Competition Showcases Graduate Research Across Campus

2018 Berkeley Grad Slam Winners and Judges (left to right): Nancy Olson, Distinguished Judge, venture capitalist and Graduate Division Strategic Advisor; Joe Charbonnet, Environmental Engineering, first place and People’s Choice winner; Daniel Drew, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, second place winner; Kelsae Adame, Nuclear Engineering, third place winner; Fiona Doyle, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate Division; Wendy Tokuda, Distinguished Judge, former KPIX News Anchor, and speech coach; Caroline Winnett, Distinguished Judge, MBA ’90, and Executive Director of Berkeley SkyDeck

On April 4, Berkeley’s fourth annual Grad Slam showcased graduate student research from across campus, in the form of compelling three-minute talks. The Graduate Professional Development Center in 309 Sproul Hall was filled to capacity, as was an overflow screening room where additional eager audience members viewed the livestream of the competition. The ten campus semifinalists competed for cash prizes and a “People’s Choice” award, as well as the honor of representing Berkeley in the systemwide competition on May 3.

This year, the Berkeley Grad Slam competition served as the cornerstone of a broader initiative aimed at helping doctoral and master’s students explain their research to the public. The Graduate Professional Development program and its partners, including the Townsend Center for the Humanities, worked to encourage entries from students representing the full range of disciplines at Berkeley.

This year’s semifinalists, chosen by a faculty committee from among the first-round video entries, included students from Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, Architecture, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Environmental Engineering, Environmental Health Sciences, Mechanical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, Physics, and Rhetoric. These students spent nearly a month perfecting their presentations leading up to the campuswide competition.

Fiona Doyle, Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division, emceed the Grad Slam proceedings. She addressed the importance of communicating graduate research in her introductory remarks: “As a graduate student, you are engaged very deeply in research. You live and breathe it. And yet in order to convince people to fund you, hire you, or believe that your research is important, you need to be able to explain your research to an audience that by definition does not know as much about it as you do, since you are at this point the world’s expert in your subject.”

After Dean Doyle’s introduction, Joan Dudney, a finalist in the 2017 Berkeley competition, delivered a keynote address in which she applauded the semifinalists for stepping outside their comfort zones. She went on to make a powerful case for the importance of making graduate research accessible to the public, drawing on her experience with speaking to legislators in Sacramento at the annual Graduate Research Advocacy Day. “As the meetings progressed, I began to see how important my role was,” Joan said. “If the producers of knowledge are just communicating with each other, very little of this research will make it outside into the hands of the people who need it.”

After Joan’s keynote, the talks began. A panel of three distinguished judges — Nancy Olson, venture capitalist and Graduate Division Strategic Adviser; Wendy Tokuda, former KPIX news anchor and speech coach; and Caroline Winnett, MBA ’90 and Executive Director of the UC Berkeley SkyDeck startup accelerator — scored each talk in the categories of intellectual significance, appropriateness, clarity, organization, engagement, delivery, and visuals. Audience members also cast their votes for a “People’s Choice” winner.

When the votes were in, both the first place and People’s Choice awards went to Joseph (Joe) Charbonnet, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Engineering hailing from Gainesville, Florida. Joe impressed the audience and the judges alike with his talk, “A Stormwater Solution,” which described how sand coated with manganese oxide can be used to remove contaminants from stormwater. Joe is currently field-testing the use of this sand to replenish California’s underground aquifers. “This technology helps cities save their rain for a sunny day,” his talk concluded.

Afterward, Joe described his reasons for deciding to enter the Grad Slam competition: “The ability to contextualize and defend your research is a huge part of the research process itself. Knowing the answer to high-level questions — like ‘Why are you studying this? Why is this important?’ — not only makes your research more useful and fundable, it also helps to guide you on your search for truth and benefit to society.”

Second-place winner Daniel Drew, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, delivered a talk called “A Swarm in Every Pocket: Autonomous Microrobots as the Future of Tools.” Reflecting on his preparations for Grad Slam, Daniel said, “I learned that every sentence — word! — counts when you need to communicate motivation, inspiration, progress, and the grand vision, all in three minutes. This is a very valuable skill for the academic job hunt (and life afterwards).” He added, “I assumed that the other speakers would be excellent, but I was blown away by their passion for their work.” As runner-up, Daniel will be ready to represent Berkeley at the systemwide competition if Joe becomes unable to participate.

Kelsae Adame, a first-year Master’s student in Nuclear Engineering, took third place with her talk, “An Overdue Change for Medical Radioisotope Production.” Kelsae decided to participate in Grad Slam because “there is often a disconnect with technical research and how it is communicated with an audience that doesn’t belong to your specific research area.” She learned that “addressing a problem is more important than just sharing the nitty-gritty details of technical research.”

The three finalists took home prizes of $3,000, $1,000, and $750, respectively. $100 prizes were awarded to seven semifinalists: Lilith Acadia, Rhetoric; Tomás León, Environmental Health Sciences; Sylvia Lewin, Physics; Andrea Pickel, Mechanical Engineering; Alberto Sanchez-Sanchez, Architecture; Maria Simanovskaia, Nuclear Engineering; and David Wheeler, Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology.

Grad Slam contestants
2018 Grad Slam Semifinalists (left to right): Tomás León, Joe Charbonnet, Alberto Sanchez-Sanchez, David Wheeler, Andrea Pickel, Lilith Acadia, Sylvia Lewin, Maria Simanovskaia, Daniel Drew, Kelsae Adame

Thinking about entering Grad Slam next year? Here’s what this year’s finalists advise:

  • Joe Charbonnet: “I would recommend that every PhD student see if they could explain their research and its value in three minutes or less to an audience that’s savvy, yet unfamiliar with your field. This is true whether you’re in STEM or in the humanities, whether you’re interested in entrepreneurship or not.”
  • Daniel Drew: “Go for it! Even just thinking about how to hone your pitch down into the time allotted will improve your ability to communicate about your work in the future.”
  • Kelsae Adame: “Definitely do it! It’s an amazing experience and really helps to build many skills (public speaking, scriptwriting, etc.). It also gives you a chance to listen to other areas of research and gives you an appreciation for the university in its entirety.”

Watch the full competition!