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Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Abel Gustafson on Playing Like a Champion 

Abel Gustafson at the Grad Slam semifinal. Credit: Patricia MarroquinOn and off the court, first-year graduate student Abel Gustafson plays like a champion. He sets goals, reaches them, and doesn't make excuses. His strategy has served him well, both as a beach volleyball competitor and as a motivated researcher in UCSB's Communication Department.

Although only in his first year of study at UCSB, Abel has already excelled in the Grad Slam 2015, placing as runner-up in the final round with his topic titled, "Predicting Election Outcomes Using Wikipedia."

Despite his successes, and the challenges of preparing for peak performance in both academic and athletic realms, Abel maintains an optimistic, humble outlook. In this Graduate Student Spotlight, he tells us why he feels grateful to call UCSB home.

Tell me about yourself. What are you studying and where did you do your undergraduate work?

I am in my first year in the Communication Ph.D. program. I have a master's degree from the University of Hawaii (Communication) and two bachelor's degrees from the University of Minnesota-Duluth (Communication, Journalism).

Where did you grow up? Tell us a little about your family and early education.

I grew up in Duluth – a medium-sized tourist town in Minnesota that is populated exclusively by people who are interested in kayaks, granola, craft breweries, and the current trending brand of outdoor apparel. 

My parents are both teachers. I was lucky enough to grow up saturated with quality instruction and leadership – in all major areas of life. This atmosphere had a significant effect on me and my siblings. My sister has a doctoral degree in music, one of my brothers is working toward his Ph.D. at Mayo Clinic in pharmacology, and my other brother is a freshman at MIT this year. Conversation at the dinner table is not dull.

Is there any particular event or events that had a big impact on you and helped shape who you are today? 

My undergraduate academic advisor at the University of Minnesota (Dr. Ryan Goei) was responsible for lighting my fire for social science research. He set me on the path to the University of Hawaii for my master's degree.

Living in Hawaii had a profound effect on my view of the world and my place in it. With help from the friends and faculty around me, I was able to live simply – while also learning how to scientifically tackle some of the big questions of human behavior and its psychological mechanisms.

Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

Patterns of social behavior are a very challenging and nuanced subject of research. Unfortunately, they are also very fascinating and important, so it is hard to stay away. 

Most of my research interests focus on how and why people form and change opinions about ideas, things, and each other. The explosion of social connectivity via the Internet has created new and exciting opportunities for looking at social influence, social networks, and the diffusion of information. 

What has graduate student life been like for you? 

Excellent. The GSA Lounge has bagels once a week and free coffee every day. What’s not to love? You know where to find me on Wednesday mornings. Grad life has also been busy. I wear many hats, so I try to make every hour of every day count toward the fulfillment of at least one of my diverse goals.

Overall, it has been rewarding. Just being here is a fulfillment of a goal in itself, so I am grateful every day.

Abel competing at the AVP Manhattan Beach Open. Credit: Ed Chan

What do you wish you had known before you started grad school?

  1.  How few hours are in a day. 
  2.  How few weeks are in a quarter. 

What do you like most about grad school and what do you like least?

I love being exposed to so many diverse research topics. The sense of camaraderie and interdisciplinary opportunity across the UCSB faculty and departments is palpable and inspiring. 

For a first-year student like myself, this blessing can also be a curse. It is difficult to choose to allocate your time and energy on a single, narrow dissertation topic when so many equally interesting topics are also available. 

If research were likened to dating, I’d prefer to be single and playing the field – rarely committing to being in an exclusive relationship with just one research question.

What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

Deadlines and program requirements! On a more serious note, no matter the subject, I like to understand how and why things work. We humans often do things that are ridiculous, inspirational, tragic, unpredictable, or brilliant – all before breakfast.

If we can understand the working mechanisms behind these actions, then maybe we can find ways to have a little more of the good and a little less of the bad.

Who are your heroes and/or mentors and why? 

In regards to heroes and villains, it seems that if you truly got to know someone thoroughly, you would neither completely idolize nor completely vilify them. I try to find inspiration from small everyday things in the world around me that exemplify a greater principle that I would like to replicate in my own actions. 

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

In 2014, I had my first publication, started my Ph.D. here at UCSB, and didn’t succumb to the temptation to give anyone a gift card for Christmas. Right now, those accomplishments are the foundation on which I’m trying to build a bigger and better 2015.

Abel sailing the California coast on a friend's boat. Photo courtesy of Abel GustafsonWhat do you do to relax? 

I compete on the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour.  Most of the major events that I travel to occur during summer break, so that works out well with my school schedule.

During the school year, I have to work very hard to set aside time to train, to exercise, and to eat strategically so that I can continue to perform at a high level.

Pursuing a passion that is so far removed from my research allows me to de-stress and recharge. I do my best schoolwork immediately after a volleyball session on the beach or after training at the gym.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? 

Those in the volleyball circle are generally unaware of the daily grind of grad students. 

Those in the academic circle are generally unaware of the daily grind of aspiring athletes.

However, a Venn Diagram of the personality traits of successful people in the two circles would show a significant overlap.

What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

Abel stays motivated by working both inside and outdoors. Photo courtesy of Abel GustafsonGetting paid to do something I love. There are a lot of things that I love to do, so I like to think that I don’t have all of my proverbial eggs in one basket. 

I am passionate about my areas of research and about the successful communication of these ideas to a larger audience. I see myself continuing in academia in a way that can further those interests.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Your body is not just a vehicle for your big brain. Go outside! Eat healthy! Exercise! We live in Santa Barbara – take advantage of the area.

What was it like winning runner-up in the Grad Slam 2015? How did you prepare?

We all could have talked for an hour about each of our research projects. The majority of the preparation work was just boiling down an entire field of study until all that is left is a tiny, dense kernel of information that expresses our findings and their importance in only three minutes.

It was inspirational to see the incredible research being done by the contestants. I felt very honored just to present alongside them. The award is a pure reflection of the hard work that my fellow grad student Benjamin Smith put into this project.

I’m also grateful for the support and guidance I’ve received from everyone in the Communication Department all year long. I’m so honored to call this place home. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Rule #71: No excuses. Play like a champion.”

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