Winning Grad Slam presentation highlights disease threat to Hawaiian birds

Ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student Christa Seidl will compete in the UC systemwide Grad Slam in May, presenting her research on avian malaria

UC Santa Cruz Grad Slam 2023 Winner Christa Seidl
Christa Seidl
Christa Seidl
Meloddy Gao
Meloddy Gao
C├ęsar Rojas-Bravo
César Rojas-Bravo

Christa Seidl, a 5th-year Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, won first place in UCSC’s 2023 Grad Slam contest held March 4 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in downtown Santa Cruz.

Seidl won $3,000 for her presentation ‘Silence in Paradise: Fighting Extinction and Infectious Disease in Hawaiian Birds.’ She will compete in the UC systemwide Grad Slam to be held May 5 in San Francisco.

Grad Slam is an annual contest that challenges graduate students to explain their research to an audience in three minutes. Participants are judged on how well they engage the audience, how clearly they communicate key concepts, and how effectively they focus and present their ideas.

“Grad Slam is the signature program of the Graduate Division and is my personal highlight of the academic year,” said Peter Biehl, vice provost and dean of graduate studies. “It’s a chance for our students to show the incredible work they do and why it matters to the community.”

Seidl opened her presentation by playing two sound clips, one of a Hawaiian forest filled with birdsong, and another in which no birds could be heard, which she said is the sound of many forests in Hawaii today. Seidl is working with Marm Kilpatrick, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and an expert in infectious diseases, to study avian malaria in Hawaiian birds. The relatively recent introduction of the parasite to Hawaii means Hawaiian birds have little resistance to it, so infected birds tend to have high parasite loads and often die, she said.

In her Ph.D. research, Seidl is studying the transmission of avian malaria to identify where the risk of infections is greatest and where mosquito management efforts could help slow the spread of the disease. She said she wants her research to have “a tangible impact on managing an infectious disease threatening animals, ecosystems, and cultures.”

The runner up was Meloddy Gao, a first-year M.F.A. student in the Social Documentation Program. Her presentation titled ‘Swimming Lessons: Observing Grief Across Oceans’ won her a $1,500 prize.

Gao said she is excited about working with Asian American communities at the crossroads of social advocacy and art. “While my film is personal, the themes of intergenerational communication, identity, and grief are experiences many people connect with,” she said.

The People’s Choice award ($750) went to César Rojas-Bravo, a 6th-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrophysics, for his presentation on ‘Using Exploding Stars to Decipher Dark Energy, the Universe’s Biggest Mystery.’ Through his research, he said, he is “continuing the legacy of thousands of astronomers in history.”

Six other graduate students competed for the top spots at the UCSC Grad Slam finals.

“I am so proud of all of our graduate students who competed both in the preliminary divisional rounds and in the final last week,” Biehl said. “I will cheer for Christa Seidl at the final in San Francisco in May. I am enormously impressed by both her impactful research on climate change and her passionate presentation of it.”