UC President Michael V. Drake, M.D. with UCLA M.D.-Ph.D. student Brandon Tsai, winner of the UC system-wide Grad Slam.


UCLA Life Sciences | May 8, 2023


On May 5, triple-Bruin Brandon Tsai won the 2023 UC-wide Grad Slam championship title, with his three-minute presentation, “Next Generation Covid-19 Vaccines”.

He was one of ten graduate student finalists competing at the UC-wide Grad Slam held at LinkedIn’s headquarters in San Francisco.

In 2017, Tsai received his bachelor’s degree at UCLA, in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. He’s now a fourth year MD-Ph.D. student in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program.

When he’s not dancing, hiking, playing tennis or dodgeball – you might find Tsai running genomic analyses to understand how exercise can affect the progression of cancer.

Here, Tsai shares how his interests in research and science communication developed, coming into UCLA, and provides advice for undergraduates considering medical school.

Brandon Tsai


How did your interest in science communication develop?

Science communication is something I really enjoy. In high school, I volunteered at the Discovery Science Center in Orange County, doing science demos and teaching science to kids. Then, at UCLA, I got involved with UCLA’s Undergraduate Science Journal, and had the opportunity to share really cool undergraduate research.

Also, as an undergraduate, I got involved with CityLab, a student-run science education program that brings high school students, from LAUSD schools, into research labs at UCLA. We’d teach science using pop culture. For example, we’d tell the students that Rapunzel from Disney’s Tangled doesn’t know who her actual mom is. We’d then have the students run DNA tests to help Rapunzel identify her real mom. It made the science easier to digest. I was involved with CityLab for three years or so, and I think this is where I really developed my skills to compete in Grad Slam.


How did you get involved in research?

Between high school graduation and starting college, I did obesity research in a lab at UC Irvine. I fell in love with the idea of being able to generate knowledge that could potentially change the world.

At UCLA, I started research in the winter quarter of my freshman year, in the lab of Dr. Xia Yang. I worked there for three and a half years, continuing with obesity research. Instead of doing the kind of experiments I did at UCI, the work I did in the Yang lab was computational: analyzing sequence data and things like that. Back in high school, I really enjoyed computer science – and the computational biology research at UCLA was a mix of both computer science and biology.

In the summer of my junior year, I went to China and worked with a cancer researcher,  Dr. Hong Wu. This was my first exposure to cancer research, and I found it to be super interesting. The experience made me consider the dual MD-Ph.D. degree – to pursue a research career that would benefit a lot of people.

In my final year at UCLA, I got the opportunity to work with Dr. Owen Witte, an extremely well-known and brilliant scientist. A friend from City Lab, who worked in Witte’s lab, told me about an open position in the lab that needed my exact skillset to do tumor immunology. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I started working in the Witte lab towards the end of my senior year, then full-time for another two years. I learned so much in that time, and it prepared me for the rest of my career.


Are there particular things you attribute to your undergraduate successes at UCLA?

My faculty advisor, Dr. Xia Yang, was very proactive and told me I could get course credit working for her. Looking into this, I learned about the URC (Undergraduate Research Center-Sciences) where I found a ton of resources. I looked through their entire website and found that the life sciences offers a ton of research scholarships. I applied for everything I could, and received a bunch of them: the Undergraduate Research Scholars, the Amgen scholarship…. When I see a cool opportunity, I jump for it, because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.


How did you pick your major: microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics (MIMG)?

There’s a research component for the MIMG major, and also for some of the other life science majors. But if you’re already doing your own research, you can waive those research classes, focus on your own research, and get credit that goes towards the major. So that’s why I picked MIMG. I ended up falling in love with research, and the subject matter was super interesting and relevant to what I ended up researching: tumor immunology.


Your Grad Slam presentation was on COVID vaccines. How did you get involved with COVID research?

When COVID happened, a lot of labs ended up taking on COVID projects. It was a hot topic, nothing was known. So, in collaboration with my current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Paul Boutros, and my previous advisor, Dr. Owen Witte, we teamed up to do this COVID project. Dr. Witte reached out to me, because he knew I had the computational skillset to examine sequence data for particular regions of COVID.


What were the findings of your COVID research? 

A lot of labs around the world, recognize that the COVID virus spike protein is probably not the ideal target for a lasting vaccine, because it’s prone to genetic mutations that allow it to eventually evade vaccines designed against it.

We discovered that COVID’s polymerase protein was more genetically stable, and that a particular region of the polymerase can actually produce an immune response that can kill the virus.  A vaccine that targets this region, could result in a better, longer-lasting COVID vaccine.


What research are you currently doing for your Ph.D.?

I do computational work, looking at how exercise affects cancer. It’s pretty common knowledge that exercise is good for you. Exercise can delay cancer or reduce your risk. It can help you recover from cancer, help you survive from cancer longer. It’s common knowledge that this happens, but we don’t really know how or why it happens.

In our lab, we look at people’s DNA, their RNA, their protein levels. We have clinical trials where patients are wearing devices like smartwatches, that constantly measure their blood pressure, their heart rate, how active they are. We’re collecting tons and tons of data, from different types of modalities, and analyzing them to see how they react and relate to one another.

Our preliminary findings are very dependent on cancer-type. We can’t say exercise is beneficial for all types of cancer. It’s true for most types of cancer, but there are some cancer types where exercise really doesn’t do anything, or it has a negative effect. An example of a negative effect: we’ve found that exercise can increase the number of mutations in skin cancer.

You might think, well then, you shouldn’t exercise because it makes the skin cancer worse. What I’ve found, looking at what the mutations look like, is that a lot of those mutations look like they’re coming from UV damage. So, we can say that if someone is exercising a lot, and they get a lot of UV exposure from exercising outside, then that additional UV exposure could cause their skin cancer to get worse.

We know exercise does affect tumors, but we don’t know exactly how. With colorectal cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer – we see a decrease in the mutations in all of those. We also see a prolonging in the time it takes to get diagnosed with cancer, and prolonged survival after cancer treatment.


Do you exercise?

I dance. I play tennis. I enjoy hiking, going to the gym, and occasionally playing dodge ball. I live a pretty active lifestyle, not just for my health, but it’s also just good to step away.

When I enter the dance studio, I leave everything behind. I don’t think about work, I don’t think about anything else. I’m there to dance. It’s a really good escape.

Back in my undergrad days, I used to be on one of those dance teams that rehearsed in the parking structures. We would compete at collegiate level competitions. That was a lot of fun, but it took a lot of time, so I found lower-commitment dancing for the rest of my time. It’s just a great way to unwind.


You’ve mentored many students with an interest in going to medical and graduate schools. What advice do you most often give to pre-meds?

A lot of pre-meds ask me: How do I stand out when I’m applying to medical school? And I say: it’s not the shadowing or volunteering at the hospital. Everyone does that. The best way to stand out is to pursue whatever you’re passionate about. It could be anything. For me it was dancing, which has nothing to do with medicine. I just enjoyed it.

The number of times I wrote about dancing in my medical school essays, and the number of times it came up during interviews for medical school, it really showed, that was what people cared about: your passions and interests, not just what you’re doing to propel your career per se.


By the time you graduate with your MD-Ph.D., you will have been at UCLA for 14 years. Did you consider going elsewhere?

I’m from Southern California, and when it came time to apply, I applied broadly and got good offers at some major cancer centers around the U.S., but there wasn’t anything that other programs could offer that UCLA couldn’t also offer.

By the time I was making my decision on MD-Ph.D. programs, I had already been at UCLA for six years, and already had a strong professional network here.

I have lots of family and friends here, and I love living in L.A. Everything was telling me to stay, so that’s what I did. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anywhere better in the world to live.


Watch Tsai’s presentation at the 2023 UCLA Grad Slam.