Applause and appreciative laughter spilled through the doors of the Kuumbwa Jazz center and into the cool evening air of March in downtown Santa Cruz. By audience demand, Caitlin Kroeger, a Ph.D. student in ocean sciences, demonstrated an albatross mating dance after presenting a three-minute summary of her research on seabird resilience to climate change. Emcee Lori Kletzer, interim campus provost and executive vice chancellor, and host for the evening, gamely followed along, bobbing and shaking her head.

With that, the fifth annual UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam was off to a roaring start. An additional 12 Ph.D. students shared brief, public-oriented presentations of their graduate research in the UCSC section of the UC-only contest, similar in format to the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition created at the University of Queensland in Australia. A panel of 10 judges, including Santa Cruz mayor Martine Watkins, Vice-mayor Justin Cummings, and several UCSC alumni, ranked the 13 presentations.

Left to right: Doctoral students Sarah Kienle, Rachel Harbeitner, and Priscilla Sung, champion, runner-up, and People’s Choice winner, respectively, of the 2019 UCSC Grad Slam competition. Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Kienle, Rachel Harbeitner, and Priscilla Sung.

These presentations featured research in biology, computer science, outer space, and more. Computer science and engineering student Minmei Wang spoke about her work developing a collaborative authentication process to increase security and integrity for the “internet of things.” Natalia Koulinka, a student in the History of Consciousness Department, shared her analyses of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Physics student Benjamin Lehmann talked about his part in the search for our universe’s elusive dark matter. And Theadora Block, an ecology and evolutionary biology student, presented evidence that golden-crowned sparrows with a more colorful cap have higher social dominance. Block also got the audience participating in a call-and-response whistling of the little brown bird’s song.

Audience involvement wasn’t limited to calling for bird demonstrations, however. Viewers voted for their favorite presentation, awarding this year’s People’s Choice award (and $750) to psychology student Priscilla Sung. Sung’s research focuses on bilingual children, and whether children who “code-switch” between their languages more often are also better able to switch between different tasks. Runner-up for the top judged prize (and awarded $1,500), was Rachel Harbeitner, a student in ocean sciences. Harbeitner presented her finding that deep-sea, carbon-eating bacteria consume the remains of oceanic plankton at a rate 50 times faster than expected.

Doctoral student Caitlin Kroeger demonstrates an albatross mating dance with Emcee Lori Kletzer. Credit: Kurtz Photographics.

This year marked the first time UCSC’s Grad Slam was held off-campus. The move was geared toward “taking research off the hill and into town,” said Kletzer. Kuumbwa Jazz also offers a smaller, more intimate space than UCSC’s Music Center Recital Hall, with the option of serving food and beverages, said Kletzer. “The students are enthusiastic about sharing their work, and this venue feels like a good match for that enthusiasm,” she said. “We’re going to stay here.”

The top prize, along with $3,000, went to ecology and evolutionary biology student Sarah Kienle, who shared her doctoral research on sexual dimorphism in elephant seals. Not only are males and females of the species very different in size—males handily outweigh females—they also have very different foraging strategies. Elephant seals make good ambassadors for biology, said Kienle. “Showing people pictures and telling stories about what we do helps inspire people to become scientists and can help open a dialogue about the importance of science,” she said. Due to Kienle’s spring research trip to Antarctica to study leopard seals, runner-up Harbeitner represented UC Santa Cruz at the UC-wide Grad Slam competition on May 10 at the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco. To learn the final results and watch the presentations (spoiler alert: Harbeitner won third place!), point your browser to