Ready, Set, Thesis

Graduate students present research at 2019 Grad Slam

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Competition winner, Sarah Kienle presented her study of sexual dimorphism in elephant seals. Photo by Lluvia Moreno.

What does an albatross mating dance look like? Can dark matter be heard? What do Soviet coal miners have to do with social change and democratic  participation? 

UC Santa Cruz graduate students had three minutes each to give the answers.

The Kuumbwa Jazz Center was packed to capacity on the evening of March 8 for the fifth annual UCSC Grad Slam. Hosted by the Division of Graduate Studies dean Lori Kletzer, Grad Slam 2019 gave 13 doctoral candidates the chance to present their thesis research and win prize money. But there’s a catch — each finalist only had three minutes to walk the audience through their years of research, which would normally fill an entire dissertation.

By learning how to pitch their projects efficiently, students are better equipped to apply for jobs, get funding and reach a wide range of people interested in their  research.

“Part of the whole point of the competition is that you grab the audience and that you’re able to tell them about your research, which might be complicated, in a way that a non-expert can understand,” said Sonya Newlyn, administrative assistant for professional development at the UCSC Division of Graduate Studies. “We’re not saying dumb it down, but we are saying make it understandable.”

Inspired by the University of Queensland’s Three Minute Thesis competition in Australia, UC Santa Barbara hosted the first UC Grad Slam in 2013. Because the competition was so successful as a public relations event, the UC Office of the President mandates every UC graduate campus host a Grad Slam. After the first round, one winner from each campus will go on to compete for $11,000 at the UC systemwide Grad Slam on May 10.

Ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral candidate Sarah Kienle took first place for her presentation “High Risk, High Reward: Sex-specific Foraging Strategies of Seals.” Kienle’s study of sexual dimorphism explores why male and female elephant seals look and behave so differently. 

“Male and female differences are widespread, everybody understands this is a thing. […] Talking about what drives those differences […] is where my research comes in,” Kienle said. “[…] Males and females are different, but here they’re so different they’re essentially different  species.”

Weighing up to 5,000 lbs., male elephant seal foraging strategies are high risk, but high reward. Only about 56 percent of male seals survive foraging, but those males’ ravenous appetites also allow them to outgrow and outcompete other males. Many more females survive foraging, but their limited food sources keep them from growing. At 2,000 pounds, females appear dainty compared to their male  counterparts. 

“When they’re at sea it’s everybody for themselves,” Kienle said. “The females are spreading out across wide areas of the North Pacific Ocean, males are a little more constrained to coastal and continental shelf areas, but there’s no evidence whatsoever that they are group  feeding.”

Moving on from charismatic megafauna, in “Tiny Carbon Eaters of the Deep Sea,” runner-up Rachel Harbeitner explained how the Earth’s tiniest residents could play a big role in climate science. Originally from Maryland, the ocean sciences doctoral candidate came to Santa Cruz to study bacteria.

When Harbeitner went out to sea to feed carbon-eating bacteria, she expected them to process carbon slowly in their cold, dark, high-pressure environment. To her amazement, bacteria consumed the carbon in just one week. 

Harbeitner sees a connection between how carbon circulates through the ocean and how bacteria consume it. She hopes exploring this connection will help predict oceans’ responses to increased carbon emissions and the human impact on climate  change.

The Grad Slam panel was comprised of educators, entrepreneurs and politicians. Among this year’s judges were City Council member Justin Cummings, UCSC alumnus and partner at DeepWater Desal Les Guliasi and Cabrillo College president Matthew Wetstein. 

“I think [Grad Slam] would’ve been a good program to have when I was a graduate student, It would’ve helped to build a broader community among graduate students,” said Guliasi. “Seeing what other people do helps you understand where you fit and why what you’re doing is   relevant.”

The 10 judges assessed each three minute talk on comprehensibility, engagement and content. They sought presentations that effectively communicated the student’s research to a non-expert audience.

But awards weren’t restricted to those the judges deemed best. Grad Slam’s People’s Choice award went to psychology student Priscilla Sung, who charmed the audience with her three minute report on bilingualism and child psychology. “The Hidden Workout of Bilingualism: Lessons from Preschoolers” asks how children who speak multiple languages learn to navigate the world in new and unique ways. 

Thirteen theses in one night was a whirlwind, taking audience members on a journey from the frigid waters of Antartica to the furthest reaches of outer space. Sonya Newlyn hoped audience members left with a deeper understanding of what sets UCSC’s graduate division apart. 

“You make [the audience] hungry for more,” Newlyn said. “You’re giving them a window, a brief glimpse and hopefully they come away going ‘I’ve got to learn more about this  research.”