Katelyn Zigner is Runner-Up in 2021 UCSB Virtual Grad Slam

Katelyn Zigner participated as a finalist in the annual UCSB Grad Slam.

March 23, 2021

What year are you in the PhD program? Please describe your research and why you find it to be important.

I'm finishing my 5th year in the Geography PhD program. I study extreme, downslope (from the north) winds that are unique to Santa Barbara called Sundowners, due to their onset around sunset. Previous work completed in both my lab, the Climate Variations and Change (CLIVAC) lab, and conducted by other researchers has advanced the knowledge of Sundowner mechanisms and characteristics through atmospheric models and a field campaign. The first part of my PhD work analyses the spatial and temporal variability of Sundowners from an observational standpoint using weather stations, ocean buoys, and a vertical wind profiler. These strong winds and gusts, sometimes exceeding 50 mph, create critical fire weather conditions, particularly when combined with high temperatures, low humidity, and dry fuels. In the second part of my research, I use wildfire models to simulate previous wildfires that were rapidly spread due to Sundowners, such as the 1990 Painted Cave Fire and the 2016 Sherpa Fire. We found that the model was able to fairly well simulate historic wildfires that weren't influenced by spotting, or the torching and downstream transport of burning embers, but underestimated the spread when spotting played large role in the observed rapid spread, This finding has implications for research and operational needs, as simulated wildfires may be underestimated if this is not taken into account. Finally, the last part of my PhD work focuses on identifying regions of high wildfire risk in Santa Barbara during extreme winds. We are examining this by differing ignition locations and running hundreds of wildfire simulations during Sundowner events. When the output is combined, we can determine regions that were hit more in the simulations. This work may lead to changes in land use (i.e. addition of agricultural areas as 'buffers' around urban areas) and improvements in resource allocation on days with critical fire weather danger. Ultimately, this work and the work being completed by fellow researchers in CLIVAC aims to increase resilience to wildfires in Santa Barbara.

How would you describe your experience partaking in the Grad Slam?

Participating in Grad Slam this year was an overall great experience! I actually participated in the 2019 Grad Slam (when the presentations were in-person), so I have a unique perspective of how I felt competing in-person versus virtually. While competing in-person improved my public speaking skills and allowed for interaction with the audience, I prefer the virtual format because of two main reasons: 1) We could redo the presentation multiple times to get it 'just right' before submission into the competition, and 2) the online format made it possible for friends and family to watch, no matter where they were around the world. The Graduate Division team who put it on both in 2019 and this year were extremely organized, and I always knew the resources available and the schedules. I'm very happy with receiving a runner-up award this year, and hope more Geography department grad students can represent in future years!

Was there anything that you would have wanted to include in your presentation that you didn't get the chance to do so?

One of the main rules of Grad Slam is that competitors can only use 3 slides or animations. The 'click' to start a video also counts as a 'slide'. With this limitation, the context of the speech matters even more. I wish I could have enhanced my presentation by using animations to introduce the content on the slides as I spoke, but since I could not do this, I cannot think of anything else that I would have wanted to include in the presentation. In the qualifying round, I used static images to explain my work, but my adviser recommended using a video to show a wildfire simulation running, which I think enhanced the effects of the final presentation greatly. It was difficult to choose just one part of my work to create the presentation around, but given the unprecedented 2020 wildfire season, this topic and research seemed the most relevant and potentially interesting to a broad audience.

What tips or advice for any potential future Grad Slammers?

I recommend attending the workshop about how to create the talk, which covers both creative and logistical aspects; A broad audience should be able to understand and be intrigued (and potentially inspired) by the presentation. Thus, we were told to limit overly technical terms, but at the same time we had to make our presentation topic interesting and important. When preparing my talk, I made sure to answer: 1) What are you going to discuss in this talk and why is it important?, 2) What do we know about this topic and how does your work fit into existing literature, and 3) What have you done, are you doing, and what needs to be done? Then, we were told the concluding remarks should link our research back to the original idea and reiterate the importance.

Another piece of advice I would give is to ask as many people as possible for feedback. I asked my adviser and labmates, as well as friends and family who knew little about my work. By asking such a broad audience for feedback and suggestions, I received insights from a wide array of people, and made a better presentation and recording.

Lastly, have fun with the presentation and competition, and use it as a time to network with students in other departments. When I did the 2019 competition, I met friendly and interesting students from many other departments, who I don't think I would have connected with without competing. It was beneficial to broaden my understanding of the work others are doing at UCSB, and look for potential collaborations as well. This year, the virtual setting made it difficult to talk with other competitors, but perhaps more opportunities will be made available if the virtual format is retained in future years.