Rhyme Time: Computer Science Student Competes in Grad Slam Final

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Esther Showalter, a fifth-year computer science PhD student, will represent the College of Engineering in UC Santa Barbara’s 2022 Grad Slam Final Round on Friday. Showalter, who is advised by computer science professor Elizabeth Belding, is one of ten finalists competing for a share of more than $16,000 in prize money and the opportunity to represent the campus in the UC-wide competition. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Showalter, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Duke University. “I watched another student in my research group, Mai ElSherief, reach the finals a few years ago, and remembering the energy she put into her talk has been motivating. The amount of enthusiastic feedback I’ve received from the Computer Science Department has been a huge boost, too.”  

Grad Slam, the award-winning annual competition for the best three-minute talk by a graduate student, features students explaining the central points of their research in a clear, direct, and interesting manner for a general audience. Judges selected the finalists from a pool of entrants who submitted three-minute qualifying videos. Showalter found a creative way to communicate about her research — rhyming. Showalter’s qualifying talk described a common difficulty in networking that poses problems to researchers: gathering real-world network performance data. Her talk in the final will tell a different type of story with more of her work explained. And yes, it will still rhyme. 

“I hope to convey a lot of the delight a person can find in unpacking a problem in academic research,” said Showalter, who thanked the university’s Poetry Club for providing pointers on how to perform rhymes well with a live audience. “Everyone can enjoy when unusual words fit together well, especially when they are words that don’t create vivid images in our minds unless we are experts in the field. I hope that anyone who doesn’t normally appreciate the nuances of research talks will enjoy listening to mine just because of how I’ve over-extended my metaphors and given them some cadence. It would be spectacular if any of the imagery sticks.”

Showalter is a member of Belding’s Mobility Management and Networking (MOMENT) Lab, which focuses on two areas of research: mobile networking, and information and communication technologies for development (ICTD). She examines computer networking in areas of the world where supporting infrastructure, such as electricity, is unreliable, investigating some of the many reasons that standard networking practices don’t work well in certain places or situations. The subject of her thesis and Grad Slam presentation will be her work to design network diagnostic tools that turn multi-faceted network performance quality metrics into more intuitive characterizations that can spark interest with non-expert users, such as how far images or video must travel from their creation point to be viewed by users on a network. 

“Knowing metrics like the average distance that your Internet content has to travel could give community-run network administrators a more vivid metric to explain speed improvement to their community of users, which can motivate more involvement and stronger advocacy for extra funding for under-connected regions,” she explained. “The challenge is translating between standard quality metrics and meaningful intuition at any sort of scale. 

The public is invited to attend the final round at 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, in Campbell Hall, where they can also vote for their favorite presenter, in the People’s Choice category. All in-person attendees must show proof of full vaccination or green badges, and masks will also be required. 

The final round will also be livestreamed on the university’s YouTube channel. Organizers will award $5,000 for the grand prize and $2,500 each to two runners-up. The winner of the People’s Choice audience vote will receive $1,500.

The winner will represent UCSB at the UC-wide Grad Slam competition on May 6. The location is to be determined, but UC President Michael Drake will emcee the event. 

Esther Showalter

Esther Showalter, Computer science PhD student