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Entries in grad student spotlight (8)

Monday
Feb222016

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Jacob Barrett on Chemistry & Batman 

Working in lab: Using a routine technique called gas chromatography- flame Ionization detection (GC-FID) to identify the components in liquid mixturesJacob Barrett, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, shares a little bit about his upbringing, his research, and lessons we can all learn from his mentor, Batman. Jacob, a native of Los Angeles, earned a B.A. in Chemistry with distinction from Sonoma State University. He grew up with his mother, Tranita Barrett, his father, Barry Katz, and Renee Green, his older sister. 

Is there any particular event(s) that had a big impact or influence on you? 

A particular event I wouldn't say, but I really love museums. One of them in particular is the La Brea Tar Pits, which I try to go to every time I am in Los Angeles. It's an exhibit of extinct mammals that have been dug up from bitumen, which is a natural asphalt pit. I was excited to go there. I thought that one day I was going to be a paleontologist, but it also sort of contributed to my interest in animal life and earth's natural cycles. 

Tell us a little about your research and what you plan to achieve with that.

Basically, what I try and do is use a catalyst to convert wood into chemicals. Traditionally, these chemicals are derived from petroleum. The overarching goal of my research is to replace specific petrochemicals. The ones that I look at are high-value aromatic compounds. I would like to found a company based on garbage collection and utilization. Instead of throwing our waste into a landfill, we can find different ways to transform it into something useful. Specifically, I want to take green waste and make it into fuels and chemicals instead of just composting it, which is what most garbage collection agencies do now. 

What do you wish you had known before you started grad school? 

I wish I had known how easily you can burn out. I understand now that your mental and emotional health is so important for your success in grad school. 

Emre Discekici and I ready to hit Wildcat!

What has been a source of motivation for you in graduate studies?

The way it was explained to me by my undergraduate advisor Dr. Carmen Works, she really had a good impression on me, was that "you get to choose what you do." I really liked that aspect of it. The more education you get, the more freedom you have in what you do with the rest of you life. I kind of liked that, and that's what really drew me towards coming to graduate school versus going and working as a lab technician. 

What keeps you going now that you are in graduate school?

Well, definitely the friends that I have made here keep me going. I mean the first person I got to know well was Emre Discekici, a fellow grad student. My girlfriend Sabrina is immensely important to me. And my roommate Jordan is also really important. I live with a group of people, Michael and Sam, who are also in the Chemistry Department and we can just unwind together and we are not all stressed all the time.  

Who are your hero(oes) and/or mentors and why? 

He probably does not know who I am because he only met me once, Harry Gray is a professor at Cal Tech. I met him during a poster session for a conference. He was talking to me about my research, and I was answering his questions and discussing different experiments that he thought I should try. Basically, he was like "so you are going to apply to grad school, right?" I told him I was thinking about it, but I didn't have the grades for that. He told me that I should apply to grad school, for sure. Coming from the keynote speaker of a conference, that was just really inspiring, and so I feel like he is one of my heroes. 

Credit: DC Comics

I would really like to be like my undergrad advisor because she was such a good mentor. We do have a professional relationship, but she also has been good at managing a friendship with me. So, I really try to emulate her as a mentor with students that I work with.

You do know that my other hero is Batman? Well, Batman has completely dedicated himself to an idea, and, especially in some of the comics, he comes to a point where he realizes that what he was working on was not enough and he take it a step further. Basically, Batman's dedication is what inspires me about him the most. Batman does not let physical or mental boundaries affect him, and I wish I was capable of that. 

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

Hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park during the CSU LSAMP Project NUTria research visit in Costa Rica 2012

When I was in undergrad, I was part of Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation(LSAMP). Sonoma State does not have a very large minority population, so I ended up being one of the first students selected to go on one of the study abroad programs. It was a CSU-wide thing, and I went to Costa Rica for a summer project. After I graduated, I found out that they had nominated me for the PROUD Award, which is a CSU-wide award. You get selected from the different CSU campuses to be in this program. It was really cool. Still talking to Dr. Sam Brannen, my scholarship advisor from LSAMP, and talking to my academic advisor as well, it's crazy to see just how much they appreciated what I was doing and really I was appreciating them for giving me all these opportunities. It was a really nice symbiotic relationship between us. 

What do you do to relax? Favorite places?

I really like going to the beach and looking out at the ocean. I enjoy walking in nature. Going on hikes. I enjoy playing sports. Noodle City is by far my favorite place here. I really like Wildcat. 

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? 

Most people don't know that I had a Bar Mitzvah and that I am Jewish. My mother is Creole and my father is an all-American Jewish man. To appreciate what's it like to be Black and Jewish, see video below. 

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

In five years, I hope to be running my own garbage and recycling company. Ten years from now? I am not sure. I really do enjoy teaching, so it might be nice at some point to be a professor. I definitely want to own a home and maybe have some kids. 

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

You can find research that you like, but do you get along with your advisor and do you get along with the people in your group? If you can't do those things, then you are going to have a miserable time. 

Yosemite Summer 2015 trip with UCSB and new friends. #yesnewfriends 

Thursday
Mar052015

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Ph.D. Candidate Zach Geiger is Bringing the "Wow" to Physics

Zach Geiger relaxingZach Geiger relaxing. Photo courtesy of Zach Geiger.Meet Zach Geiger, a fourth year Experimental Physics Ph.D. candidate at UCSB. When he’s not working with lasers in the lab or chilling on Goleta beach, he can be found helping put the collective “wow” back into science for students in the local Santa Barbara area as part of the Physics Circus.

Zach found his love for physics while growing up in Moorpark, California in Ventura County. He was fortunate to have been inspired by a great high school physics professor Craig Carlyle, a retired engineer, who liked to teach physics through demonstrations. In his class, Zach discovered the wonder of physics in action and not just as equations on paper.

Zach later went to study at UC San Diego where he earned a B.S. in Physics and a B.A. in Mathematics. Now he’s studying experimental physics at UCSB, using cool words like “quantum computation” to describe some of his work, and wowing kids with science as part of his other work in the Physics Circus.

Tell me about your involvement with Physics Circus?

The Physics Circus actually started 20 years ago. It was developed by a faculty member, Jean Carlson, and another grad student.

Today, it’s taught as a class. They always need volunteers to help. So when I was a first year grad student I volunteered to work with the previous coordinator, Karina Roitman. When she left, she recommended me to take over the coordination position. I’ve been the coordinator for a year and a half now. I help set up events, manage volunteers, maintain demos, and teach physics concepts to children.

Physics CircusZach bringing the "wow" at the Physics Circus. Photo coutesy of Zach Geiger.

Why did you get involved?

Student Spotlight LampI love seeing the spark go off in a child's mind. Something like levitating a racquet ball, shooting a ring with an electromagnet--it is visually striking. Kids don’t get to experience that in regular classroom settings. Whenever you do it correctly, you get a collective gasp from the audience. I really like when that happens. On some level you reach them and inspire them. 

That sounds fun. What do you do in your own research?

Smoking MeatsZach Geiger relaxing with his meat smoker. Photo courtesy of Zach Geiger.My group (led by Dr. David Weld) uses lasers to trap atoms in order to answer questions fundamental to quantum mechanics. Things like nonequilibrium quantum dynamics, quantum mechanics of condensed matter systems, and quasicrystals. Some people call what we do quantum emulation. Basically, we’re building a quantum computer. Certain systems are beyond classical computation and simulation, so we recreate the physics of those systems in a system that is easier to study and understand.

That sounds like a lot of work. What do you to relax?

I like to go to the beach a lot. At Goleta beach, you can go to the beach with a beer or cocktail and just unwind. I also like to cook a lot.  But what I really like is BBQ. I built my own smoker. Making smoked meats is a lot of fun. It’s a passive experience, so it’s great to relax. You can smoke meats for 4-5 hours, and then you get to enjoy the tasty results.

You’ve been a grad student for four years now. Any advice for people just starting out?

At least in Physics, people tend to push themselves really hard. From my experience, I learned that grad school is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t always be sprinting. The first year broke me in terms of my workload...the work I did for professors, teaching, and classes. You need to give up on being a perfectionist. For example, you can spend a lot of time reading and never try out anything in the lab. But you have take that advice with a grain of salt. As my professor also jokes, six months in the lab can save you an afternoon in the library.

What are you proud of as a grad student?

Zach Geiger in the labZach Geiger in the lab he help to build with Physics students Kurt Fujiwara, Ruwan Senaratne, and Shankari Rajagopal. Photo courtesy of Zach Geiger.Building up our lab. Understanding how everything works in the lab. It’s personally gratifying. When I joined the lab in December 2011, it was the professor’s first year also. There was no lab. We had to build it from scratch. Before I arrived, our space used to be conference rooms. The only thing we had at the start was a box of computer parts. My first job was to build a computer.

What is the one thing you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I still want to be working on interesting and challenging problems. I want not to be bored.  If I was working on fun and challenging problems ten years from now, I would be very happy.

For more on the Physics Circus, read The Current article, "A New Kind of Circus."

Saturday
Mar082014

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Jonathan Jones

At UCSB, we're fortunate to have pristine beaches line our campus. We're even more fortunate to have graduate students, such as Jonathan Jones, who are working on preserving our beautiful oceans.

Jonathan is a first-year doctoral student in the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Marine Science. His research focuses on ocean acidification and how oceans are changing as a result of increased carbon dioxide emissions (check out his blog to learn more).

Jonathan earned his undergraduate degree in biology from the College of the Holy Cross, a small liberal arts college in Worcester, Mass. He spent the last two years conducting long-term biological monitoring in the Pacific Northwest.

Read on to learn more about his research and what he has learned in his first quarter at UCSB.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

Jonathan JonesI am currently researching the decrease in ocean pH resulting from increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Specifically, I am interested in the seasonal variability of coastal pH and how marine phytoplankton are affected by fluctuating pH and temperature conditions. I became interested in this area of research my junior year of undergraduate study during a summer internship at Olympic National Park.

I spent that summer, and the next three, hiking the rugged coastline of the National Park monitoring sea stars, tubeworms, amphipods, razor clams, surf smelt, mussels, barnacles, intertidal temperature and pH. Leaving the blustery snowstorms of New England for the warm marine layer of the Olympic Peninsula was a welcome change. Before joining up with a Ricketts-esc crew of biologists, I was unaware that jobs like mine even existed. Not long after I began work in this position, I started brainstorming about how I could make the beauty and excitement of that first summer last a lifetime. This experience sparked my interest to know more, to look deeper into the field, and to pursue a career in Ocean Sciences.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

Jonathan and a colleague searching historic sea star monitoring plots for Pisaster ochraceus. Every year they count the total number of sea stars and measure the longest ray of each. It was during one of these counts where they identified the “sea star wasting disease” in Olympic National Park.Graduate student life has been awesome so far. The Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Marine Science (IGPMS) graduate student cohort is a great group of young professionals that showcase the talent and creativity of the Marine Science Program. I am proud to be counted amongst their ranks.

I started my first quarter in the IGPMS program directly after completing the scientific diver program, a course offered through the university that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. Between diving, taking classes, writing proposals, and trying to hone some instrumental expertise, I have been both busy and extremely satisfied with my decision to return to school and pursue my research interests.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

Jonathan braving the high tide at Rialto Beach to try to collect surf smelt. This sardine-like fish is a food source for many Pacific salmon.Given the fact that ocean acidification is a relatively new topic of research in marine ecology, I am constantly motivated to keep myself informed as the field grows. The direct connection to human economy is great motivation for my research and I plan to use my time at UCSB to broaden the scientific and local communities’ knowledge of shifting baselines in marine ecosystems. Although the topic of ocean acidification can seem mechanistically abstract, the resulting implications for marine resources are highly tangible.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and describe why.

I am proud of being selected by the UC Santa Barbara Associated Students Coastal Fund to continue my research at Stearns Wharf, where I am currently monitoring local ocean pH. To be chosen by your peers to represent the community through research is a great honor and I look forward to contributing to the collective effort of conserving the UCSB coastline.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? Along these same lines, what makes you happy?

Intertidal temperature fluctuates with both tidal cycle and season. Here, Jonathan is downloading and replacing a temperature sensor, one of several located along the Washington coast.I enjoy SCUBA diving, seeing a good movie with my girlfriend, reading a great work of fiction, and long walks on high energy rocky coastlines. Although white sand beaches with gently lapping tides are beautiful in their own right, I am rather fond of the grey-blue cacophony of the morning high tide crashing against the rocks of the intertidal. I feel most inspired and also most mortal when I stand a few feet above the incredible power of the ebbing tide.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I am a bit of a science fiction/fantasy literature fanatic. Three favorites: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", "The Kingkiller Chronicles," and "Anansi Boys." That is all I will say on the subject here, but as my lab manager Julia knows, I am always willing to discuss a great piece of fiction and even share suggestions for a good read from time to time.

What do you hope to be doing five or 10 years out of graduate school?

Jonathan getting ready to run pH samples in the Passow Lab.I hope to be living and working near the ocean where my nieces and nephews can come peer over the edge of a tidepool and scour the beach for glass floats. Beyond that, I hope to stay in the field and out from behind a desk as much as possible.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

With only one quarter under my belt, I am in the market for taking advice, not giving it. I do, however, advise current and future students from all disciplines to get out into the ocean. Take a trip to the islands, sign up for a SCUBA class, visit the REEF touch tanks, or volunteer at the Sea Center downtown. With the ocean in our backyard, there is no better place than UCSB to experience the wonder of the sea!

Anything else you'd like to add?

Check out my website to keep up-to-date with my research: www.seagrad.org.

Friday
Sep132013

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Crystal Bae

Grad Student Spotlight logoCrystal Bae, a new graduate student who will be pursuing a M.A. and Ph.D. in Geography, caught my attention when she posted on the New Graduate Student Map that she would be moving to Santa Barbara from Washington, D.C. via bike. Crystal shared a link to her blog (www.crystalbae.com), which detailed her three-month bike trip across the country with her partner. I followed the blog throughout the summer and was impressed with the photos and stories (check out the Bike Tour By the Numbers post for the incredible trip summary).

I recently contacted Crystal to learn more about her research interests, motivation for biking across the country, and future plans. Here is what she had to say:

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree? What discipline?

Crystal BaeI have a B.A. in English Literature from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which helped me develop a strong critical eye and approach to thinking about the form of stories and of language. As I concurrently took undergraduate courses in Geography, I began to tie together the connection between how people interact with their environment and how people talk about and understand places.

What do you hope to study at UCSB? What inspired you to pursue this field of study?

In a general sense, nearly everyone I meet who is unfamiliar with the field of geography confuses it with geology, or doesn’t understand that geography extends beyond cartography (mapmaking). These days, more people are understanding the value of incorporating geographic research in almost every domain of study, such as medical professionals using GIS technology to track the spread of diseases, transportation planners studying patterns of commuting, and individuals analyzing the data they generate in their daily movements.

My research interests are specific to urban geography, focusing on spatial behavior in rapidly developing global megacities such as Jakarta. I plan to study the connections between how people perceive neighborhoods, their development of “mental maps” of a location, and their patterns of movement throughout the city.

Please describe your experience biking across the country.

Crystal Bae bike tripCrystal Bae with two other touring cyclists she met on the road (near Hebron, ND)Before last year, I commuted on a bike simply because it was the fastest way to get around Washington, D.C., but in the summer of 2012, I started doing more riding just for fun and challenging myself to ride further. My partner Adam and I started discovering the pleasure and practicality of traveling by bicycle and we decided that when we moved for my graduate studies, it would be by bike. I had time before school began and he would have to job search anyway, so we decided to ship our furniture and other belongings and take the time to ride across the country. Cycling reduces a city—or even a country, in this case—to a human scale. You observe much more than when you zip through a place by car or train, you get to meet wonderful new people everyday, and you really learn the value of living simply.

Above all, we learned that people are incredibly generous. They are often drawn to us out of curiosity, seeing the loaded-up touring bikes, but once you share your story, they’re likely to open up and share a part of their lives too. It has helped me relate to people with all kinds of different outlooks, experiences, and circumstances. Another effect of doing the cross-country ride was that I was able to see so much of the country that I had never visited, and I think I’m a much more flexible person when it comes to planning now—you really can’t prepare for everything on a trip of that length.

Why did you decide to pursue your graduate studies at UCSB?

Crystal Bae bikingCrystal Bae riding in MontanaUCSB has a very strong Geography department, which initially inspired me to consider coming here for my graduate work. Ultimately, my decision was based more on the strengths and interests of the faculty in the department, which mesh well with my research goals. There are many people here conducting incredible research, and the vibe when I first visited was that everyone is approachable and passionate about their work. For my undergraduate work, I didn’t move far—just a jump from the Washington D.C. suburbs into D.C. proper—so it’s also nice to have the opportunity to live on the West coast.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

I am proud of not only bicycling across the country, but also of making the time to write blog posts to keep everyone in touch with our trip. After a long day of riding, I’d stay awake in the tent to write down the days’ events and reflections in my notebook. The biggest factor in helping me ride for hours everyday was the encouragement from family, friends, and even the people I didn’t know who followed my blog. After the trip ended, many, many people who had been quietly following along sent me messages saying how much of an inspiration the trip was to them—that was unexpected.

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

My hope is that I will be teaching at the university level and continuing to pursue my research interests. I haven’t had the experience of living abroad for more than a few months, so maybe by then I’ll have the chance to combine that with my research. Of course, I will hopefully still be cycling often to balance out the time spent writing at a desk.

Friday
Aug162013

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Ester Trujillo

Ester Trujillo wants to bring out of the shadows a population she calls largely invisible: U.S. residents of Salvadoran descent. It saddens her to see this ethnic group portrayed as primarily impoverished, undocumented gang members. Ester wants to show “there is so much more to Salvadorans than that” through her Ph.D. research, but by her own excellent example, she is also demonstrating this.

Ester, a doctoral student in Chicana and Chicano Studies, earned her BA in Chicana and Chicano Studies, with a minor in Political Science, from UCLA in 2010; and her MA in Chicana and Chicano Studies from UCSB in 2012. She is currently the Funding Peer Advisor at the Graduate Student Resource Center and is serving her second term as Vice President of Communications and Records for the UCSB Graduate Students Association.

Ester Trujillo. Credit: Patricia MarroquinThis Mellon Fellow is the first in her family to go to college in the United States, and the first to go to graduate school. She grew up in East Los Angeles, and attended Woodrow Wilson High School, but she graduated in the Antelope Valley when her parents moved the family of five to the high desert. Often mistaken for Mexican American, Ester’s ethnicity blends two cultures: Her mother is from El Salvador, and her father is from Mexico.

Her parents never fail to remind Ester how privileged she is to live and thrive in the U.S. Her mother, who escaped the civil war that raged in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992, told young Ester stories of walking to school past bullet-riddled buildings and streets strewn with the dead. And her father, who was educated in mechanical engineering in Mexico but unable to make a living at it there for economic reasons, sewed buttons on clothing to put food on the table for his family when they emigrated to the U.S.

Today, Ester’s parents, who are now U.S. citizens, own a produce wholesale warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, a business they have run for more than two decades. As a child, Ester put in many hours at the Trujillo Produce warehouse over school breaks hauling boxes and tending to customers. You might think strolling through a farmers market would be the last thing she’d want to do in her free time now, but Ester tells us that buying her veggies at the Goleta Farmers Market on Sundays actually relaxes her.

In our Graduate Student in the Spotlight interview, this busy Ph.D. student shares what motivates her to study the impact immigrant histories have on second-generation Salvadoran-descent college youths; why she calls herself a “TV junkie”; how the brain activity while sleeping assists her in her research; what “ethnographic excursions” are and why she enjoys them so much; and more. Read on. …

Ester Trujillo attended a Mellon Mays graduate conference at Princeton University in 2011.

Click to read more ...

Friday
Jul192013

Ryan Bulis’ Master’s Thesis Is Not Your ‘Garden Variety’ Grad School Project

Ryan Bulis' "Garden Variety" installation contains references to the "Green Man," or "Wild Man." Credit: Patricia Marroquin

Ryan Anthony Bulis’ master’s project had its roots in kitschy garden statuary. Ryan, who earned his Master of Fine Arts degree last month, took an underutilized outdoor museum space at UCSB and transformed it into a whimsical attraction with items to catch both the eye and the imagination: lawn jockeys, gnomes, topiaries, even a curious “Green Man.” He calls his installation “Garden Variety,” but there’s nothing commonplace about it.

Ryan explains the significance of each item to the garden, and the cultural differences in garden spaces throughout history. His research included looks at Roman gardens, Italian Renaissance gardens, English landscape gardens, Chinese gardens, and Japanese gardens. What intrigued Ryan was how gardens through the ages have had the power to unite the wildness of nature with the civility of mankind.

Ryan Bulis' "Garden Variety" overlooks the UCSB Lagoon and is just outside the Art, Design & Architecture Museum. Credit: Patricia MarroquinThroughout the garden, Ryan has placed informational signage. In “The Garden and History” sign at the entrance, he writes:

“The Garden is a familiar place. Biblically, paradise was described as the Garden of Eden, while Ancient Greeks saw the garden as a site for carnal celebration. Grecian garden parties were a way to honor Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy, and madness. Shakespeare’s use of the garden in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ suggests that the garden is a place between the orgy of Dionysus and the purity of Eden. The understanding was that the garden was a private place where half-civilized behavior could take place while embracing one’s inner satyr.”

The peaceful plot of fancy is tucked away at the top of a flight of stairs overlooking the UCSB Lagoon and is just outside the Art, Design & Topiary, Green Man, and gnome. Credit: Patricia MarroquinArchitecture Museum. At the garden’s center is a rectangular bed of grass, filled with colorful ceramic mushrooms and gnomes, most of which Ryan created; a bright flowerbed; a trio of lawn jockeys; and scattered seashells. Around the edges of the garden are yet more statuary; interactive lawn games; wooden benches; topiaries and chia plants; and a “Green Man” mask hung on the brick wall.

Ryan’s “Garden Variety” project was initially part of the museum’s “Inside Out: 2013 UCSB Master of Fine Arts” exhibition, held from May 25 to June 16. The exhibition displayed the works, in a variety of mediums and techniques, of graduating MFA students. Those 2013 Department of Art graduates are listed here. Although Ryan’s garden was meant to be temporary, it still stands. He said it is likely to remain up for the summer. Because of the openness and interactivity of the space, however, it is susceptible to theft and damage, which have occurred since its installation, Ryan said.

Three lawn jockeys are prominently displayed in "Garden Variety." Credit: Patricia Marroquin

Ryan, who recently earned his MFA from UCSB and holds a BA in Fine Art (2009) from UC Davis, says he’s fortunate to have secured a teaching fellowship at UC Santa Barbara for the 2013-14 academic year. He is teaching in the College of Creative Studies and for the Art Department.

In early June, we had a chance to speak with Ryan. He shares what he learned through the research for his master’s thesis; why giving back is a priority in his life; the challenges of being a first-generation college student; what’s up with that mysterious, green “Wild Man” seen throughout his garden; and more. Read on, and view our “Garden Variety” video at the end of the article. …  

Colorful and whimsical statuary fill Ryan Bulis' garden. Credit: Patricia Marroquin

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jun032013

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Britney Pennington Shares About Stem Cells, Teaching, and Taking Care of the Environment

Graduate Student Spotlight logoWhen 5th year doctoral candidate Britney Pennington is not in the Clegg lab trying to cure blindness (age-related macular degeneration), she is inspiring people to take care of the environment, or travelling and exploring the outdoors with friends. This quarter, Britney showcased her research in the campus-wide Grad Slam competition and placed in the top three out of 80 graduate student participants (see GradPost article). Britney is pursuing a Ph.D. in Biomolecular Science and Engineering and plans to graduate in 2014. Read on to learn more about Britney's research, accomplishments, and plans for the future.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic

My lab uses human embryonic stem cells to generate retinal pigmented epithelium, which is a cell type that can be used as a therapy for age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over 55 years of age. My research investigates ways to expedite the derivation of RPE from stem cells, which normally takes several months. I also study a new material that supports stem cell and RPE growth and function.

Britney Pennington Grad Slam photoGrad Slam Round 4 winner Britney Pennington. Credit: Patricia MarroquinWhat was it like to participate in the Grad Slam? What did you learn from the experience?

It was really fun and entertaining! I never realized how many filler words I use in every day speech! By only having 3 minutes, I was forced to use precise diction. I realized fewer words convey a message more effectively. Also, by attending the other Grad Slam sessions, I learned about several disciplines that I never would have encountered otherwise. Some of the presentations from Chicana/o Studies have already influenced the way I teach students.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

Graduate school is drastically different than undergraduate life! It took me a few years to adjust to the success/fail ratio of experiments, but now I’m really enjoying myself. I work for an excellent principal investigator, Dr. Dennis Clegg, who has supported any idea I have had, even if that idea is more focused on teaching than research. I work with an outstanding group of people in the Clegg lab and the Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering. Most importantly, grad life has definitely been enhanced by my close friends in the department. Graduate student life has been a blast thanks to these people!

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

Britney Pennington & Jeff Bailey (MCDB grad) in Anza Borrego State Park, CAI’ve always admired my family’s work ethic, and I try to keep up to par. My boyfriend, Jeff Bailey, is also a great source of motivation due to his exceptional work ethic and his tremendous amount of support for me. His encouragement and motivation have really carried me through the rough times at grad school.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why

I spear-headed the movement on my college campus to start a recycling program. It took about eight months of talking to the county’s recycling coordinator, my college’s project manager and architect, local waste management and recycling companies, and after months of meetings and effort, Florida Institute of Technology finally has a recycling program! We only have one Earth, and our lives literally depend on how we treat it. I encourage every person to do little acts of kindness to the planet daily, like picking up a piece of litter, turning off the lights and faucet when they’re not in use, and biking to work.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? Along these same lines, what makes you happy?

I love backpacking in the wilderness or going on day hikes by some body of water. Music and art have always been a hobby, and I wish I had more time to sketch, paint, and play my piano and guitar. I’m really happy when I can travel to new and exciting locations with my closest friends. I could be in the most spectacular place, but the experience especially becomes unforgettable if I am there with my best buds (like when we go abalone diving, wine tasting in various locations, or have beach BBQs or moonlit picnics on the bluffs).

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

Britney Pennington backpacking tripThis response definitely varies with my mood and/or day of the week. Some days, I imagine myself teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution with a small undergraduate-based lab studying planarian regeneration. Other days, I fancy myself working for an organization or company that allows me to make public presentations to raise awareness for the environment or an endangered species. Then there are the days where I imagine myself living very minimally on a beach in Hawaii or the Caribbean, making a living on local dolphin watches or snorkel trips or something of that nature. I worked as a first mate on dolphin watches/snorkel trips when I lived in Florida. I love working on the water, and there are plenty of opportunities to educate the public on local wildlife. But those are just my plans…I’m excited to see what really happens because things have a way of working out better than I anticipated.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Counting blessings alleviates stress.

Wednesday
May082013

Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Sarah Stark Shows Off Smarty Pants

Sarah StarkSarah Stark, a second-year Master's student in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, wowed the audience in a Grad Slam preliminary round as she introduced her idea for using new media in education to change the world ... one student at a time. As Sarah prepares to graduate this spring with a Master's of Environmental Science and Management (MESM) and a specialization in Coastal Marine Resources Management, she took some time to respond to a few questions for the GradPost.

Read on to learn about Sarah's Eco-Entrepreneurship project, Smarty Pants, and how she hopes to launch it as a business after graduating.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

At the Bren School, every student is part of a Master’s Group Project, rather than a traditional individual Master’s thesis. These Group Projects consist of students working together to solve a problem for a client. We also have the option of pursuing the Eco-Entrepreneurship (Eco-E) focus, where we can propose our own Master’s project, but we treat it as though we are creating a business.

All Eco-E projects must solve a significant customer problem while providing an environmental benefit. I chose to go down this path after taking a few classes about entrepreneurship. I didn’t have any sort of business background as an undergraduate student studying science, so I thought I would expand my horizons. As an undergraduate student, one of my best friends and I had talked about creating a television show that taught science to kids, so I began exploring this topic at Bren, and my Master’s project eventually evolved out of that idea.

I never thought that I would actually be able to take my idea of a science television show for kids and run with it, especially as a basis for my Master’s project. I feel extremely fortunate that the Bren School has allowed me to research a topic that is so near and dear to my heart.
-Sarah Stark

Tell us a little about your project “Smarty Pants.”

Smarty Pants website screenshotSmarty Pants creates educational media that teaches environmental science to students in grades K-8. It is presented in the form of webisodes, or web episodes. It is designed as a tool to save teachers time (e.g., preparing lesson plans) and to help them teach science in their classrooms. The webisodes are entertaining and informative for the students and they come with lesson plans and assessments for the teacher to use.

Our webisodes are episodic in order to feel more like a television show and less like a boring educational video. Each episode features our main characters going on an adventure to learn about an environmental issue in their community. Along the way, they learn the science behind the issue, so each webisode aligns with the required academic standards for each particular grade it is targeting.

We use live-action characters and local settings so students can relate to and look up to the characters. We want the students to feel empowered to solve environmental problems in their own backyards. We reach out to students that are often underrepresented in science by featuring students like them in our webisodes.

The ultimate goal of Smarty Pants is to increase environmental stewardship in youth by giving them the knowledge and self-efficacy to take care of the environment. Knowledge is power and we think that our media can inspire this next generation of students to save the planet.

Sarah Stark scuba divingWhat has graduate student life been like for you?

Busy. Extremely busy, but also extremely rewarding.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

I never thought that I would actually be able to take my idea of a science television show for kids and run with it, especially as a basis for my Master’s project. I feel extremely fortunate that the Bren School has allowed me to research a topic that is so near and dear to my heart. Also, the entire Bren community has been so supportive of our idea.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and explain why.

Smarty Pants recently competed in the International Business Model Competition at Harvard. We were one of 28 semifinalists, out of about 1,400 applicants. We were extremely proud that we got into the competition! While we did not move forward to finals, it was a great experience overall, and it was great for Smarty Pants to make connections on the East Coast.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? 

I like to watch a lot of really bad TV shows because they help me zone out. I really enjoy baking treats and going out for good meals with my friends. I love going to shows, especially at smaller venues. I love relaxing at the beach as long as I have my SPF50 with me at all times!

Sarah Stark presentingWhat do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I would really love to see Smarty Pants get off the ground as a business and ideally we would already have our products in some schools by then. In one way or another, I hope to be educating people about science and the world around us, because I think science can solve so many important issues these days.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Learn a lot, and work hard, but don’t forget to have fun!