On Saturday at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, nine UC Santa Cruz graduate students will step into the spotlight with three minutes to explain their chosen field to the audience and a panel of judges. The winner of “Grad Slam” needs to be informative, engaging, relatable, even seductive, Wallace Baine writes — and victory can prove energizing.
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For some people, the premise of “Grad Slam” sounds like a bad dream, like the one where you suddenly realize you’re naked in the middle of your high school reunion.
In this particular bad dream, you have three minutes, an audience of strangers and a microphone. Your job is to communicate the breadth and depth of your specific rabbit hole of interest to people who have probably gone nowhere near that rabbit hole. You have to be informative, engaging, relatable, even seductive. And you have to do so in about the time it takes to hear “California Dreamin’” in the beer aisle at Trader Joe’s.
And if you don’t do it as well as the next guy or gal, you lose.
Now, streaking your high school reunion doesn’t sound so bad, huh?
As its title suggests, the competitors at “Grad Slam” — to take place Saturday at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center — are drawn from a cohort for which the challenge is especially difficult. This event features graduate students at UC Santa Cruz. Their mission? To explain their research or field of interest to an audience and a panel of judges, on the clock.
The Saturday event will feature nine participants, drawn from graduate departments at UCSC in the physical and biological sciences, engineering, the social sciences and arts and humanities. The nine are finalists in a process that took place on campus in rounds among the various disciplines.
Sonya Newlyn of the Division of Graduate Studies at UCSC is the event’s principal organizer. She said that competitors can come from any area of study or subject, no matter how arcane or specialized. “You’re not being judged on what you do,” she said. “You’re being judged on how well you explain what you do and how well you communicate generally. Do you engage the audience? Do you get them excited about what you do? Do you explain why you do it, and why it’s important? Why should we care?”
Graduate students, of course, must often represent their work in an oral presentation as a defense of a thesis or dissertation. But “Grad Slam” is fundamentally different from that experience, and not only because of the three-minute limit. “[In the case of a dissertation], you’d be pretty particular about your information because you’re speaking to experts in your field. This is for a general audience.”
Last year’s “Grad Slam” winner was Amanda Quirk, who spent five years at UCSC pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics. Her work involved unimaginably huge forces, namely what happens when galaxies or star systems collide, and how one such galaxy can consume another, a process known as “galactic cannibalism,” itself a metaphor likely to get the attention of a lay audience.
Quirk, now a lecturer at Columbia University in New York, said the “Grad Slam” experience forced her to think more universally about her research and to make it clear to those who might even be intimidated by the idea of astrophysics.
“Everyone has access to think about their place in the universe,” she said. “I’m sure most people in Santa Cruz have thought about whether aliens exist or not — even if they haven’t thought about it deeply or don’t have a strong opinion, they’ve thought about it. So even if they don’t know much about astrophysics, or even worse if they had a terrible experience in a physics class growing up and think that they can’t do physics, they can still have this kind of human connection to the cosmos and where we came from, and what’s the fate of the universe. So I find it’s very easy to leverage that.”
“Grad Slam” has been going on for a few years now, first presented in 2019, but the pandemic put a crimp in the event’s momentum. In a town where what’s going on at the “city on a hill” university is not always clear to locals, “Grad Slam” represents a potential new connection between town and gown, an opportunity for Santa Cruzans to benefit from the world-class science and scholarship happening on campus and in the UC system.
“It’s so easy for us to be stuck up on the hill,” said organizer Newlyn, “and everybody in their siloed little places and doing their thing — they’re doing great things — but not too many people are aware of what others are doing. And we should all know. And that’s the thing that I hear back from grad students who participate is how cool it is to learn about what other grad students who aren’t in their department are doing. They love learning about people doing very different things from them and it’s usually really cool and eye-opening for them as well as everybody else who comes to [the event].”
The winner of the “Grad Slam” competition will then go on to compete at another event that draws from all the University of California campuses. That event will take place in May in San Francisco.
The Saturday “Grad Slam” at Kuumbwa is free and open to the public. It will also be livestreamed for people at home to watch. A small group of invited VIPs will judge the competition and pick both a winner and a second-place finisher, but the audience, in person and via livestream, will also get a chance to vote on a “People’s Choice” winner. Each of those chosen will also win a cash award.
Quirk, last year’s winner, finished in second place in the wider UC contest. She said the experience of competing in the “Grad Slam” not only helped her hone her talents in delivering lectures and presenting her research, but it reinspired her to embrace her field of study and reminded her that it still mattered.
“It was such a good way for me to celebrate the last year of my Ph.D.,” she said, “and to remember that people think what I was doing was interesting — because I felt a little burnt out and was personally pretty done with my subject. I had just stared at it for too long. So I was thinking, who cares? Do I want to continue on talking about astronomy? And then, just seeing the excitement with the audience and getting the support of the community and also my friends and family, it was such a validating and good reminder to me to be like, yes, these past five years, they were worth it. So it was kind of like this amazing victory lap for me.”
UCSC’s “Grad Slam” takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. The event is free.