Events & Media

Student’s Short Talk Comes up Big in Grad Slam Competition

April 27, 2015

Sometimes, the pen is mightier than the slide. As runner-up in the just-completed 2015 UCSB Grad Slam competition, first-year Bren School PhD student Jessica Perkins knows that better than anyone. She began her three-minute research talk — the essence of the Grad Slam competition — not by showing a slide or sharing an anecdote, but by waving a basic ballpoint pen in the air to introduce the topic of life-cycle assessment (LCA), the focus of her doctoral research.

Grad Slammers (from right) Jessica Perkins (2nd place), Daniel Hieber (1st place) Abel Gustafson (2nd place), and UCSB Graduate Division Dean Carol Genetti.
Perkins joined 58 other UCSB graduate students in the grueling annual Grad Slam event, in which competitors vie for the best three-minute research presentation. Students may use up to three slides, and presentations are judged on a range of criteria including clarity, delivery, visuals, and, perhaps most importantly, how well the material is communicated to an intelligent but non-expert audience. The time limit is also crucial; students rapidly lose points for each second they speak beyond three minutes.

In “Life Cycle Assessment: There's More to the Story,” Perkins discussed her current research, which is related to minimizing the impacts of chemicals on human health and the environment. Life-cycle assessment requires abundant data, and data gaps cause problems. Perkins and her collaborators are working to develop predictive tools that make it possible to provide a full LCAt equivalent for a given chemical even in the presence of large data gaps.

While most students incorporate the allowed three slides into their talks, Perkins used none. Instead, she had the audience focus on the pen she held, identified the materials it was made of — plastic, tungston carbide, and brass — and then spoke about the resources, emissions, and waste associated with the raw materials, production, use, and disposal of the pen.

“I know that even LCA experts don’t like to look at the figures describing their research, so I thought my presentation would be stronger without slides,” she said. “I also figured doing something different might grab the audience's attention.”

It did — and it also earned the notice of three judging panels comprising faculty, representative from local NGOs, UCSB trustees, and others. After three rounds of competition, Perkins was named one of two runners-up and the recipient of a $2,500 cash award.

“Nerves aside, I really enjoyed participating in the Grad Slam,” Perkins said. “As a first-year student, it was really inspiring to see all the impressive research that students in other departments were working on. It is motivating to know that here at UCSB, we are surrounded by brilliant people who are also very effective at communicating the impact of their work.”

Five Bren School students entered the competition and four made it to the semi-final round. Only Perkins made it to the finals. The winner, Daniel Hieberk, a graduate student in linguistics, won $5,000, provided by Yardi Systems, and the chance to compete at thefirst-ever UC-wide finals, to be held in Oakland on May 4.

UCSB was the first UC campus to implement the Grad Slam format in 2013. Since then, many other universities in the Southwest have followed suit. The inaugural Grad Slam earned UCSB the Award for Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education, which is presented annually to one member school by the Western Association of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service.

Although the Grad Slam is history for this year, Perkins plans to keep her presentation skills sharp. In May, she’ll join other Bren students on a panel to share thoughts about corporate sustainability at the Sustainatopia Conference in Los Angeles. And during an upcoming summer internship, she’ll use her LCA skills to evaluate water usage associated with Apple’s manufacturing processes.

Jessica and other competitors are included on a short video currently running on the home page of The Current, the news blog of the UCSB Public Affairs office.