Claire Whitaker loves fresh fruit. That’s why the botany and plant sciences doctoral student has spent the last three years researching how to prevent gray, fuzzy fungus from consuming fruits such as strawberries.
That same passion is what garnered her the top slot in UC Riverside’s 8th annual Grad Slam competition, held Thursday, March 3. Whitaker won the $5,000 grand prize and will now travel to Oakland to compete at the UC-level, aiming to bring home the systemwide title — and collect the $7,000 top award. Grad Slam is an annual contest that challenges graduate students to communicate their research in just three minutes and using only three PowerPoint slides.
“One central reason for this contest is to grant students the opportunity to engage the public, to present their knowledge and their research to people beyond their research labs,” said Laura McGeehan, director of academic preparation, recruitment and outreach for Graduate Division, the department that hosts Grad Slam.
These young researchers, in the sciences, humanities, and engineering fields, have a holistic worldview, and they want their research to positively impact their communities and the world, McGeehan said.
Grad Slam is typically held in-person and open to the community, but Graduate Division staff decided to take a conservative approach and made the competition a hybrid event in order to keep everyone safe, McGeehan said.
The eight participants met at the Alumni and Visitors Center where six judges and a handful of guests witnessed the event. Family and friends were connected virtually to watch and vote for their favorite contestant, awarding one student the Audience’s Choice Award.
“I’m so happy that this part is over, but also happy I get to do it again in May,” said Whitaker, a researcher in Professor Hailing Jin’s lab. “The goal is to come back with the prize!”
Whitaker, who will also receive a certificate of recognition by the Riverside City Council on April 5, was among 49 students who expressed interest in competing. They submitted videos pitching their research and of those, 16 made it to the semifinals, which were live via Zoom. Of those, eight rose to the finals.
Participants were judged on how well they engaged the audience, how clear they communicated key concepts, and how effectively they focused and presented their ideas. The judges were Christine Victorino, associate chancellor at UCR; Rick Dulock, program director at KVCR; Jake Orta, senior assistant to Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson; Maria Franco-Gallardo, retired director of academic preparation and outreach at UCR; Jeff Horseman, journalist at The Press-Enterprise; and Erin Power ’01, assistant superintendent of business services with Riverside Unified School District.
Power and Dulock said they were impressed with the topics, and felt hopeful about the future knowing research and thought-provoking conversations were in the hands of the young contestants.
“I’m blown away in terms of the presentation, the passion, and the preparation that these students put into their research,” Horseman said. “These were complex, diverse, and innovative topics. It has given me a newfound appreciation for the type of work that goes on at a university.”
UCR’s event is part of the systemwide program; financial support comes from the University of California Office of the President. One of Grad Slam’s missions is to ensure that the competition includes a cross section of students. Breakdown for this year’s 49 submissions were as follows: 27 from arts, humanities, and social sciences; 22 from natural and agricultural sciences, engineering, and biomedicine. The Center for Ideas and Society also gave all arts, humanities, and social science participants a $50 Amazon gift card for entering the contest.
“It’s been non-stop since January. I’ve practiced every free minute, in the shower, while I’m driving, in front of family, and changed something every single time,” said Whitaker, who also won first place in the inaugural Student Multimedia Science Communication competition organized by the student-led organization, SciComm@UCR.
Whitaker’s research focuses on Botrytis cinerea, the fungus that invades plants and fruits such as grapes and strawberries and a major contributor to the annual 1.3 billion tons of world food waste.
Botrytis produces proteins that hide in “packages or envelopes” that eventually attack the plant’s defenses. Whitaker proposes new tools to disrupt that process. Her research focuses on eliminating those protective barriers, which in turn will allow for longer shelf life, minimizing food waste, and decrease crop loss experienced by farmers.
This type of impactful research is what makes leaders at UCR, and what grants Grad Slam an opportunity to celebrate them, McGeehan said.
“The role of science communication right now is more important than ever,” McGeehan said. “Our scientists have great empathy not just for their subject, but because they can see the impact in the world.”
Each received $250