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Campus Grad Slam Winner Examines ‘Gut Viruses: Friends or Foes?’

April 29, 2024
Ph.D. candidate Ambarish Varadan will compete in the UC Grad Slam finale livestreamed starting at 10:30 a.m. Friday, May 3.
Ph.D. candidate Ambarish Varadan will compete in the UC Grad Slam finale livestreamed starting at 10:30 a.m. Friday, May 3.

Earlier this month, Ambarish Varadan competed in UC Merced’s Grad Slam finals and seized the title of Campus Champion.

This was the second time the Quantitative and Systems Biology (QSB) Ph.D. candidate from Fremont vied for the top prize. Last year, he placed second among the top 10 contenders.

UC Merced Foundation Board Trustee Robert Bernstein, M.D., and his wife, Diplomat Jane Binger, Ed.D., have made generous donations to support Grad Slam.

Varadan earned the $5,000 grand prize and the opportunity to represent UC Merced at the University of California Grad Slam competition Friday. Second place and $2,000 was awarded to Cognitive and Information Sciences graduate student Alejandra Santoyo. Applied Mathematics graduate student Cayce Fylling and Chemistry and Biochemistry Pravien Rajaram tied for third place and each won $1,000.

“I’m honored to represent UC Merced at the UC finals this year,” he said. “It has and continues to be a great learning experience for me. I'm used to reading about the latest work being conducted in my specific field of study. But participating in Grad Slam gave me the opportunity to learn about different, exciting areas of research being conducted in different departments at UC Merced.”

When he started his graduate studies at UC Merced in 2018, he spent his first year rotating through School of Natural Sciences labs.

“It was a great opportunity because not only was I exposed to different areas of research, but I also got to know a lot of my graduate student cohort, senior students and faculty,” Varadan said.

top winners at Grad Slam
Caycee Fylling, Pravien Rajaram, Associate Graduate Dean Sayantani Ghosh, Alejandra Santoyo, Ambarish Varadan and Graduate Dean Hrant Hratchian

He ultimately joined virology Professor Juris Grasis’s lab in June 2019.

“The collaborative nature of the QSB program has been critical to the development of my project,” Varadan said. “Whenever I’ve needed help on aspects of the project that I’m unfamiliar with, I can always talk with people in other labs and help to troubleshoot experiments.”

Varadan credits excellent middle and high school teachers who encouraged him to explore biology and consider a career as a scientist.

Furthermore, college courses helped hone his interest in the human body’s defense mechanisms to protect against a variety of infections.

“When I was in college, I took a couple of courses in immunology and parasitology in my senior year and that's what started my interest in immunology,” Varadan said. “I wanted to pursue research in immune responses as it pertained to host-pathogen interactions.”

Varadan earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology with a minor in nutrition at UC Davis and a master’s degree in biotechnology from UC Irvine. He worked in the biotech industry before starting graduate studies at UC Merced.

Working in the Ph.D. program has refined his interest in studying intestinal immunity.

His three-minute Grad Slam talk, “Gut Viruses: Friends or Foes?” focuses on his research into human intestinal epithelial responses to bacteriophages.

“Ambarish is conducting a clever, yet risky project,” Grasis said. “His research addresses direct and indirect inflammatory effects of bacteriophages on gastrointestinal cells and has found that certain bacteriophages directly affect gut inflammation. This could be a profound finding to combat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) states.”

Varadan said there is a gap in the knowledge that they are trying to address.

“There's a massive body of work on how important the intestinal microbiota is to our health. Bacteriophages are the most abundant viruses of the intestine, but their direct impact on intestinal epithelial cells has not been extensively explored before,” Varadan said. “Previous research has shown that patients with inflammatory diseases, including IBD, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and cystic fibrosis, have altered and often expanded populations of specific bacteriophages in their systems.

“We are looking at whether they are a consequence of the disease or do they exacerbate the disease? Or could they possibly make the disease better? Would they possibly help the patient? That's what led us to ask what these bacteriophages do.”

Varadan will defend his thesis this summer and participate in the campus’s fall commencement ceremony.

Before that, he will compete for systemwide bragging rights and a share of $14,000 in prize money at the UC Grad Slam finale livestreamed at 10:30 a.m. Friday. Be sure to watch and cast your vote for Varadan for the People’s Choice Award at the end of the presentations.