user experience research, where you’re studying how people interact with interfaces and helping guide designers,” Khlystova said. “I can still use the experimental aspects of what I’ve learned so far, but I’ll also be able to apply it to quicker projects that have products you can actually see at the end, which would be exciting.”

From her undergraduate days in a chemistry lab to her time working toward her doctorate, Khlystova has always loved doing research. But as she nears the end of the grueling process of writing a dissertation, Khlystova said Grad Slam has reaffirmed why she enjoys the work.

“Preparing for Grad Slam helped me remember why this research matters to me,” Khlystova said. “It helped me explain to other people what they can take away from it, too. It was a really fun way to remind me why I started doing this Ph.D.”

The UCLA Grad Slam competition is presented by the Division of Graduate Education.