Thanks for the sediment

Ocean sciences Ph.D. student Kimberley Kanani Bitterwolf wins this year’s Grad Slam competition with a three-minute story of salts

Kimberley Kanani Bitterwolf pulled off a brave and difficult feat at the UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam 2018 competition.

She took a complicated and intimidating topic—namely, the isotopic composition of salts in sediment layers and how they record our planet’s climate history—and refined it down to three entertaining, easy-to-follow minutes.

You might even say that she turned salt into narrative gold, giving a fast-paced, lilting, and occasionally hilarious story about the history of the world.

For her efforts, Bitterwolf won this year’s campuswide Grad Slam, otherwise known as “the three-minute thesis challenge.” This elevator pitch competition encourages better storytelling about complex academic topics. Competitors must distill years of academic research into fascinating and edifying three-minute talks to non-expert audiences.

It’s one thing to be a master of your own work, and quite another thing to explain it to the public. This daunting process encourages students to clarify ideas and help others understand and appreciate the significance of their research or other graduate work. The contest is open to all graduate students.

At the competition held in late February at the Music Recital Hall on campus, Bitterwolf won $3,000 and the opportunity to compete at the system-wide UC Grad Slam on May 3 at LinkedIn in San Francisco. Bitterwolf also took home the People’s Choice Award for an additional $750.

A community panel comprised of leaders in government and the nonprofit sector judged the event held on campus. A crowd of 145 attendees were invited to vote on their favorite presentation.

Grad Slam has a great track record when it comes to fostering unforgettable presentations. Last year’s UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam champion, John Felts, earned top marks for his talk about creating environmentally friendly surfboard foam from the shells of shrimp. He went on to take second place at last year’s UC Grad Slam.

If it were presented in an unimaginative way, Bitterwolf’s topic might cause the audience to squirm with confusion, then sink into a deep and dreamless sleep. But Bitterwolf, a fifth-year Ocean Sciences Ph.D. candidate who hails from Lihue, Kauai, and owns a Rottweiler-Husky mix named Pawesome, has a quirky sense of humor.

She also has an instinctive sense of what will captivate an audience and what will make them break out in fidgets. Rather than baffling the crowd with confusing terminology, Bitterwolf jumped right into the dramatic content. She mentioned, for instance, that “once Siberia was covered by mega-volcanoes’’ and that the overwhelming release of particulates from those big, belching craters plunged the Earth into a nuclear winter.

“But the thing is, how do we know any of this?’’ she asked. “How do you know I didn’t make that up? If you are so inclined, you could read all about it in the Earth’s underwater library! It is called sediment. The younger sediment is on the top. The older sediment is on the bottom. Here, all events in Earth’s history are written down, but not in a language you can speak. It is all done in chemistry, specifically the chemistry of salt.

“I am not talking about boring, common table salt,’’ she added, “but rare salts. Lithium. Magnesium. Calcium. Strontium. Barium. These are the five I study for my Ph.D. thesis at UC Santa Cruz.”

To be a bit more specific, she studies those five salts in the “inputs” that make the ocean salty in the first place.

In case you’ve ever wondered why the ocean is so eye-burningly salty, Bitterwolf has a ready explanation. That saltiness in ocean water is the result of those elements and more—sluicing into the ocean from the continent through rivers and streams, or burbling straight into the sea from artesian wells and other groundwater sources. The places where freshwater makes contact with the ocean are where Bitterwolf studies the chemistry in the water.

The second-place finisher, Nickolas Knightly, a fifth-year philosophy Ph.D. student, also wowed the judges, but with a very different kind of presentation. Leaving the visuals behind, he relied entirely on speech when he gave a presentation entitled “A Better World Depends on Better Ways of Knowing.”

“The Division of Graduate Studies couldn’t be prouder of the top two finishers, Kimberley and Nickolas, and of the fact that they had very different presentation styles and represented different academic divisions, PBSci in Kimberley’s case, Humanities in Nickolas’,” said Sonya Newlyn, program assistant for the Division of Graduate Studies. “But the staff of the Graduate Division is also justifiably proud of all the finalists, every one of whom gave strong presentations.”