Cal Poly senior Lily Nielsen  presents at the CSU Student Research Competition
Story Research

Vying for the Prize

Alex Beall

The CSU closed out the school year with a series of student competitions.

Cal Poly senior Lily Nielsen  presents at the CSU Student Research Competition

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo biological sciences senior Lily Nielsen presents her research​, "Evaluating the Effect of YB-1 Phosphomimetics on HIV Virion Assembly," at the 38th annual CSU Student Research Competition. She took first place in the undergraduate Biological and Agricultural Sciences category. Photo courtesy Alexis Kovacevic/Cal Poly San Luis Obispo​


With the end of the academic year, the CSU hosts a series of research and innovation challenges, allowing students to showcase their skills and knowledge. CSUs hold campus-based events for researchers, entrepreneurs and more, but other events bring together teams from across the system to represent their schools and compete against each other.

Take a look at four CSU-wide events that took place in spring 2024.

CSU Student Research Competition

​​Group photo at the CSU Student Research Competition

From left: ​​​​Cal Poly San Luis Obispo interim vice president of research Dawn Neil, alumnus Hector Reyes, biological sciences professor Alejandra Yep, student Xavier Aguilar and director of the Office of Student Research Jane Lehr at the CSU Student Research Competition. Photo courtesy Alexis Kovacevic/Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo hosted the 38th annual CSU Student Research Competition on April 26 and 27, where hundreds of students from across the system vied for first and second place in 10 categories.

Split between graduate and undergraduate, the categories include Behavioral, Social Sciences and Public Administration; Biological and Agricultural Sciences; Business, Economics and Hospitality Management; Creative Arts and Design; Education; Engineering and Computer Science; Health, Nutrition and Clinical Sciences; Humanities and Letters; Physical and Mathematical Sciences; and Interdisciplinary.

Among the five Cal Poly San Luis Obispo teams that placed, one team comprised of recent alumnus Hector Reyes (Psychology, '23) and current students Xavier Aguilar and Chanel de Smet took first in the Education category for undergraduates with their project, “Nuestra Ciencia: Empowering bilingual students as scientists." The study involved teaching microbiology in Spanish to local bilingual elementary school students to empower them to pursue STEM studies.

“Being a future Latino educator, I was really drawn to this project, as it included two important things to me: Latinx in STEM and having a diverse classroom," said Aguilar, a first-year liberal studies major. “Overall, Nuestra Ciencia and this research competition shifted my view on research and opened my eyes up to a new stream of education."

Jessica Orea, a psychology master's student at CSU San Marcos, took first place in the Behavioral, Social Sciences and Public Administration category for graduate students with her presentation, “Association Between Distress Tolerance and Cannabis Dependence Stronger for Under-Represented Minorities Among U.S. Young Adults."

“I am incredibly grateful to have received the opportunity to present my research and represent CSUSM at the CSU Student Research Competition," Orea said. “The experience of presenting at this conference was really special. My family was present throughout the conference and this was their first time seeing me present my research. Additionally, as someone who struggles with public speaking, winning first place for my session feels surreal. It makes me realize how far I have come from my first presentations as an undergraduate student."

See the full list of winners.

CSU Grad Slam

The fourth annual CSU Grad Slam took place on May 3 hosted by Cal State Long Beach. Participating CSUs nominate two graduate students, who give three-minute presentations on their research or creative pursuits.

Alyssa AnzaloneCSUMB master's student Alyssa Anzalone​ Alyssa Anzalone, a graduate student in Cal State Monterey Bay's Environmental Science Master's program, took first prize with her presentation on “Understanding the Risk of Microplastics in the Pajaro and San Lorenzo Rivers."

The presentation is based on her thesis research looking at the presence of microplastics in freshwater ecosystems that feed into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Specifically, she is comparing the microplastic pollution levels in water draining from urban and agricultural sources during both the wet and dry seasons.

“While plastics have many beneficial uses for people, they can harm organisms by causing tissue translocation, illness and death," Anzalone said. “It is important to establish how much risk microplastics pose to freshwater organisms because most microplastic studies focus on marine ecosystems."

Second place went to CSULB biology master's student Zach Merson, who is working with the Shark Lab on his thesis, for his presentation titled, “Pancake Breakfast: Juvenile White Sharks Impact Sting Rays at Aggregation Sites."

Sacramento State master's student in gender equity studies Niki Kangas was the People's Choice Winner with her presentation, “Getting Outsiders Outside: Expanding Access & Participation Rates in Outdoor Recreation for Women, Transgender, & Non-Binary Participants with an Emphasis on BIPOC Intersectionality."

See this year's winners.

CSU Startup Launch

​​SJSU students Andrew Jenkins and Anna Vartan with their $30,000 prize check at the CSU Startup Launch competition

First prize winners and San José State students Andrew Jenkins and Anna Vartan, center, with their $30,000 check for their startup Concussion Coach.

Sponsored by Sunstone Management, Inc., the CSU Startup Launch competition invites student entrepreneurs from across the CSU to compete for cash prizes totaling $200,000. On May 3, 33 teams from 17 of the CSU's 23 universities participated in the third annual event held at CSU Dominguez Hills.

During the first phase, startup teams set up a table in an exposition area, and judges have three hours to review the poster presentations. Judges then select six to eight teams as finalists, who deliver 3-minute pitch presentations with five minutes of Q&A during the Grand Finale. The finalists each receive $5,000 while first, second and third place winners receive an additional $30,000, $20,000 and $10,000 respectively.

This year, the Concussion Coach team from San José State—repre​sented by Andrew Jenkins, master's student in business/communication and university football player, and mechanical engineering student Anna Vartan—took first prize. Concussion Coach developed small tags, made of flexible printed circuit boards, that attach to helmets and other sporting equipment to register blows that can cause concussions.

“We needed that money," Jenkins said. “Those boards are expensive, and we were at a stopping place. No one took any of the money—it's all being reinvested so we can do a full field test with one of the teams we are talking with."

“To be chosen as first when the competition was so steep was amazing," Vartan said​. "​I’ve never felt more proud and excited in my life. Knowing what we can do in the future with this money to help us grow as a company has our whole team fired up and we couldn’t be more excited to have gone home with this big win.”

Second place went to a Sacramento State team called Team Azuki, who created Safeguard AI, a security system software for schools that uses artificial intelligence to detect danger and notify safety officials.

A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo team, Nexstera Tech, took third place with their plans for creating a radar system that could identify potentially flammable lithium-ion batteries in high-risk places, like refuse trucks.

The other five finalists included Fresh Haven from Chico State, FusionNFC from Chico State, BookBound from Cal State Long Beach, Cram from San Diego State and Project FireWatch from San José State.

Sunstone also sponsors CSU Demo Day in the fall for CSU entrepreneurs. Learn more.​

Cal State CREATE

​​Cal State CREATE submission for my life in 5 years

​​​​Kristina Solomita, a creative media senior from Stanislaus State, created this artifact for the prompt "Create a vision board with the theme 'My Life in 5 Years' using either Adobe Express or Apple Freeform."

Finally, the CSU hosts Cal State CREATE in collaboration with Adobe and Apple, held April 8-15 this year. Structured similarly to Adobe Creative Jams, the event allows CSU students to work with creative tools to develop and design personal projects.

The theme this year was “Future Ready in the CSU" and focused on emerging technologies, career readiness and being prepared for today's evolving world. Participating students heard from industry professionals on how technology and digital literacy shape their work and help them achieve success—as well as from Apple and Adobe experts on workplace trends, leveraging AI and maximizing digital tools.

Students then used the digital tools to complete a set of design challenges of varying difficulty levels, such as designing a digital calling card or personalized QR code, creating a resume and recording a one-way interview. Participants were entered into a raffle for every project they created. Prizes included Apple AirPods Pro and informational interviews with Apple and Adobe professionals.

See some of this year's submissions.