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UCSB Ph.D. Student Daniel Hieber Takes Second Place in Inaugural UC Grad Slam

UCSB linguistics Ph.D. student Daniel Hieber receives a $3,000 check from UC President Janet Napolitano for his second-place win in the UC Grad Slam.
UCSB linguistics Ph.D. student Daniel Hieber receives a $3,000 check from UC President Janet Napolitano for his second-place win in the UC Grad Slam. (Robert Durell photo / University of California Office of President)

When UCSB linguistics Ph.D. student Daniel Hieber heard his name called as the second-place finisher in the inaugural UC Grad Slam in Oakland on Monday, he was ecstatic. But “at the same time,” he said, “it felt a bit like icing on the cake” as he stepped onto the stage to accept a $3,000 check and shake the hand of UC President Janet Napolitano.

“I was already so happy to have represented my department, my school and my field of study in the competition and done as well as I had,” Hieber said. “So it was all just fun and celebration from there!”

Hieber was among the 10 champions, one from each of the University of California campuses, to present in the UC Grad Slam, a competition for the best three-minute research talk for a general audience by a graduate student from the UC system. In UCSB's competition, Hieber had triumphed through a preliminary round, a semifinal round and the finals to become UC Santa Barbara's champion. The UC-wide event was held in Oakland and live-streamed online. A video recording is available by clicking here.

Hieber’s talk, “Renaissance on the Bayou: Reviving the Chitimacha Language,” focused on his work in helping to revive a language in the Louisiana bayou, Chitimacha, whose last native speakers died in the 1930s. He has reconstructed the language, even creating a Rosetta Stone audiotape that tribal members now listen to in their cars. Hieber was the only competitor in the UC Grad Slam not in a science, technology, or engineering field.

After all the students had presented, and took a quick break for lunch, the results were revealed. The judges — who included a venture capitalist, the mayor of Oakland and a UC Board of Regents member — selected Alex Phan of UC San Diego for the third-place award (a $1,000 prize); Hieber for second place; and Ashley Fong of UC Irvine as the recipient of the inaugural “Slammy” and a $6,000 cash prize. (The list of all the speakers and their talk titles can be found by clicking here.) Access all the video talks by clicking here, and Hieber’s video presentation is available by clicking here.

We spoke with Hieber about the experience of preparing and competing in the historic UC Grad Slam. Here’s what he shared with us.

What was the whole UC Grad Slam experience like for you, from the beginning to the end of the day?

I was amazed at the enormous amount of work and preparation it took to pull off the event — it’s not as spontaneous as it looks! We started with a technical rehearsal at 8 a.m. (which was a good thing because there were more than a few glitches!), and each of the participants did a dry run of their talks twice. The final event went without a hitch — UCOP did a fantastic job with the whole thing. Then we had about two hours free before the actual event, so I did what’s become my Grad Slam tradition – grab a latte from Starbucks and pace in front of a mirror rehearsing my talk. I got a good 20 practice runs in that morning! (One of the nice things about doing such a short talk, you get a lot of practice.)

The nervousness didn’t kick in until the first presentation started, because then you can just see the minutes counting down to your talk — the waiting’s the hardest part. On the other hand, for an academic, what better way to calm down than to get to watch some fantastic talks on really cool research! So I actually had a lot of fun watching the talks. I was more excited than nervous by the time I actually got up to speak. I couldn’t be happier with how well the talk itself went. Every phrase, every gesture came out just the way I wanted it, and I could tell the audience loved it. Even if I hadn’t placed, I would have been proud of that talk and gone home happy.

Afterwards the presenters had a very brief period to snatch some food from the lunch buffet between questions and good wishes from everybody there, then we were whisked away for pictures just before the awards ceremony. I was probably just as nervous during the awards ceremony as during my talk! When Janet called my name for second, I was ecstatic, but at the same time it felt a bit like icing on the cake — I was already so happy to have represented my department, my school, and my field of study in the competition and done as well as I had. So it was all just fun and celebration from there!

Was the UC event a different experience for you from your competition in the UCSB Grad Slam? If so, in what ways?

The biggest difference for me personally was knowing that this was the first time my family and most of my friends would be watching. They all live on the East Coast, so I was thrilled they’d get to watch the event live. I was imagining them all watching when I went up to present. It was great to get to finally share something about my work in grad school with them.

What was it like to engage in conversation with UC President Janet Napolitano on stage? Were you nervous?

Janet was great fun and helped keep us presenters relaxed with some good laughs. I was glad to have her at the event, and appreciate her taking the time to emcee the whole thing. Her last question to me was what did I picture myself doing in five years, and the last part of my answer was that I hope to be a research academic, continuing to work with indigenous communities on language revitalization, and that I’d even love to stay within the UC system and get a position there. She laughed and made a gesture like she was jotting that down for later.

What is your reaction to having won second place in the inaugural UC Grad Slam?

I’m incredibly proud to have represented the humanities and social sciences and gone toe-to-toe with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). I hope that both this win and my research itself shows that humanities and social sciences really can make an impact in the same way that the hard sciences do.

What does this award mean to you?

The thing that meant the most to me throughout the entire Grad Slam competition was getting to share my research with so many interested people, not just because it’s my passion and I love it, but because it was a chance to teach hundreds of people about language endangerment and the amazing work indigenous communities are doing to revitalize their languages. That’s ultimately why I do what I do.

For more information about the UC Grad Slam, read the UC Office of the President’s article and its UC Grad Slam page, and a San Francisco Chronicle article

— Patricia Marroquin is the communications director for the UCSB Graduate Division.

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