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Winter 2016
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Writing Peer
Kyle Crocco

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Entries in student spotlight (4)


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 


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: 2014 Grad Slam Finalist Di Wdzenczny

Dibella Wdzenczny – but you can just call her Di (pronounced "dee") – is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Linguistics Department who studies the indigenous languages of Siberia. Di is fascinated by the extreme diversity of human language as well as its core similarities, and she is dedicated to looking at language from every possible direction. Her area of expertise is in historical linguistics, which is the study of language change over time, and she is especially interested in how cycles and patterns of language change interact with each other in the grammar of a language.

Di Wdzenczny

Di shared her passion for language documentation as a finalist in the 2014 Grad Slam, where she spoke about the possible extinction of indigenous languages in Siberia due to language assimilation. She talked about the ways in which linguists are working with community members to document and preserve heritage, culture, and linguistic diversity.

Di has a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Medieval Studies from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a Master's degree in Linguistics from Eastern Michigan University. While at Eastern Michigan, she also worked at the LINGUIST List, a professional communication and networking site for the worldwide community of linguists. Read on to learn more about her research and grad school experiences.

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

From the very introduction of it, I was fascinated by historical linguistics and the realization that you can make educated guesses about the history of a language or language family. It was during my Master's degree program, when I was trying desperately to find a language area that I could dive into, that I started to focus on the indigenous languages of Siberia. When I had applied to Ph.D. programs, I was still in the mindset of "I'm interested in all of it – point me in a direction!" Then, in one of my morphology classes, we did an in-class exercise on a language I'd never heard of before: a Kamchatkan language called Itelmen, which is spoken in Siberia. It just grabbed me and I had to know more … and I suppose the rest is history.

What was it like to participate in the Grad Slam?

Di with fellow winner of Grad Slam Round Seven, Nate Emery. Credit: Patricia MarroquinIt was fabulous. There was definitely adrenaline and electricity in the room at all rounds, and it was admirable how many grad students wanted to give it a shot. Grad students tend to have a reputation as shut-ins and occasionally socially stunted, but it was clear that lots (if not most) of us are active, happy people who truly love our work and really want to tell the world about it.

And, of course, one of the best parts was getting to the finals alongside my fellow colleague and friend in the Linguistics Department, Don Daniels. Back when I was applying to different graduate programs, a big part of my decision to come to UCSB was because of the work Don was able to do here and how happy he was with the program. For both of us to be in the Grad Slam finals felt like a huge success.

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

Di in the Kamchatka region of Russia with her friend and colleague Tatiana, who is part of the Itelmen community and also a Ph.D. student.I'm pretty self-motivated, so aiming for that "next big thing" is always good. I'm just generally the type where I'm never quite satisfied with anything I do, so I'm always out to do it better or take it to the next step.

I also feel motivated out of gratitude for the women linguists who have come before me. They were the ones who, back in the day, were fighting the good fight for equality (and some of their stories are stomach-turning), and I'm very lucky to be able to have an immensely easier time following in their footsteps. Several female linguists – such as Sally Thomason, Claire Bowern, Marianne Mithun, and Carol Genetti – have been brilliant mentors to me and I owe it to them to excel the best I can.

What do you like most about grad school and what do you like least?

I enjoy the encouragement to explore the best. I find myself constantly curious, and it’s not only encouraged but supported by our faculty. Seeing some little thought you had that started as "Huh, that’s funny" turn into a published paper is immensely satisfying.

As for my least favorite thing … well, it's nothing that doesn't come with the station. The UC-wide standard fellowship and TA pay is rough living in the Santa Barbara-Goleta area, and the stress can really be a killer. A little bit of stress can be a great motivator, but there’s a fine line between that and when it's unbearable and you want to do nothing but eat ice cream and watch Netflix. Santa Barbara may be expensive, but at least we have McConnell's.

Tell us a little about your upbringing and childhood interests.

One of Di's favorite things about Detroit (besides the sports, of courseǃ) is Detroit music, such as Motown. Hitsville U.S.A., where the Motown Museum is located, chronicles the history of the Motown sound, which started in Detroit and paved the way for everything from disco, funk, and a lot of modern hip hop. Credit: Chris ButcherI'm a second-generation American from Detroit. My family have mostly been autoworkers, and I was the second person in my entire family to get a college degree, and once I get my Ph.D., I'll have the highest degree in my family. That being said, I absolutely love (what used to be) American car culture, and I had jobs restoring cars before I went to college.

As a kid, I was super artistic; I have a natural talent for drawing and I was also musically inclined, but my family definitely had a particular academic destiny set for me, so I was only allowed to take those artistic interests so far. Now that I'm on my own, however, I've grown back into them.

Is there any particular event or events that had a big impact or influence on you and helped shape who you are today?

Well, not to get grim, but probably one of the biggest-impact events in my life was the car accident that completely crushed the left side of my body when I was 16. Having to deal with the aftermath of that accident certainly gave me a better sense of humor about life and made me contemplate things I'd previously taken for granted.

I was told for a long time that my bones would never heal entirely after the accident, but I got a second opinion and "Humpty Dumpty" was put back together post-haste. Although I still have a fair share of permanent injuries, I realized my recovery was entirely in my hands at that point, and that was when I took up dance. I started with hip hop and jitting (a native Detroit style of footwork dance), and moved on to ballet, ballroom, and everything else. I'd uncovered something I realized I couldn’t live without, and it taught me a lot about drive and overcoming obstacles and that all of this was up to me. The experience also taught me that you never really do anything without someone else's help.

What are some of your current hobbies and favorite things to do?

Di in costume for a traditional Tibetan dance performance in 2013. Credit: Sino West Performing Arts

I generally love to be outside and to just walk around, and Santa Barbara is a pretty nice place to do both those things. Dancing is also a wonderful retreat from working hard at a computer for most of the day. I'm not sure what's scarier – performing on stage or giving a presentation at a big conference. On stage, you don't get PowerPoints, but you also don't have people watching who might hold your career in your hands either.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

I don’t know if "proud" is the correct word, but it was one that certainly meant a lot to me personally. The first time I performed en pointe (in ballet pointe shoes) was huge to me, because it gave me the sense that I'd truly recovered physically and mentally from my car accident, and it represented a lot of hard work and determination.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Naturally, Di's favorite animal is the Siberian tiger. Credit: Tom Bayly

Outside of the obvious things (go to conferences, network, get published, etc.) there’s three things: socialize, get some exercise, and find a hobby outside of your research (a combination of this one plus either of the other two is super bonus points). The people in your lab/cohort are your peers, and they're in the same spot as you are most of the time. They can be a fabulous support network if you let them. And other grad students too! Meet people at Grad Slam, or the Happy Hours, etc. We're social creatures – I know not everyone is an extrovert, but we all benefit from some type of socializing. Plus, it stops you from stress overload. (If you do have stress overload, go to CAPS. It's a free counseling resource for UCSB students and they're fabulous.) Having an interest outside your research reminds you (and others, frankly) that you're a whole human being. Whether it's growing vegetables or MMA cage fighting, something that's not your work is a mind massage and always makes you more productive. I'm sure I don't have to explain "get some exercise" – everyone knows those benefits. Even an evening stroll across campus or on the beach can be a breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically). Because endorphins and all that. And if you’re in a position to be able to, I suppose, get a pet. Caring for another creature is such a satisfying experience, and they're proven stress-reducers. Plus, they can help you get exercise and socialize! Hooray!


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Grad Slam Winner James Allen

Graduate Student Spotlight logoJames Allen, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Marine Science (IGPMS), is conducting research that has the potential to transform how ocean ecosystems are studied. James is using satellites rather than boats to collect data about phytoplankton in the ocean. He hopes to use his research to examine how the ocean is changing as a result of climate change.

James' passion for sharing his research with a wider audience is inspiring. Not only did he win the Grand Prize after competing in three grueling rounds of the 2014 Grad Slam, he also hopes to be the next Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson.

James has a Bachelor of Science degree in Geoscience - Meteorology from the University of Tennessee at Martin. Read on to learn more about his research and grad school experiences.

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

James AllenJames AllenMy research involves using satellites to measure the optical properties of the ocean. By looking at how light scatters and gets absorbed in the surface of the ocean, I hope to be able to more accurately measure the relative abundance of differing sizes of phytoplankton. With this information, we can more effectively measure how entire marine ecosystems are changing over time, how the ocean’s ability to export carbon from the atmosphere to depth is changing, and, ultimately, the ocean’s role in climate change for the future.

I’ve always been interested in weather and climate, and becoming a meteorology major as an undergrad really sparked my interest in climate change science. The idea of using satellites and remote sensing to do science and measure global changes blew my mind! I knew that would be how I wanted to contribute to our understanding of Earth’s changing climate. An internship doing research at NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program convinced me that I wanted to be a part of the amazing science that was happening in oceanography. Now, instead of looking up at the sky to forecast the weather, I’m looking down at the water to measure the changing ocean, and I couldn’t be happier.

What was it like to participate in the Grad Slam?

James Allen grad slam winnerGraduate Division Dean Carol Genetti with the Grad Slam 2014 winners: James Allen, center, grand prize winner; and runners-up Damien Kudela and Deborah Barany. Credit: Patricia MarroquinThe Grad Slam was an amazing experience! One of my goals in life is to be able to educate the public about climate change while showing them just how awesome science can be, and the Grad Slam was the perfect opportunity to learn many outreach skills. Every step of the way, from the public speaking workshops beforehand, to each progressive round, many experienced people were there to guide me and help me become a better presenter.

Talking to the public is completely different from talking to a lab group, especially with a three-minute time limit. It involves a fine balance of getting your ideas out there, keeping them relevant and interesting, and all the while making sure everything is clear and concise. You learn a lot about yourself, too; we all have our strengths when it comes to presenting, and there are many paths we can take to play to these strengths to make an effective presentation. There were many amazing talks all throughout Grad Slam, and each person had their own style that showed that they had an idea, and they wanted to communicate it to as many people as possible.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

James Allen conducting researchJames collecting water samples in a Niskin bottle on the R/V Shearwater out in the Santa Barbara Channel.I feel like I’m really in my element here. There’s so much great work being done by people that are really passionate about what they do. It’s fun to be able to talk to other grad students across a wide variety of fields that are exploring and searching for answers to problems that you’ve never even thought about before.

I’m also surrounded by great mentors and friends! I’m lucky to have such a great advisor, Dr. David Siegel, who really pushes me to be the best scientist I can be. I’m very grateful for the fact that I’m housed in both Marine Science and Geography, so I’ve made a lot of friends in both areas that have made adjusting to grad life very easy.

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

I’m hugely interested in doing outreach and getting the public more interested in science. I always say that I want to be the next James Hansen, Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, but maybe I can be cheesy and say that I want to be so good at what I do that someone in the future can say, “I want to be the next James Allen."

James showing off a lab coat.I have an insatiable curiosity to learn more about the world around me, and if I can spark that interest in more people, I feel like I can say I’ve done my job. There is so much out there that we haven’t even begun to think about, and everyone has the potential to become an explorer in their own right and bring new perspectives to the table. We just need more people to spark that curiosity and help people realize that science is a way to open doors to the world around them.

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

It might not seem very big here, but it would probably be the fact that I was able to TA for the first time. I’ve never been able to formally run my own sections before, and it was really exciting to be able to get up in front of a classroom and help teach really interesting topics in my field to students. I was so nervous at first, but by the end of the quarter, I was pretty comfortable with it. I spent a lot of time working getting my lectures set up, and it may have cut into my research time a bit (sorry, Dave!), but it was totally worth it, and I’m really happy that I was able to do it. I’m excited to be able to TA again soon!

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?

James Allen and group on a hikeJames and some of his Geography cohort hiking in Santa Barbara.I love to explore new areas! I grew up in West Tennessee, so having mountains and ocean around me all the time is an entirely new experience. I really like hiking and backpacking, and there are a lot of great trails in this area that I look forward to exploring. I’m warming up to biking (here’s a secret: I just learned how to bike when I arrived here last summer!), and I can’t wait till I get good enough to try mountain biking, or at least try biking longer stretches on bike trails by the ocean. I also really love predicting the weather and forecasting for severe storms, but it’s pretty hard to do that for sunny Santa Barbara. Maybe the El Nino regime shift will change that later this year, and I can finally play around and dance in the rain again.

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

James Allen at a waterfall in Big SurJames at a waterfall in Big Sur.I hope to still be doing some great research with some added public outreach. Will I be teaching at a big university? Presenting at national lectures or in Congress? Talking on TV or the radio about the next big topics in science? Who knows. But I’m excited for whatever the future will bring!

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

There’s so much great advice in previous Spotlights that it’s difficult to come up with something new! I would definitely say that interdisciplinary work really has the potential for amazing research. Different fields have their own ways of looking at problems, and while you might not necessarily use their methods, sometimes a new perspective is all you need to get through a difficult block that’s holding you back! Also, it’s a really good excuse to meet some amazing people outside of your field and make some new friends!


Summer Research Scholar in the Spotlight: Kaitlin M. Brown

This summer we are showcasing a brand new segment to our usual Graduate Student in the Spotlight with features from Graduate Division's summer research scholars. In a previous article titled Graduate Division Welcomes Summer Scholars I introduced you to our Sally Casanova and Academic Research Consortium (ARC) summer researchers. We will now introduce you to each of our summer researchers, individually, and give you some insight into who they are. In our first installment we will have the opportunity to get to know Kaitlin Brown, a budding archaeologist and avid karaoke singer.  

Name: Kaitlin M. Brown

Discipline / Emphasis: Anthropology with emphasis in Archaeology

Research Interests / Goals: My research interests are in archaeology. I have always been interested in learning about other cultures, and had my first opportunity to study an extinct culture during my undergraduate at UC San Diego. I took part in a field school that dealt with social identity and Diaspora in a Tiwanaku mortuary site in Peru. After working in the Peruvian desert for a summer, I came back to California knowing that archaeology was the field I wanted to pursue a career in. I found work at California State Parks as an Archaeological Project Leader, and have since taken part in many other excavations on San Nicolas Island, the Great Basin, and the Mid-west. My goals are to continue researching emergent social complexity and other forms of social identity among prehistoric peoples in North America through the study of technology and systems of exchange.

What’s it like being an ARC/SC summer research scholar?

It is a great experience! I am currently in Canton, Illinois on a field project with Dr. Gregory Wilson and two graduate students excavating a prehistoric Mississippian village. I am learning more about early complex peoples in the Illinois River Valley and how they dealt with warfare around 900 years ago.

What’s been a source for motivation and drive for you?

Personal growth is my own source of motivation. It’s important for me to learn new things and gain new life experiences.

Name the accomplishment you are most proud of, and why. 

I am most proud of my master’s thesis. I graduated from CSU Los Angeles in June 2013 with an M.A. in Archaeology, and was conducting research on San Nicolas Island, California. My thesis examines craft production as it relates to the use of tar for a variety of technologies such as fishhook construction and basket manufacturing. I found that these items were essential to the survival of the people living on the isolated island hundreds of years ago.   

What makes you, you? 

I’m easygoing and outgoing. I don’t take things too seriously and laugh at myself when I make a mistake.

Where did you grow up?

Simi Valley, California

What’s a guilty pleasure of yours?

Singing karaoke.

What’s playing in your iPod right now?

Gotan Project

Any advice or final thoughts to current or future ARC/SC summer research scholars? 

Take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you!  The hardest part is showing up.