UCSB PhD student Daniel Hieber receives his winnings from UC President Janet Napolitano for his second place in the UC's first Grad Slam event.
Robert Durell, UCOP

When UCSB Linguistics PhD student Daniel Hieber heard his name called as second-place finisher in the inaugural UC Grad Slam in Oakland on Monday, he was ecstatic. Hieber was among 10 champions, one from each of the University of California campuses, to present in the competition for the best three-minute research talk. He had triumphed through UCSB’s preliminary, semifinal, and final rounds to represent the school with his talk: “Renaissance on the Bayou: Reviving the Chitimacha Language.” The only competitor in the UC Grad Slam not in a science, technology, or engineering field, Hieber is 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.

The judges — who included a venture capitalist, the mayor of Oakland, and a UC Board of Regents member — selected Ashley Fong of UC Irvine as the first-place winner of the inaugural “Slammy” and a $6,000 cash prize. Hieber won second place and $3,000, and Alex Phan of UC San Diego won third and $1,000. The complete UC Grad Slam can be seen here, and emcee Janet Napolitano, president of the UC, introduces Hieber’s presentation at the 56:50 mark.

I spoke with Hieber about the experience of preparing and competing in the historic UC Grad Slam.

What was the UC Grad Slam experience like for you?

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. 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? 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.

Afterward 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?

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 show 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.


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