Competing towards a common goal

 By Caitlin Looby, Climate Communications Writer

In ecology, when two species compete, neither species benefits. But, at the University of California Carbon Slam Competition, graduate students competed and everyone benefited. Not only was this the case, but they shared a common goal—carbon neutrality.

The Carbon Slam was an all day event that took place on May 23, 2016 in Palo Alto and was organized by UC Santa Cruz Climate Champion Sue Carter. It was an inspiring day of presentations from faculty, business leaders, and students. It brought together new voices and the next generation of scientists tasked with combating climate change.

woman presenting research to audience

Alexis Shusterman, a graduate student from UC Berkeley, gives a dynamic “pitch” on the BEACO2N project. BEACO2N allows us to figure out where CO2 is coming from in urban areas. Photo credit: University of California.

Students from each UC school were selected to compete as finalists in two categories: “Climate Impact” or “Climate Solution.” Climate Impact presenters focused on how their work improves our understanding of how climate change affects humans and the environment. Climate Solution presenters offered ideas and innovations on how we can reduce the effect of climate change.

The ideas presented were exciting and ranged from a self-piloting airplane used to collect environmental data, to an app connecting electric vehicle owners to charging stations, and even included an algal-based surfboard. Even though the common thread of carbon neutrality held everyone together, the research was extremely diverse. There are few other events where you hear such diverse research in one day.

Also, these were real world solutions that are applicable outside of the lab. Marissa Tessman from UC San Diego stated, “Most inventions are applicable in a lab, but resources, public interest, and lack of capital impede growth. The fact that so many presenters were able to scale-up their ideas is very encouraging.” These ideas bring carbon neutrality within our reach.

Finalists travelled to the event with half of the work completed—the research. But, the real test was communicating this work effectively. Students presented pitches about their work in three minutes. For some that was an entire thesis and years of work in about the same time as a commercial break.

Eric Walters from UC Davis summarized by saying that “three minutes of talking can either be extremely overwhelming or powerfully exciting.” But, it is all about making the audience understand. Some students gave poster presentations on their work, which comes with a different set of challenges. Not only do you have one piece of paper to present your work, but you have to make people want to look at it.

The graduate students had a wide range of experience in communicating science before this event. Some students never presented research or only presented at their university. Others received coaching, took classes, or participated in other competitions, like the UC Grad Slam. With the time constraint, it is challenge to find a balance between memorizing a script and making it sounds natural. However, many finalists practiced their pitches to friends or family to make sure that they made sense. 

Regardless of past experience, everyone knew the importance of science communication in combating climate change. If people understand climate change they will be more likely to promote solutions. Most of the finalists genuinely enjoy science communication, and know that it is a responsibility. In order for the public to make informed decisions they need to understand what scientists are doing behind the scenes and why they are doing it. 

This event showed that the UC system is serious about finding creative and diverse ways to achieve carbon neutrality. Alexis Shusterman, from UC Berkeley who won first place in the Climate Impact group, felt that the Carbon Slam was “a public statement of commitment to the goal of carbon neutrality” and that the participants “represent a community of motivated individuals devoted to the mindset of change and progress that will eventually push us to the finish line.” Overall, the Carbon Slam showed that the UC community has a lot to offer in terms of ideas and collaborations.

The common goal was carbon neutrality. The common thread was carbon. And most importantly, the common feeling of the event was camaraderie.

Although this was a competition, everyone was enthusiastic and wanted to learn about what others were doing to attain carbon neutrality. In fact, the students held a pool party the night before so they could practice their pitches and talk about their future goals. Everyone wants to impart positive change, and they know they have to do it together.

You can always judge the success of an event by whether or not people would attend again. Many students said they would love to attend an event like this again as a spectator. It is important to be up-to-date on all of the great research that is occurring within the UC system. The Carbon Slam gave graduate students an impetus to communicate their science broadly. It helped students gain confidence and make new connections. Overall, the Carbon Slam connected scientists, and brought a new meaning to competition.