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Breaking barriers in 3 minutes: Hughes student success at global final

Hughes Hall PhD student, Yizhou Yu, impresses judges at the Falling Walls Lab finale in Berlin.

Congratulations to Yizhou who won the regional final and went on to come 2nd out of 100 participants from around the world with his captivating presentation ‘Breaking the Wall of Dementia’.

Each year, Falling Walls Foundation, a global hub connecting science, business and society, hosts the Falling Walls Lab where students and early-career researchers pitch their research. Participants have only three minutes to showcase their work, and to demonstrate its innovation and impact.

Yizhou’s pitch has been viewed over one million times on TikTok, with users enthralled by his translation of complex processes and scientific detail into a succinct and compelling presentation of his fascinating research discoveries. He spoke to us about the experience and about his passion for his subject:

“I decided to do a PhD to unveil meaningful information to protect our brain health. With age, the cells in our brain accumulate damage which can destroy our ability to think and to remember. In my PhD, I used a combination of machine learning and laboratory experiments to understand why this happens and how we can delay or even prevent it.”

“I realised that communicating my findings and discussing them with the public is really important. I believe that scientific knowledge is only valuable when shared. That’s why I participated in Falling Walls. These discussions inspired me to focus on the potential societal relevance of my work.”

“I really had a great time at Falling Walls, because I was able to ask questions to pioneers in biological sciences and other fields.”

Initially, regional competitions are held at institutions in over 60 different countries. The winning participants from these events go on to compete in the international final which is held in Berlin on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In June this year, the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering hosted the regional competition. Amongst the 18 competitors to take the stage were Hughes Hall PhD students Yizhou Yu and Nirmani Rathnayake. Nirmani, who is studying for a PhD in Engineering, spoke on her research project to develop a wearable heart monitor that can listen simultaneously to all the heart’s valves during exercise to improve diagnosis of valvular heart disease (VHD). Early diagnosis is vital for treatment of VHD and yet many cases are missed through traditional diagnosis. Nirmani’s full pitch is available to watch online here.

Having won the regional final, Yizhou went on to the final in Berlin as one of 100 regional winners. The finalists were judged on the ‘breakthrough factor’ of their research, the potential impact and for their performance on stage. For his innovative research and assured presentation, Yizhou was awarded second place overall. Yizhou’s current research is building on the technologies he explained in his pitch as he strives to uncover more ways to protect our health, under the mentorship of Dr Sarah Teichmann.

“I really enjoyed my time at Cambridge and Hughes Hall! I’ve not only been able to work with great minds like my supervisor Dr L. Miguel Martins in my PhD, but I was also able to form important friendships. I’m also grateful for help from Hughes Hall alumni like Elena Proca who mentored me, as well as many other members of the College community for their support.”

“I was part of the Hughes Hall rowing team, where some friends and I competed at multiple rowing regattas in the UK.”