Fiona congratulates KellyOn April 5, Berkeley’s third annual Grad Slam sparked applause about graduate student research — as described in pithy three-minute talks. A standing-room-only audience was riveted as eight student contestants vied to win cash prizes, a “People’s Choice” award, and the honor of representing our campus in the UC-wide Grad Slam competition next month.

Now in its third year, Grad Slam aims to “make research accessible by providing emerging scientists and scholars with the skills to engage the public in their work.” Communication is a cornerstone of student professional development, and Grad Slam kicks those skills into high gear, challenging participants to engage and inform diverse audiences.

Entrants compete in preliminary rounds on their UC campus. Fiona Doyle, Dean of the Graduate Division, emceed Berkeley’s live competition, and shared her response to the day: “This year’s presentations were outstanding, reflecting true passion for the research that our students are doing, and also the significant work they put in to distill it to a concise format that could be grasped by everyone in the audience. And again I was reminded that so much of Berkeley’s graduate research aims to benefit others.”

Alexis Shusterman, doctoral student in Chemistry
Alexis Shusterman, doctoral student in Chemistry

Alexis Shusterman, the 2015 Berkeley Champion, returned to the mic to inspire contestants and onlookers alike with her dynamic style of delivery. She emphasized the need to increase public awareness and understanding of research being conducted at institutions like Berkeley at a time when government funding for such research is becoming less certain.

Then the contest began. Before a panel of distinguished judges — Na’ilah Nasir, Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion; Amy Slater, UC alumna and UCB lecturer; and Caroline Winnet, MBA ’90 and Executive Director of Berkeley’s Skydeck — eight contestants pitched their research to a general audience, gaining points for intellectual significance, appropriateness, clarity, organization, engagement, delivery, and visuals. Audience members were also invited to complete ballots for a “People’s Choice” winner.

While the judges tallied scores after each presentation, Dean Doyle asked each contestant more about their work and lives; the often humorous interchanges relieved some of the competitive pressure. During the break for refreshments, the judges’ scores and the “People’s Choice” ballots were tallied and — happily — the assembled minds thought alike in choosing the same contestant for both top awards!  

The first place and People’s Choice winner is Kelly Swanson, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Physics. She wowed judges and audience alike with her lively talk titled Tabletop Particle Accelerators: Ultrapowerful Compact Machines. Tackling what is for most an unfamiliar topic, she explained how the largest machine in the world (17 miles round) might be miniaturized to desktop size, all the better to investigate the unsolved questions of physics.

Reflecting afterward on the goal of Grad Slam to make complex ideas more accessible, Kelly said, “This is very important, especially now. Our research can impact and benefit many people, and scientists should strive to increase the public’s understanding of our research. In this way, we can promote informed conversations and make science seem like less of a black box.”

The Berkeley Grad Slam winners. Kelly Swanson, Physics, first place and Peoples Choice; Joan Dudney, ESPM, in 2nd Place; and Stephanie Mack, Physics, in 3rd Place.
The Berkeley Grad Slam winners. Kelly Swanson, Physics, 1st place and People’s Choice; Joan Dudney, ESPM, in 2nd place; and Stephanie Mack, Physics, in 3rd place.

Second place winner, Joan Dudney, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science, Policy & Management, spoke on 21st Century Colonialism: It’s Not What You Think — an exposé of exotic species invasions. Joan appreciated Grad Slam as “a great way to face my fears of public speaking and to articulate my research from a completely new angle.” She noted: “The more we do to articulate the great science that students are producing, the more useful we can be for society.” As the runner-up, Joan will be ready to represent Berkeley at the UC-wide competition if Kelly becomes unable to participate.

Stephanie Mack, another fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Physics, placed third with her presentation on Topological is Topical, dealing with the motion of electrons. She said later, “It’s unbelievably important for researchers to learn how to communicate effectively with non-specialists — not just the nuts and bolts of our individual research but how it fits into the larger picture… whether with legislators or journalists, or in those unexpected conversations standing in the grocery line where you only have a few minutes. Then you really have an opportunity to put a face to the research.”

Dean Doyle concluded, “I am so glad that I wasn’t a judge and forced to choose three winners from our incredible contestants!” At the end of the day, the three finalists took home awards of $3,000, $1,000, and $750, respectively, while $100 prizes were awarded to five semi-finalists: Tim Day, in Neuroscience; Pierce Gordon, in Energy & Resources; Spencer Frank, in Mechanical Engineering; Ari Frink, in Environmental Planning; and Claire Thomas, in Physics.

The Berkeley Lab on Kelly and Stephanie’s Grad Slam wins.

The eight Grad Slam semi-finalists. Front row, left to right: Spencer, Ari Frink, Kelly Swanson, and Gordon Pierce. Second row: Tim Day, Joan Dudney, Claire Thomas, and Stephanie Mack.
The eight Grad Slam semi-finalists. Front row, left to right: Spencer Frank, Ari Frink, Kelly Swanson, and Gordon Pierce. Second row: Tim Day, Joan Dudney, Claire Thomas, and Stephanie Mack.


Tim Day
Tim Day,
Eye on a Cure: Evolving Next Generation Medicines

A sixth-year Ph.D. student from Kansas, Timothy aims to develop gene and cell therapies for patients who suffer from inherited diseases and to translate discoveries made in the lab to fully developed treatments administered in the clinic.

Joan Dudney
Joan Dudney,
Environmental Science, Policy and Management 
21st Century Colonialism: It’s Not What You Think

A fourth-year Ph.D. student and Northern California native, Joan aims to conduct solution-based ecological research in order to improve land management strategies in the face of a changing climate.

Spencer Frank

Spencer Frank, Mechanical Engineering
Engineering a Replacement for the Pancreas

A fifth-year Ph.D. student from Miami, Spencer aims to treat and cure diabetes and cardiovascular diseases through developing medical device technologies.


Ari Frink
Ari Frink,
Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning
From Concrete to Creeks: Revitalizing Flood Control Channels in Contra Costa County

A second-year Master’s student and California native, Ari aims to find innovative solutions to California’s water problems from an environmentally conscious perspective.

Pierce Gordon

Pierce Gordon, Energy & Resources
Innovation at the Margin: Analyzing Design Stories for Inclusion and Empowerment

A fifth-year Ph.D. student from Maryland, Pierce aims to design research, methods, practice, and pedagogy to empower marginalized communities and develop solutions for social problems in a variety of organizational settings.

Stephanie Mack
Stephanie Mack,
Topological is Topical

A fourth-year Ph.D. student from Ottawa, Canada, Stephanie plans to continue computational theory research to study novel quantum materials, achieve materials by design, start a university research group, and continue to be involved in teaching and public outreach.

Kelly Swanson

Kelly Swanson, Physics
Tabletop Particle Accelerators: Ultrapowerful Compact Machines

A fourth-year Ph.D. student from Chicago, Kelly aims to continue developing novel techniques for particle acceleration and combine high-quality research with mentoring budding scientists at a top research-oriented institution.

CKThomas_headshot3Claire Thomas, Physics
Quantum Simulation: Building Materials Atom by Atom

A seventh-year Ph.D. student from Baton Rouge, Claire aims to be part of the team that builds the first quantum computer, and plans to educate the public about the importance of studying quantum mechanics in order to understand new materials and ultimately build more sophisticated devices that will improve our everyday lives.