Interested in staying up to date on the latest news for UCSB graduate students? Subscribe to the UCSB GradPost.

University of California Santa Barbara
Campaign for the University of California Santa Barbara

Latest News

Translate the GradPost:

Graduate Peers' Schedules

Winter 2016
Peer Advisor Availability

Writing Peer
Kyle Crocco

Mon: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Tue: 10 a.m.-noon
Wed: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Thu: 10 a.m.-noon

Funding Peer
Stephanie Griffin
Mon: 10 a.m.-noon
Wed: noon-2 p.m.

Diversity Peer
Ana Romero

Mon: noon-2 p.m.
Wed: 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

The peers sometimes hold events or attend meetings during their regular office hours. To assure you connect with your Graduate Peer Advisor, we encourage you to contact them by email and make an appointment.


Campus Map


View UCSB Graduate Student Resources in a larger map

Entries in graduate student spotlight (24)


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Jacob Barrett on Chemistry & Batman 

Working in lab: Using a routine technique called gas chromatography- flame Ionization detection (GC-FID) to identify the components in liquid mixturesJacob Barrett, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, shares a little bit about his upbringing, his research, and lessons we can all learn from his mentor, Batman. Jacob, a native of Los Angeles, earned a B.A. in Chemistry with distinction from Sonoma State University. He grew up with his mother, Tranita Barrett, his father, Barry Katz, and Renee Green, his older sister. 

Is there any particular event(s) that had a big impact or influence on you? 

A particular event I wouldn't say, but I really love museums. One of them in particular is the La Brea Tar Pits, which I try to go to every time I am in Los Angeles. It's an exhibit of extinct mammals that have been dug up from bitumen, which is a natural asphalt pit. I was excited to go there. I thought that one day I was going to be a paleontologist, but it also sort of contributed to my interest in animal life and earth's natural cycles. 

Tell us a little about your research and what you plan to achieve with that.

Basically, what I try and do is use a catalyst to convert wood into chemicals. Traditionally, these chemicals are derived from petroleum. The overarching goal of my research is to replace specific petrochemicals. The ones that I look at are high-value aromatic compounds. I would like to found a company based on garbage collection and utilization. Instead of throwing our waste into a landfill, we can find different ways to transform it into something useful. Specifically, I want to take green waste and make it into fuels and chemicals instead of just composting it, which is what most garbage collection agencies do now. 

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

I wish I had known how easily you can burn out. I understand now that your mental and emotional health is so important for your success in grad school. 

Emre Discekici and I ready to hit Wildcat!

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

The way it was explained to me by my undergraduate advisor Dr. Carmen Works, she really had a good impression on me, was that "you get to choose what you do." I really liked that aspect of it. The more education you get, the more freedom you have in what you do with the rest of you life. I kind of liked that, and that's what really drew me towards coming to graduate school versus going and working as a lab technician. 

What keeps you going now that you are in graduate school?

Well, definitely the friends that I have made here keep me going. I mean the first person I got to know well was Emre Discekici, a fellow grad student. My girlfriend Sabrina is immensely important to me. And my roommate Jordan is also really important. I live with a group of people, Michael and Sam, who are also in the Chemistry Department and we can just unwind together and we are not all stressed all the time.  

Who are your hero(oes) and/or mentors and why? 

He probably does not know who I am because he only met me once, Harry Gray is a professor at Cal Tech. I met him during a poster session for a conference. He was talking to me about my research, and I was answering his questions and discussing different experiments that he thought I should try. Basically, he was like "so you are going to apply to grad school, right?" I told him I was thinking about it, but I didn't have the grades for that. He told me that I should apply to grad school, for sure. Coming from the keynote speaker of a conference, that was just really inspiring, and so I feel like he is one of my heroes. 

Credit: DC Comics

I would really like to be like my undergrad advisor because she was such a good mentor. We do have a professional relationship, but she also has been good at managing a friendship with me. So, I really try to emulate her as a mentor with students that I work with.

You do know that my other hero is Batman? Well, Batman has completely dedicated himself to an idea, and, especially in some of the comics, he comes to a point where he realizes that what he was working on was not enough and he take it a step further. Basically, Batman's dedication is what inspires me about him the most. Batman does not let physical or mental boundaries affect him, and I wish I was capable of that. 

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

Hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park during the CSU LSAMP Project NUTria research visit in Costa Rica 2012

When I was in undergrad, I was part of Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation(LSAMP). Sonoma State does not have a very large minority population, so I ended up being one of the first students selected to go on one of the study abroad programs. It was a CSU-wide thing, and I went to Costa Rica for a summer project. After I graduated, I found out that they had nominated me for the PROUD Award, which is a CSU-wide award. You get selected from the different CSU campuses to be in this program. It was really cool. Still talking to Dr. Sam Brannen, my scholarship advisor from LSAMP, and talking to my academic advisor as well, it's crazy to see just how much they appreciated what I was doing and really I was appreciating them for giving me all these opportunities. It was a really nice symbiotic relationship between us. 

What do you do to relax? Favorite places?

I really like going to the beach and looking out at the ocean. I enjoy walking in nature. Going on hikes. I enjoy playing sports. Noodle City is by far my favorite place here. I really like Wildcat. 

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

Most people don't know that I had a Bar Mitzvah and that I am Jewish. My mother is Creole and my father is an all-American Jewish man. To appreciate what's it like to be Black and Jewish, see video below. 

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

In five years, I hope to be running my own garbage and recycling company. Ten years from now? I am not sure. I really do enjoy teaching, so it might be nice at some point to be a professor. I definitely want to own a home and maybe have some kids. 

Do you have any advice for current graduate students?

You can find research that you like, but do you get along with your advisor and do you get along with the people in your group? If you can't do those things, then you are going to have a miserable time. 

Yosemite Summer 2015 trip with UCSB and new friends. #yesnewfriends 


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Computer Science Student Chris Sweeney

Chris Sweeney, a fifth-year Computer Science Ph.D. candidate focusing on Computer Vision, sat down and shared the unique journey of his path to and throughout graduate school.

Despite his many academic accomplishments (including receiving top honors at the Association for Computing Machinery Multimedia Open-Source Software Competition in Australia last October), Chris maintains a well-rounded life. When he’s not in the Four Eyes Lab, he can be found performing with the local Santa Barbara Improv Group, swimming, or volunteering his time in local and international communities.

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

Chris SweeneyI grew up in Northern Virginia, near D.C.  I attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, where I began my love of computer science. I went to college at the University of Virginia, where I received a B.S. in Math and Computer Science. As an undergrad, I always knew what I wanted to study, and I’ve been following that path since then.

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

I’m working in data visualization and computer vision. Specifically, I’m looking at 3D geometry from images for programs like CAD. This came by way of undergraduate research I participated in: large-scale image processing. As a Ph.D. student, I’m working on making large-scale Structure from Motion more accessible by developing 3D modeling software and sharing it on my software’s website. Some examples of models I’ve made with my software are below:

ColosseumA screenshot of a reconstructed model of the Colosseum in Rome, using Chris’s 3D modeling software. Credit: Chris Sweeney

DubrovnikA screenshot of a reconstructed model of Dubrovnik, a medieval city – better known as King’s Landing from Game of Thrones. Credit: Chris Sweeney

To create these 3D models, I have a script that crawls Flickr for landmarks (i.e., the most heavily photographed places in the world), then I take the images and run them through my software to recover full 3D models of the scenes.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

It’s been very rewarding. I’ve had several travel opportunities and internships. I’ve had three internships for Google Goggles, and from September 2014 through April 2015, I was a visiting student at ETH Zurich [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] in Switzerland. I’ve also enjoyed meeting cool people from these experiences.

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

Funding can be a real struggle!

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

Chris, center, accepting the top prize for Open-Source Software at the 2015 ACM Multimedia Conference in Brisbane, Australia. Photo courtesy of Chris SweeneyI’m having a hard time choosing between two big accomplishments: winning my Open-Source award, and my time as a visiting student to ETH Zurich. The Open-Source Software competition is sponsored by the Association of Computing Machinery, and my Theia Open Source Library for 3D Modeling won first place this past fall. I’m proud of this award, as it’s a validation of both my own hard work and the general community’s commitment and contributions to open source.

Secondly, being a visiting student to ETH Zurich was incredible. Professionally, it was really neat to be invited to the top labs there. Personally, it was a challenge to be in a country whose language was German. Although the working language of the labs was English, I had to improve my German language skills to get by day-to-day.

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

I’m very self-motivated, which has helped me accomplish a lot during school. It also helps that I’m in an industry that’s currently seeing a boom, and many digital imaging ideas are now becoming tangible products.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, favorite places to go, favorite things to do?

Chris and his girlfriend enjoying the local fauna on a trip to Australia. Photo courtesy of Chris SweeneySome of my favorite hobbies include wine tasting along the Central Coast, playing soccer, and woodworking. So far, I’ve made desks and tables. I also like to travel, which is a benefit of grad school and the industry, since there are so many international and regional conferences.

Have you taken any other interesting international trips?

In college, I participated in Alternative Spring Breaks in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. These were week-long service trips in which we volunteered with local elementary schools. More recently, I traveled to Tamale, Ghana, with Community Water Solutions [now Saha Global]. Our team built a water purification center in town and taught local women how to run the facility and about sustainable leadership. We encouraged the women to charge a nominal fee for their work, which helped improve their economic standing.

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

I come from a big family – I’m one of five kids. I feel that families aren’t usually that big anymore, especially on the West Coast. People are usually surprised to hear how many siblings I have.

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

For a while, I’d hoped to stay in academia, ultimately as a tenured professor. However, recently I’ve felt a growing potential toward working for a tech company. I could see myself doing R&D work, for the right company. I’m starting my postdoc work in January at the University of Washington, so I’ll see where that takes me down the road.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Be open to talking about any problems you may be facing – whether it’s financial, research, or life in general. It’s important to communicate openly with your advisors, colleagues, and other faculty members.


Grad Student in the Spotlight: Stephanie Griffin on the Peace Corps, Food Security, and 'Brennies'

Stephanie Griffin. Photo courtesy of Stephanie GriffinStephanie Griffin is proof that graduate school can be a positive, fulfilling, and career-changing experience. A second-year Bren School of Environmental Science & Management student, Stephanie has also recently been hired as the Graduate Division's new Funding Peer.

Stephanie received her bachelor's degree in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. She will graduate this June with her master's degree from the Bren School, focusing on Water Resources Management. Below she shares her unique experiences abroad and how those experiences brought her to study at UCSB.

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

I moved around a lot as a kid (including several towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, and Pennsylvania, all before I was 10 years old), although I'd say I grew up in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. I'm the oldest of four children, and my parents, siblings, and I live all over the world now. My brother's in a Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, my sister is a chemist in Pittsburgh, and my parents and youngest sister recently moved to Mumbai!

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

Probably the biggest influence on me today is my service as a Peace Corps volunteer. Just after graduating from college, I left to serve as an environmental education volunteer in Mali. Unfortunately, after about six months, there was a military coup d'etat and a secessionist war in the country, and Peace Corps Mali was evacuated. I finished the remaining 20 months of my service in Senegal as an agroforestry volunteer.

My experiences living and working with subsistence farmers in West Africa really drove my passion for sustainable natural resource management. Not only did this shape my academic/professional focus, but my life as well; integrating myself into another culture and living off the land for over two years was an incredibly humbling and educational experience.

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

My Bren Master's Group Project is investigating sustainable water supply sources for the south coast of Santa Barbara County (think, Goleta down to Carpinteria). We're looking at relative cost (financial and environmental), longevity, and efficiency of several potential supply sources. We're hoping our project will be able to provide local actors with useful tools for decision-making when it comes to determining water sources, rates, and conservation. 

Stephanie, right, at the Santa Barbara Polo Club with UCSB grad students Melissa Maggass, left, and Tiawna Cayton, center. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Griffin

What has graduate student life been like for you?

Very busy! After having been out of school for a few years, I definitely miss having a regular paycheck and legitimately free weekends, but it's nice to have more flexibility in my daily schedule. I love the ability to take many classes and enjoy access to the UCSB resources here.

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

Most: my peers. Being in an environment with others who are similarly passionate about learning about environmental science and sustainability is great. We all come from very different educational, professional, and social backgrounds, and I'm learning a lot from them. "Brennies" are pretty cool.

Least: feeling as if there are never enough hours in the day. Also, why don't we have a football team?

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

One benefit of returning to school after some work experience is knowing which skills are truly valuable in the workplace. I'm taking advantage of the technical courses and workshops offered here, to compensate for my policy-heavy undergraduate curriculum.

​Who are your heroes or mentors and why?

Some of my heroes are leaders in international development and sustainability: Norman BorlaugPaul Farmer, Wangari Maathai. These, among others, were/are amazing innovators working relentlessly toward mitigating huge humanitarian issues. Reading some of their work as an undergraduate is what sparked my interest in international work and food security.

Bren classmates at an Environmental Defense Fund training in Chicago last May. From left, Hyemin Park, Mike Millstein, Stephanie Griffin, Erin Williamson. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Griffin

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

Learning the local language (Pulaar) of my village in Senegal! Because I was abruptly transferred there from Mali, I didn't go through training again – but that meant I also didn't get a language tutor. I was largely self-taught using the few Pulaar books available to me and starting random conversations with people. It was one of the most frustrating things I've ever done.

What do you do to relax?

I love any time outside. On weekends (and if I have time during the week), I go for long runs and spend time on the beach.

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

I'm a band geek! I was the drum major in my high school's band, then joined the marching band at the University of Maryland. 

What do you hope to be doing five years out of graduate school?

Working for either a firm or in policy, working on natural resource management. Ideally, I'd be in a position actively promoting food security. 

Stephanie bouldering in Santa Barbara with other "Brennies" from the Bren School. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Griffin

Explain what you do in your role as Funding Peer Advisor. 

As Funding Peer Advisor, I provide both workshops/presentations and one-on-one advising for graduate students looking to finance their education or research. I show fellow grad students some campus resources for both personal and academic financial needs, as well as excellent extramural resources and databases to help them continue their searches.

What are your goals as Funding Peer Advisor?

The peer advisors in this position before me did a great job of reaching out to different departments and compiling really useful information on funding resources. I'd like to continue their awesome work, as well as expand into greater personal finance literacy (e.g., budgeting, how to save money while a student in Santa Barbara) and understanding finances beyond grad school, for example 401(k) plans.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Enjoy Santa Barbara! It's hard to tear yourself away from academic and work commitments for a weekend, but once in a while, it's needed (not to mention more fun!). It's important to enjoy the beautiful natural beauty and culture of the city we're living in now.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down.


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Daniel Hieber on Revitalizing Languages, Rock Climbing, and Research Motivation

Danny Hieber at Grad SlamDanny Hieber at the Grad Slam semifinal. Credit: Patricia MarroquinOnly in his second year of UCSB's Linguistics doctoral program, Daniel Hieber already has a Grad Slam win under his belt. His smooth and well-prepared presentation made him an instant standout, and he took first place at UCSB's 2015 competition. Danny then went on to the inaugural UC-wide Grad Slam and scored another win, an impressive second place!

Before coming to UCSB, Danny graduated with a double major in linguistics and philosophy from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He then spent several years working before returning to pursue a doctoral degree. He is currently working on his master's project, titled "The Interaction of Tone and Prosody in Ekegusii Folktales." In this Spotlight interview, Danny shares some valuable advice for succeeding in graduate school, as well as how he earned a third degree black belt in karate!

Where did you grow up? Tell us a little about your childhood.

I grew up in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley (where the Appalachians cut through Virginia), a beautiful area with lots of hiking and small family-owned farms. Much of the area was settled by Old-Order Mennonites, so I learned to drive with lots of horse-and-buggies on the road! I have one younger sister, and both of us are first-generation college students.

Are there any particular experiences that had a big influence on you and helped shape who you are today?

My travel experiences have been some of the most formative events in my life, and have a lot to do with me becoming a linguist and an anthropologist. I didn't really travel before college, but in college I spent a month hiking the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage across northern Spain. I also spent a year living in Kenya. Traveling gave me an interest in the huge variety of cultures and languages around the world. 

Danny enjoying a sunny drive with his friend's dog Charlie, who he often takes care of. Photo courtesy of Daniel HieberTell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.

I look at the patterns and grammatical structures across languages, and try to explain why we see these same patterns in language after language or, more interestingly, how there can be such amazingly diverse ways for languages to accomplish similar tasks.

This area of linguistics is called language typology. But in order to do language typology, you need to know what language patterns are out there in the world. Since most of the world's languages are under-documented, I also do fieldwork in East Africa, documenting a language called Ekegusii (or Kisii).

I first started working with endangered languages at Rosetta Stone, a company that makes language-learning software. We worked with a variety of Native American groups to create language-learning software in their languages, and I've been working with some of those groups ever since.

Danny with his sister, visiting Chaucer's Books on her first visit here. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hieber

What has graduate student life been like for you?

I was out of school for five years while working at Rosetta Stone, so it's been an absolute thrill to be back in academia and to get to do linguistics all day, every day. (And night. And weekends. And holidays!) You have to love your field of study to do a Ph.D., but thankfully grad school has only made me more passionate about linguistics.

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

I wish I had realized how little time there would be for my own research agenda during the coursework phase of my Ph.D., especially on the fast-paced quarter system. I would have taken on fewer projects and submitted to fewer conferences when I was starting my degree.

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

My least favorite part of grad school is when I'm unable to make my class assignments and term papers relevant to my own research. Or worse, when it is relevant and even really exciting, but I don't have the time to pursue it! I've got a lot of half-finished projects floating around because of that.

My favorite part is getting to learn from not just the incredible faculty in the department, but also from our awesome cohort of grad students. I walk out of my meetings feeling excited and brimming with ideas, and I never fail to be amazed when I attend one of our students' talks. Living in Santa Barbara isn't so bad either!

Danny holds a third degree black belt in karate. Photo courtesy of Daniel HieberWhat has been a source of motivation for you in your graduate studies?

I'm privileged to work with some amazing communities who are passionate about revitalizing their languages. I help them make dictionaries, classroom materials, and grammar guides, which they then use in their language revitalization efforts. Seeing the direct and very meaningful impact of my research for these communities is one of the most rewarding parts of my work.

Who are your heroes or mentors and why?

Two of my heroes are Benjamin Paul and Delphine Ducloux, the last two fluent speakers of Chitimacha, one of the languages I work with. They were so dedicated to preserving their language that they worked with two different linguists 20 years apart to record hundreds of pages of stories in the language. If not for their efforts on the Chitimacha Tribe's language revitalization, my work would not be possible today.

I also have an incredible amount of admiration and respect for the members of the language teams I've worked with Kim Walden, Rachel Vilcan, Sam Boutte, Lorene Legah, Lorraine Manavi, and Edna MacLean who all worked tirelessly for years on end to give new life to their languages. They inspire me in my work every day.

Danny enjoys rock climbing at the Santa Barbara Rock Gym a few times a week. Photo courtesy of Daniel Hieber

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

I think I'm most proud of my third degree black belt in karate, just because I started doing karate when I was 13, so it's the longest thing I've consistently devoted time to learning and perfecting 15 years now!

What do you do to relax?

I love martial arts and practice every day, but I enjoy mixing it up with any sort of exercise as cross-training: running, strength training, rock climbing, yoga, you name it. It's the first thing I do after classes each day, and the perfect way to relax before settling in to work for the evening. I'm a huge wine and cheese fan, so I spend a lot of time at C'est Cheese in Santa Barbara. I also play piano, and my favorite composer is Chopin, though I'll also play anything Disney.

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

I'm a closet Classicist. I read Latin and did a philosophy major in undergrad specializing in Greek philosophy.

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Don't wait for someone to give you permission to start doing your own research, but do get as much feedback on that research from your peers and your faculty as you can. Establish your research agenda early, and make sure you pick something you love, because you'll be spending a lot of time on it.

What was it like coming in first place in the 2015 UCSB Grad Slam?

Danny says he often pairs wine with audio transcription of endangered languages. Syrahs pair well with the Ekegusii language, he finds. Photo courtesy of Daniel HieberIt was both exhilarating and incredibly humbling at the same time. Exhilarating because the crowd completely erupted when my name was called. There was so much energy in the room. And humbling because every single one of the other talks was so fantastic, and the students so brilliant, that it was an absolute honor to present alongside them.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just to say thanks to the entire Graduate Division for putting together such an awesome event! Not to mention Yardi, QAD, and Sonos for their sponsorships. I think the Grad Slam more than accomplished its goal of highlighting the incredible work that our grad students are doing at UCSB. As a grad student, you tend to have more loyalty to your department than to your university, but seeing the caliber of students competing in Grad Slam really made me proud to be a Gaucho as well.


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.”


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Selvi Ersoy Pursues Science 'Theatrically'

Selvi ErsoySelvi Ersoy. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyFifth-year doctoral candidate in microbiology Selvi Ersoy is many things to many people and most of these things are awesome. To women in science and engineering, she’s known as the Co-President of WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering). To her undergraduate students, she’s known as the most enthusiastic TA ever (and winner of the 2014-2015 Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award). To fans of the 2015 Grad Slam, she’s known as the finalist who asked, “Is your doctor killing you?”

Selvi grew up in Cupertino, California (yes, that Cupertino) to a Turkish father and an American mother. She was named Selvi, which means tall and beautiful in Turkish. When someone like me says she’s halfway there, someone else always chimes in “Halfway there? Selvi’s not tall.”

Selvi had plans other than science when she was younger. She loved to dance, to sing, and to participate in musical theater. She scoured schools for theater programs. But after her mother strongly implied that success in the theater arts would be a failed experiment, she went on to pursue science “theatrically,” earning a B.S. in Genetics at UC Irvine with a minor in Medical Anthropology. She received her M.A. in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at UCSB on her way to her doctoral degree.

I had seen Selvi at the Grad Slam preliminary and final rounds and found her to be one of the most animated and funny presenters. She turned out to be just as animated and funny during our interview. We talked about everything from what she learned during her "lost year in grad school" to her yoga progress to why she loves teaching (and why her students love her back). She also had some good advice for future Grad Slam competitors.

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

Selvi in CabaretSelvi in Cabaret. She can still do that kick. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyWhen I was growing up I was really, really into musical theater. I loved it. I was in lots of musicals. I loved dancing and I was taking dance lessons, vocal classes, doing drama club, and theater. As a junior in high school, I looked into all the college dance and performance programs. When I told my Mom, she was just like, “No, you’re not going to do that. You need to do something practical.”

So, let’s talk about your research now. Apparently, you kill a lot of mice. How would you describe your research in such a way that doesn’t make you look like a killer?

I study how the host influences bacterial antibiotic resistance and the genetic mechanisms of those changes in bacteria.

Good, concise answer. You participated in the 2015 Grad Slam and made it all the way to the finals. Why did you get involved?

I thought, “What would be more fun than giving a three-minute pitch in front of people and being funny?” That seemed like a blast to me. The cash prizes were also a huge incentive, and clearly a big motivator. I think I would have done it if there weren’t the cash prizes, but I may not have worked so hard.

Getting to preparation. How did you work so hard?

For me, I practiced my pitch every time I was alone. I’d just start saying it out loud. Sometimes I’m in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, saying “Is your doctor killing you?” you know, doing all the hand motions. Thinking, “Oh my god, I hope none of my roommates are hearing this.”

Selvi making it simple at the 2015 Grad Slam Finals. Credit: Sonia Fernandez

What advice you would give future participants so they can win?

I practiced a lot and I tried to get advice from people. After each round, I tried to hear what people were saying to make it clearer. One of the problems with my pitch was that it was a little complicated. I tried so much to simplify it.

If you want to be a champion, just make it as simple as possible.

That’s good advice. On the subject of advice, what advice would you give to an incoming graduate student now that you’re in your fifth year?

Student Spotlight LogoI thought when I started grad school that people were just going to tell me what to do, tell me how my project was going to work, you know, tell me what I’m going to figure out and I would just do x, y, z and be done. Working in a lab, it’s not like that at all. It’s very open-ended. There’s not a clear path. You really need to work early on to figure out what your path will be. That’s your best chance for success.

If you’re going to succeed and finish grad school and escape with your sanity, you have to take everything that you’ve done, everything that didn’t work or that was a setback, and somehow think of it in a positive light. I spent a year doing stuff that just didn’t work. The only way I could reconcile my effort was to say I gained a lot of practice with my bench work, that I now knew how to set up an experiment very efficiently.

So it seems like you learned how to handle stress. How do you relax?

Selvi doing aerial yogaSelvi doing aerial yoga. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyI’m obsessed with yoga! I started in grad school. My labmate said, “Let's do some yoga at the Rec Cen.” It was good exercise. I felt physically stronger. Then I started going to a studio (Better Days Yoga in Goleta). Instead of once a week, I went all the time. When things weren’t working out in my lab, I could go to yoga and see my improvement there.

You recently won the Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. Tell me more about your teaching experience? What has helped you become “outstanding?”

I generally teach upper-division genetics courses: 101 A and B. I also teach the bacterial pathogenesis lab. What I like about teaching, especially when I get to teach genetics and bacterial pathogenesis, is the subject. I find it very interesting.

When I started teaching, I got so excited before my first class. While coming up with my lesson plan, I remember thinking, “How am I going to explain this to my students?” When I got to class, I just said, “Hey everybody, I’m so happy to be here!”

Selvi Ersoy and her labmate Jessica Kubicek-Sutherland at the April 2014 UCSB TEDx conference. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyThat’s something that all my students wrote on my evaluations, even to this day: “Super enthusiastic TA!” I think since I was so excited about teaching, the students got more enthusiastic to be in class.

Because of that, I started getting lots of emails from students asking questions about class. They felt really comfortable emailing me. I wrote back detailed responses about how to solve problems. And then I started getting more personal life questions from students like, “I’m thinking about applying to grad school. What do you recommend?” “What do I do after I graduate?” or “How do I find a research lab?”

I really care about all my students. I try to learn as many names as I can. I make an effort. And I bully them into writing good evaluations. Just kidding. “You better write me good reviews, guys!” (She laughs).

Who has helped you along the way?

Selvi Ersoy in the lab, perfecting her bench work. Photo courtesy of Selvi ErsoyMy parents were the ones that told me, “No to theater. Yes to science.” They always said, “You’re really good at math, you’re really good at science, you should do those things.”  They also had high expectations and I felt I had to meet those expectations. I didn’t hate that. I’m really happy with that guidance.

My labmate Jessica Kubicek-Sutherland also helped break me in to grad school. She told me, “This is what’s going to happen.” What to expect and not to expect. I think if I had been alone, I may have just dropped out. I was really glad to have her there to help me out. I was her little mentee.

Also, my advisor made me grittier and tougher, and I appreciate that. I need to be able to handle things when I’m not perfect, when I screw up.

What is the one thing you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I’m definitely planning on getting a postdoc position for a few years to do my research. Depending on how that goes, I might go on to be a professor. 


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Melissa Barthelemy Pays it Forward to UCSB

Melissa portraitMelissa Barthelemy. Photo courtesy of Melissa BarthelemyWhen the childhood home of Melissa Barthelemy, a sixth-year graduate student of Public History, burned down in Ojai when she was eight years old, she and her family may have initially thought they only escaped with a few photo albums. But, what they eventually learned was they had gained life lessons in community, compassion, and the generosity of others.

They found an outpouring of community support as neighbors and others offered mattresses, clothing and all sorts of items to help them in their time of need.

Little did Melissa know that, years later, she would use those lessons to pay it forward by first helping UCSB students cope with their trauma in the wake of the Isla Vista Tragedy of May 23, and then by creating a collection of items to remember the victims and document the campus and community response.

I sat down with Melissa Barthelemy to discuss her work with the IV/UCSB Memorial Preservation Project and the upcoming exhibition for which she is serving as project manager and curator, which is titled “We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista.” The exhibit will be open to the public for viewings from May 20-June 20 in the Red Barn (Old Gym) near the bus circle on campus. (You can find more information about Melissa and the Remembrance Projects she is engaged in at

She was forthcoming about her involvement in the project, her own struggles as a graduate student, and the unique circumstances of her childhood, growing up in the back room of her parents' toy store.

So let’s start with your current work. How did you become involved in the IV/UCSB Memorial Preservation Project?

In the immediate wake of the tragedy my initial concern was how to best support the graduate and undergraduate students at UCSB. I contacted Turi Honegger, Assistant Clinical Director of CAPS (Counseling And Psychological Services), at UCSB. I strongly felt we needed a special crisis training session for the graduate students since it is common for undergraduates to approach their Teaching Assistants before turning to faculty and staff for support and assistance. Turi agreed to help me organize this, and we had many email conversations that lasted until 2 a.m. in the days following the tragedy. A small group of us managed to organize two workshop sessions that were held on Tuesday, May 27 and were attended by over 140 people.

Melissa at MemorialMelissa at the Memorial Wall on the Arbor. Photo courtesy of Melissa Barthelemy

That weekend I also worked closely with community members in Isla Vista to figure out what systems of support were needed there. Some UCSB students told me that they wanted a space in the Arbor that could focus on art and healing and that they thought it was important to have a memorial space on the actual campus. With the support of the Office of Student Life and Associate Dean Katya Armistead we created the Memorial Wall at The Arbor which is a painted wooden structure that is covered in dozens of messages of compassion and solidarity. While working on the space, students asked me, “What’s going to happen to the memorial sites in IV? Will all of the items at the sites be thrown away?”  

So I asked the Interim Director of Special Collections, at the UCSB Library, if they had any plans to form a collection. He said that librarians generally receive items that are donated but don’t go out in the community to collect them, and that I was the first person to approach him about this. He then asked me to convene a committee of librarians, faculty, and students to support the project.

Spontaneous memorialSpontaneous memorial site in IV. Photo courtesy of Melissa BarthelemyI was hesitant at first because I was so busy. But I visited the spontaneous memorial sites in Isla Vista to look more closely at what was there. One day, I went to the site in front of Capri Apartments and I saw cards blowing down the street in the wind. I came across a card written by one of the victims' parents and I decided these items really needed to be saved for the benefit of the families, friends, and the wider community. At that moment I decided to take the project on and have never looked back.

Tell me more about the upcoming exhibition “We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista.” 

The central premise of the exhibit is that each of the individual items left at the spontaneous memorial sites in Isla Vista are representative of the acts of love and compassion that poured out from our community and around the world.

Pained rocksPainted rocks for exhibition. Photo courtesy of Melissa BarthelemyWe will be exhibiting some of these items, which include things such as cards, letters, drawings, paintings, origami cranes, and painted rocks. We will also display photographs of the spontaneous and planned memorial events, as well as highlight some of the larger discourses that circulated in the wake of the tragedy and contributed to legislative reforms.

We are striving to create a space for healing and reflection. In the words of one of my colleagues “the exhibit remembers those who died and those who were injured, and it tells the story of a community empowered by its own humanity in reacting to a collective loss.”

What has the response been to your work so far?  When people hear about the premise of the exhibit they are supportive. But until recently we were reluctant to spread the word too much about the exhibit since the campus administration is still coordinating the series of events that will happen around the Remembrance Anniversary.

Have you ever done something like this before? No! I did serve as a volunteer for a museum when I was in law school. But really I’m learning on the fly.

How has this affected your research?

Melissa with Ben FranklinMelissa with Ben Franklin. Photo courtesy of Melissa BarthelemyI changed my whole dissertation topic as a result of this project. My focus is now on Public History, which is a branch of History that is largely focused on educating the public about historical issues.

Some public historians primarily teach at universities, others can be found working in a range of locations including archives and library special collections, community history and historic preservation, museum exhibition and historical commemoration.

My dissertation project is still evolving but at least one chapter of it will examine the upcoming exhibit, so we will be having videographers and photographers document what we create in the exhibit site. That way I can integrate Digital Humanities directly into my dissertation by using these digital technologies to discuss my curatorial decisions and aspects of the exhibit. This documentation will also eventually become part of our digital collection at the UCSB Library website.   

Let’s turn to your life now. Aside from this event, what one event has had the biggest impact or influence on you and helped shape who you are today?

Melissa's parentsMelissa's parents dressed for Halloween in front of their toy store. Photo courtesy of Melissa BarthelemyMy parents have shaped me the most. From the way I approach life, to my core values and beliefs. My parents have owned a little toy store for 35 years in Ojai and I literally grew up in the back office of their business, which was more of a play room for me. I was surrounded by Slinkies and Silly Putty.

My favorite quote from them is “The only constant in life is change.” They have this quote on a sticker, which they placed on their cash register at their toy store, where they give customers change all day long. They have a real quirky sense of humor.

They always emphasized that you can’t fully anticipate what’s around the next bend. My parents’ house burned down when I was eight years old. All we saved were some photo albums. That was very helpful (and horrible) for my ability to respond when tragedy happens. It made us close and brought us together as a family.

It also taught me about the importance of community since people brought us 10 mattresses for beds, dozens of frying pans and lots of other things we couldn’t use while were temporarily staying in a hotel. The community response wasn’t practical or well-thought out, but it was heartfelt! Moments like this have helped me to always try to see the good in people.

You had a unique childhood, tell me more about it?

I grew up in the mountains of Ojai. My parents owned a house in the Los Padres National Forest that was over 100 years old and our water came from a natural spring on the property. So I had an adventurous outdoor lifestyle from an early age. I had acres and acres to explore, falling in rivers and things like that.

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

Usually they are surprised I have done so much independent travel around the world. I have backpacked through Europe several times, and my first trip there was when I was just 17 years old. After I earned my law degree, I spent a month driving from Ojai to British Columbia, all through the Pacific Northwest camping and hiking in the backcountry. I’ve also gone sky diving and underground cave rafting in New Zealand.

You’re very busy. What do you do to relax?

Melissa gardeningMelissa gardening for relaxation. Photo courtesy of Melissa BarthelemyI do as much hiking and gardening as I can. My wife and I love camping. We have gone backpacking in the Channel Islands and one of our favorite spots is Kings Canyon National Park up in the Sierra Mountain Range. Basically she tries to take me places where my cell phone does not work.

What is your biggest accomplishment in life and why?  Marrying my wife. My day to day happiness is the most important thing to me. We’ve been married six years, and thankfully we got married one week before Proposition 8 had passed in California, or we wouldn’t have been able to be married all of this time.

Any advice for new graduate students?

Don’t ever feel like you are alone in the challenges you are confronted with. I have had serious physical health disabilities while at UCSB and have benefited tremendously from the Disabled Students Program (DSP). No matter what difficulties you encounter, remember you are part of a larger community that is invested in your success and people are here to help support you.

What is the one thing you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I love teaching, but I also could see myself doing museum management or higher education administration. I am open to working in a range of educational environments. I will be happy as long as I know I am continuing to have a positive impact in the world.


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Sara Sutherland Discusses Madagascar, Motherhood, and Motivation

Sara Sutherland works on fisheries research in collaboration with the Bren School.

Sara Sutherland is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in UCSB's economics department. She is charismatic, driven, and lucky – she is about to graduate! Sara grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and completed a bachelor's degree in Psychology at Michigan State University. She completed her M.A. in economics here at UCSB and now teaches business and environmental accounting for UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

Sara shares how studying in Madagascar fueled her fascination with conservation; why a boy named Jack motivates her; and how she avoided near disaster on a camping adventure in The Everglades.

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

While studying abroad in Madagascar, I witnessed environmental degradation and resource depletion on a massive scale. I am very grateful for this experience, which helped me to understand the urgency of the conservation effort in preventing resource depletion, but also the need for consideration of groups or individuals that depend on the resource for livelihoods. After I returned to Michigan, I began looking for graduate programs that address the issues I found both concerning and fascinating.

Sara and her two-year-old son, Jack.

I was initially inspired to attend graduate school by my experiences with travel, but I have really evolved as a researcher by continuing to expand my experience over time. I have really had to enhance my time management skills and efficiency since having my son, Jack, two years ago.

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

There has been a good deal of research on the impacts of rights-based management (quota allocation) in fisheries and other natural resources, but there is a deficiency of economic research addressing the political process of fisheries reform and determinants of stakeholder’s positions on fishery regulation.

When reading about the Alaskan Halibut and Sablefish Individual fishing quota program, I was surprised to find that rights-based management was first proposed as a potential management regime in 1988, but was not implemented until seven years later. I came to find that this was due to disputes over allocation, concerns for small fishing communities, and other program characteristics.

I found this very interesting and decided to examine the issue further. The first two chapters of my dissertation examine determinants and outcomes of political participation in the formation of rights-based management in fisheries. Rights-based management of fisheries refers to the allocation of a year’s total allowable catch of a given species to individuals or groups of individuals.

In my papers, public participation in the management of fisheries takes the form of attending meetings or writing letters to the management body. I first address the determinants of meeting attendance and whether the meeting attendees are representative of the entire stakeholder population. My second chapter examines determinants of stakeholder position on rights-based management.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

A roller coaster. There have been many highs, such as advancing to candidacy, getting data to answer my research questions, and watching myself evolve as a teacher. This year, I have seen the results of my work in the form of several conference acceptances, which has been exciting. There have been slower periods too, when my research was not progressing as fast as I would like. I also had a really weak math and economics foundation coming into the program, making the first couple of years of graduate school very difficult (to say the least). I had to learn to push on and stay determined despite setbacks.

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

I wish I were more familiar with the process of conducting academic research – some ideas don’t work out. That is part of the process. It's OK to quit and go back to the drawing board.

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

I love developing new ideas and learning. I hate being broke. Santa Barbara is an expensive town to live in. It would be ideal if TA-funding and fellowships more closely matched graduate student budgets.

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

For me, it is all about the small victories ... they can keep me going for months. I have been even more motivated since having my kid in my fourth year of grad school. As a parent, you want to make your kid proud and do what you can to provide them with the best future possible. Providing for him not only monetarily, but also working to secure the future of our natural resources, are very important to me.

Who are your mentors?

I would have to say my advisors, Chris Costello and Gary Libecap. Their work has paved the way for environmental and natural resource economists, and, in a way, changed the way we address problems in these areas. They are able to approach problems in a unique way and come up with practical solutions in a way that is relevant and that influences policy. In a way, I would say that Gary and Chris have both inspired me and taught me how to "think."

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I am really just happy I have made it this far. Five years ago, I didn’t understand how to develop ideas into actual papers and research projects. I now have four papers in the works. I consider having a child an accomplishment, but finishing graduate school in a reasonable amount of time under these circumstances is certainly notable in itself.

What do you do to relax?

Sara enjoys a break from studying this winter in Utah.Relax? Don't have time for that in grad school! On the day to day, I like to hang out with my kid and garden. … I am also really into creating things – this year’s projects include building a garden from a palette, sewing a scarf and curtains, and building a bookshelf. I really enjoy hiking and camping. Being without cell phone service is very relaxing.

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

I hope to stay in academia so I can continue to do research and to teach. I have learned to love the process of coming up with ideas and constantly learning.

What advice would you give to current grad students?

If this is your passion, keep going. It is a long process ... but you can get through it. You are capable, and are here for a reason. 

I also think that having a nice balance between work and “real life” is important. For me, this requires being mentally present in what I am doing. When I first had Jack, I would find myself stressed about work when I was spending time with him, and missing him while I was at work. Life has become a lot more pleasant since I acknowledged this and made a conscious effort to live in the moment.

I do my best to strive for a work-life balance. I go to yoga weekly and make sure to take time to get outdoors. I have created a lot of great (non-academic) memories while in school. ... Although spending time with Jack is my favorite, just this year I have flown all over the country for weddings.

My most recent adventure was a camping trip to The Everglades and the Keys after a Florida wedding. We rented a skiff boat, drove through The Everglades to the coast, and found ourselves a Key to camp on for the night. When we woke up in the morning, our boat had washed up on the beach 50 feet from the water! We had two hours to get the boat back into the water so I could make the rehearsal dinner that evening (don’t worry, with the help of some logs and leverage, we did it). It was a new experience, and I love that.

Sara almost missed a wedding rehearsal dinner after a boating mishap in the Florida Keys. All went well, however.


Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Jessica Bradshaw

Jessica enjoys the outdoors.Fifth-year doctoral candidate Jessica Bradshaw is using her research to make a difference in the lives of people of all ages. Jessica is a student of the UC system, having finished her BA in cognitive science at UC San Diego in 2007, and her MA in counseling psychology at UC Santa Barbara in 2012. Now a doctoral candidate working through her predoctoral clinical internship at Rady Children’s Hospital through the UCSB/VA Internship Program, Jessica plans to use the knowledge learned pursuing her Clinical Counseling and School Psychology degree to better understand the subtle signs of autism in young children.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Orange County but grew up in Corona, California (repping the IE!). I have spent most of my life in Southern California, aside from a brief East Coast tour I did for three years before graduate school. After undergrad I moved to Connecticut to do research at the Yale Child Study Center. It was a great experience and I encourage all Californians to get a taste of something different before settling in the best state in the country (California, of course).

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

My research aims to identify discernable behavioral characteristics of autism spectrum disorder and map the corresponding neurological mechanisms at the earliest possible age. [In 2013, Jessica was among a UCSB contingent that traveled to Sacramento to meet with state legislators to discuss the value and impact of UC research.] Autism spectrum disorder is a social disability that is typically diagnosed between 3 and 5 years of age, yet behavioral intervention techniques for infants as young as six months of age have been suggested. Early behavioral intervention, and correspondingly early identification, is critical for optimal outcome. The first step in understanding developmental psychopathology is to map a particular behavioral or neurological construct in typical development. Stemming from this perspective, my dissertation investigated clinical correlates of social smiling in 6- to 9-month-old typically developing infants.

Another aspect of my research is early intervention. In collaboration with Dr. Lynn Koegel and the Koegel Autism Center, we have investigated the use of Pivotal Response Treatment for infants exhibiting symptoms of autism spectrum disorder as young as six months of age.Jessica, center, with advisors and fellow graduate students at the APA conference in Hawaii.

The development of autism spectrum disorder in the infant and toddler period has been an interest of mine since my undergraduate work at UCSD. My interests stem from a general interest in developmental psychology, cognitive science, and social neuroscience, as well as a keen appreciation of clinical psychological and the necessity to translate basic science findings for clinical use in diagnostics and intervention. It is a fascinating venture to pinpoint symptoms of ASD years before the hallmark symptoms of the disorder appear.

What has graduate student life been like for you?

Any graduate student will attest to the fact that grad school is a rocky ride. In clinical psychology the journey is also personal. We have to watch ourselves do psychotherapy on film in front of a group of other students and our supervisor – learning can’t get more terrifying than that!

I was fortunate enough to receive a predoctoral fellowship from the Autism Science Foundation, which helped set the stage for my own independent research. This fellowship allowed me to focus on my research without having to TA or work on other projects.

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

Relationships. The personal and professional relationships I have built with friends and colleagues have been invaluable to my graduate experience. I would not have made it through graduate school without my friends and family. My cohort has been there for me in personal crises, and our discussions have helped me grow as a researcher. I have also so enjoyed collaborating with other graduate students and labs on research. Psychology is much more collaborative than some other fields and intellectual discussion, collaborative projects, and cross-disciplinary ventures have been a huge part of my professional development.

I always say that clinical psychology is like doing two graduate programs. One minute I am coding infant smiling frame-by-frame in the lab, the next I am doing therapy in juvenile hall with adolescents struggling with gang involvement and drugs. Although I love both clinical work and research, it can be exhausting!

Jessica, left, enjoys a summer concert with two of her fellow grad students.What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?

My motivation is twofold. First, helping the families. The stress of some families with children with ASD and other special needs is unimaginable. The overarching goal of my research is to improve quality of life for everyone affected by autism. Second, I have always been motivated to learn more in order to answer the important questions. Actually, even coming up with the important questions can be a challenge.

Who are your heroes and/or mentors and why?

I have learned so much from all of my mentors: Fred Shic and Kasia Chawarska at Yale, and Bob and Lynn Koegel at UCSB. Fred and Kasia took a chance on me when they let me enter the world of autism research as a young, naïve student fresh out of undergrad. I still have not stopped learning from them. My graduate advisors, Bob and Lynn, trusted my research ideas and supported me, both personally and professionally, to the end.

Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and why.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I think I am most proud of the services I have been able to provide for families and the local community. As a clinical researcher, the majority of my work has been interacting with parents of infants and toddlers. I am proud of each thank you letter and holiday card I receive from my families.  

Jessica, left, loves to travel with friends to conferences in places like Madrid, Spain.

What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do?

Good food and good beer are guaranteed to put a smile on my face. Live music and records are my favorite hobbies. Rock climbing used to be a big part of my life and is something I am always trying to do more of.

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

I hope to be on faculty somewhere continuing autism research, but that’s a boring answer. How about…I hope to be making enough money to go to as many concerts as I want, to taste as much local beer as I can, and to have a really cute dog (preferably a pug).

Do you have any advice for current grad students?

Complain less! Venting can be therapeutic, but also toxic. So vent as you need to, but too much negativity can be counterproductive. 


Zach Rentz: GSA President and Change Agent

Zach RentzZach Rentz, 2014-2015 UCSB GSA President. Photo courtesy of Zach Rentz.Third year graduate student in Philosophy Zach Rentz is a change agent. He can be found making changes once a month when leading the Graduate Students Association meetings as the GSA President. If you haven’t talked to him yet, you probably should, because he’s been working to make your life better as a grad student and wants to hear what you have to say.

I wanted to interview Zach Rentz for a while because he has been working to change things at UCSB in all the ways it needs to be changed. He wants to increase funding for grads, provide affordable housing for them, and create a community spirit.

Zach sees the world a little differently than you and I. Maybe he sees things differently because he grew up on the East Coast, outside of Philadelphia. Or maybe he sees things differently because he was influenced by the writings of Moses Maimonides and has a degree in Philosophy from Dartmouth. Or maybe he see things differently because he knows how to effectively challenge and question things after earning a law degree at Duke and working to help people on the Duke Law Innocence Project. Or maybe that’s just the way Zach is: a guy who likes to make the world better around him. I don’t know. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

I met with Zach on a cool but sunny afternoon at the GSA lounge. We sat outside on the patio and talked about everything from why he came back to school, to what he is trying to accomplish with the GSA, and to how he is a fan of the band Phish.

You already had a law career. Why did you come back to school?

Grad Student Spotlight logoI practiced law for four years in Philadelphia, working at two different firms. I was a corporate and securities lawyer focused on mergers and acquisitions, stock and debt offerings, and private equity fund formation. I also did pro bono work with respect to both animal law and civil forfeiture actions. But I wasn’t getting the intellectual stimulation I was looking for from legal work, and I decided to return to my passion: philosophy.

What are you researching for your degree?

I’m researching David Hume, and in particular, his work on time and infinity. I’m also interested in philosophical issues pertaining to the reform of America’s drug and sentencing laws. Lastly, I am interested in the metaphysics of Jewish Mysticism, and in particular, the thought of the Chabad masters.

Why did you get involved in the GSA and what do you hope to achieve?

Zach and Emma 1Zach and GSA’s Vice President of Internal Affairs, Emma Levine, tabling at San Clemente’s welcome event for grad students. Photo courtesy of Zach RentzI got involved with GSA because I saw lots of ways that the UCSB grad student experience could be improved and made richer and I wanted to do my part. My number one goal this year has been to alleviate the great financial burden faced by UCSB’s grad students, when it comes to things like housing, healthcare, and general support. Additionally, I am working to increase the amount of social offerings put forth by GSA to help strengthen the graduate student community and provide the grads with more opportunities to socialize and engage intellectually.

I see you and the GSA are doing a lot of new things this year. Can you give me a preview of what we can look forward to?

We’ve been working on housing for one. We have an incredible graduate school here but it’s very expensive to live in Santa Barbara and one idea we’ve come up with is to move the grad student community from San Clemente to Santa Ynez.  This is a long-term proposition, but if it makes sense, it could dramatically decrease the rent paid by graduate students in University housing.

Zach and Emma at Joshua TreeZach and his girlfriend Emma Levine, a 4th year Music Ph.D. student at UCSB, watching the sunset in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo courtesy of Zach RentzWe also want to provide more social venues for grad students. There are not a lot of central locations on or off campus for grad students to get together and to talk or exchange ideas. Thanks to the Alumni Association, we are starting “Moshertime” this quarter. Once a month, and hopefully moving towards a weekly gathering, graduate students will have the opportunity to get together socially on the roof deck of the Mosher Alumni House.

We are also working on increasing professional development and networking opportunities for grad students. We want to promote networking between graduate students and alumni in their chosen fields, whether academic or non-academic. We also want to give grad students the opportunity to mentor UCSB undergraduates by connecting them with undergrads that are interested in pursuing academic research or graduate school

That’s a lot you’re working on. What do you do to relax?

I like to read philosophy, religion, and history and to hang out with my friends. I really enjoy being part of the Santa Barbara community and I try to take advantage of all that it has to offer. I also love to go to the Santa Barbara Bowl to see live music. It’s one of the most beautiful venues I have ever seen.

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

Zach at Phish concertZach with some old friends at Phish’s October 21, 2014 show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Photo courtesy of Zach Rentz.Probably, that I followed the band Phish around after my senior year of college. I’ve seen them 48 times now.

You’ve been a grad student three years, what piece of advice would you give to incoming students?

You should treat grad school like it’s a job. Act professionally and treat your weekdays like a standard workday where you are at your desk by 8 or 9 AM and put in eight hours of work. You should also spend time with faculty and other grad students. Some grad students tend to isolate themselves in their office or lab, and they miss out on the intellectual discourse that is a very important part of graduate school. I’d also suggest setting aside time to determine your goals for each year of your program. Figure out when you want to apply for certain funding opportunities, what you need to do to advance to candidacy, and begin putting together materials related to the job market.


What is the one thing you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?

I want to be a faculty member in a philosophy department. I love my research and I love teaching.  I cannot imagine a more fulfilling career than having the opportunity to professionally pursue my passion.