What Can Be Done in 3 Minutes? Graduate Students Face Off in 2022 Grad Slam

by | Apr 18, 2022 | Academics

Kate Forrest, ’23 MS Meteorology, presenting “Fire Tornadoes: ‘The Unicorns of Fire Weather’” at SJSU’s 2022 Grad Slam. Her undeniable passion for the topic helped lead her to a first-place win. Photo: David Schmitz

It’s that time of year again, when spring has sprung and San José State University’s brightest minds tackled some of the world’s toughest problems in three minutes. 

After a two-year hiatus from an in-person showdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SJSU’s fast-paced Grad Slam competition was back — and the event did not disappoint. Ten graduate student finalists from across disciplines went head-to-head at the Hammer Theatre on April 14 to showcase their innovative ideas through persuasive, snackable presentations. 

This year’s projects ranged from studies on DNA and fire tornadoes to the shift in transportation patterns post-COVID-19.

For those who have not experienced a Grad Slam, it is a high-energy competition between graduate students that challenges them to convey their thesis research, so it can be understood by a broad, non-specialist audience. Participants must do so in three minutes or less, using only one presentation slide for a visual aid. 

Winners of Grad Slam compete for cash prizes — and bragging rights — in addition to the honor of representing SJSU at subsequent statewide and regional competitions. 

“Grad Slam is a wonderful event because it showcases the truly innovative research and creative activity that our graduate students — and their faculty mentors — are doing,” said Marc d’Alarcao, dean of the College of Graduate Studies.  

“Beyond highlighting the great research emanating from SJSU, Grad Slam is also a great professional development experience for our students, who learn to present complex issues succinctly and passionately,” he added. 

The three winners of Grad Slam stand on stage with large paper checks.

The three winners of this year’s Grad Slam stand with their prizes on stage with Marc d’Alarcao, dean of the College of Graduate Studies. Photo: David Schmitz.

2022 Grad Slam Winners

First Place: Katherina (Kate) Forrest, ’23 MS Meteorology
Research Presentation:
Fire Tornadoes: “The Unicorns of Fire Weather”

Second Place: Nathaniel Pergamit, ’22 MM Music
Research Presentation: “Buried Treasure in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park”

Audience Choice: Punithavathi Sundaramurthy, ’22 MS Bioinformatics
Research Presentation: “A Computational Approach to Identify Complex DNA Binding Sites to Study Gene Regulation”

First-place winner Kate Forrest described her experience participating in Grad Slam as excitingly surreal. Her passion for her work in fire weather research was the driving force behind her entering the competition and sharing her work broadly.

I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and I could not have gotten this far without the support I’ve received from my friends, family and advisor.”

She hoped the audience would “learn how weird it is for a wildfire to produce a fire tornado, but also how fascinating it is. Two decades ago, this phenomena didn’t even exist and it is a direct result of human-caused climate change. The research being done in wildfire science is groundbreaking and is needed now more than ever.”

Editor’s note: Forrest will represent SJSU in the California State University (CSU)-wide Grad Slam on Friday May 6,
which will be hosted by CSU Bakersfield. Register to watch the event and cheer her on.

Creating this type of snapshot of their research — what often amounts to months, sometimes years, of hard work — is a challenge in itself, but emphasizing why it matters to the audience in a compelling way, in a timed competition, is formidable. 

“Grad Slam really forces you to simplify your research well enough that it can be easily understood by anyone regardless of their academic background,” said audience-choice winner Punithavathi Sundaramurthy (Punit Sundar).

Sundar’s research focused on making sense of complex DNA data. She went into the Grad Slam finals hoping she could help the audience realize the importance of the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics. “Whether someone knows about DNA or not,” she shared, “We all might know what it’s like to take something apart, change it in some way and see what the result would be.”

Grad Slam was held in conjunction with SJSU’s Celebration of Research (CoR), an annual showcase of the diverse academic investigations and creative activities of students and faculty. Both events highlight the interdisciplinary nature of research and the high level of interdisciplinary collaboration that is occurring at San José State. 

Grad Slam itself also provides a unique opportunity for students whose research shed light on topics not typically associated with scientific inquiry to be included in the program. Such is the case with the second-place winner Nathaniel Pergamit, whose research illuminated “Buried Treasure in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park” from the Spreckels Temple of Music

Finalist Phuong Pham Lan, ’22 MFA Creative Writing, entered the competition with her graduate project in poetry about the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where she was raised as a child. 

“I feel encouraged to talk about climate change in this tiny region at the end of the Mekong River,” said Lan.

“Mekong Delta is so beautiful and abundant in nature yet it is sinking into the sea and is heavily exploited by extensive agriculture in Vietnam. Grad Slam is an entry point for the Mekong to be heard of, for my poetry project a meaningful launch to a wider audience.”

Watch the recording of the 2022 SJSU Grad Slam.


  • Amanda del Castillo, ’12 Journalism, reporter KGO-TV
  • Lupe Franco, first place winner at 2021 Grad Slam, people’s choice winner at 2021 CSU-wide Grad Slam
  • Thalia Anagnos, vice provost, Undergraduate Education
  • Matthew Spangler, professor, College of Social Sciences

10 Finalists

  • Ankur Ankur, ’23 MS Artificial Intelligence
  • Katherina (Kate) Forrest, ’23 MS Meteorology
  • Jayme Harms (Vanderwege), ’22 MA Counseling and Guidance
  • Mari Hsu, ’22 MUP (Master’s in Urban Planning)
  • Phuong Pham Lan, ’22 MFA Creative Writing
  • Niraj Pandkar,’22 MS Computer Science
  • Nathaniel Pergamit, ’22 MM (Master’s in Music) 
  • Harneet Kaur Ranauta, ’22 MPH
  • Punithavathi Sundaramurthy (Punit Sundar), ’22 MS Bioinformatics 
  • Simon Tan,’22 MUP (Master’s in Urban Planning)

Additional thoughts from some of this year’s finalists:

“Participating in competitions like this forces us to get out of the comfort zone of our research group, reevaluate our thoughts on the research and present it in a structured and digestible way. It brings a lot of clarity to our thought process and makes us more confident in our research with evolved communication skills. To be a finalist shows the acceptability of the research idea. It strengthens confidence and zest towards our research ideas and efforts. The idea of spreading our research and its result to a wider audience is too thrilling to bypass.”

—Ankur Ankur, MS Artificial Intelligence
Research presentation: “Twilytics:  A Social Perception Analysis”

“Being a finalist in Grad Slam means more people can learn about my research and understand how remote work will affect traffic patterns in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as any other region with a high percentage of people working remotely. 

“One of my main takeaways is that remote work will not solve traffic congestion — in fact, there are several reasons why it will likely make it worse! This surprising, counterintuitive finding will hopefully motivate more people to consider using alternative modes of transportation like bicycling, public transit, or walking whenever possible.”

—Simon Tan, MUP
Research presentation: “Post-Pandemic Travel Patterns of Remote Workers”

“Through my research, I want to bring attention to the unsolved crimes in the U.S. due to the lack of solid leads. More importantly, this presentation will attempt to explain the method I’m employing in my research to bridge this gap. And eventually, I want to portray how it will help bring justice in the law enforcement areas.”

—Niraj Pandkar, MS Computer Science
Research presentation: “Predicting Externally Visible Traits from a DNA Sample”