Two CTSA Graduate Students Made It to the Finals for UCI Grad Slam

Grad Students from Dance and Music Pitched Their Research in Annual UCI Grad Student Competition

By Sammy Merabet | Posted March 6, 2023 | Updated on March 12

On March 9, 2023, scholars from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts competed against students across the UCI campus to pitch their research as succinctly as possible at the 2003 UCI Grad Slam Finals.

Grad Slam is an annual, cross-UC competition that challenges grad students to communicate their research to the public in a clear, concise, and accessible way. Participants created a short presentation—no longer than three minutes—to pitch the essential details of their research to a panel of community judges.

Each UC campus hosts a local Grad Slam competition. The first place winners at each campus then go on to compete against one another at the systemwide finals for a chance at winning the whole competition, as well as the corresponding monetary reward.

Applications for Grad Slam opened last November, and the UCI semifinals occurred at the beginning of February 2023 with ten Anteater finalists at four different heats of judging. Of the finalists, two are CTSA students —Jeevika Bhat, M.F.A. candidate in the Department of Dance, and James Ilgenfritz, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Music.

Like the rest of their fellow contestants, Bhat and Ilgenfritz have honed and prepared their presentations over the past few months for the UCI finals, where the pressure to summarize the importance of their research in a comprehensive, digestible, and engaging way was higher than ever.

This year’s UC-wide competition will be held at the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco on Friday, May 5, 2023. Both the UCI and systemwide finals will be livestreamed for viewers at home to tune in. (See the UCI livestream recording below.)

Congratulations to the 2033 UCI champion, Twaha Ibrahim, a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science, with his pitch “Lights, Camera, Surgery!”

Read more about Bhat and Ilgenfritz and their pitches below.

Image: James Ilgenfritz, Dean Tiffany López and Jeevika Bhat at the UCI Grad Slam Finals event at Edward Lifesciences.

Jeevika Bhat, Dance

Jeevika Bhat is a second year grad student pursuing an M.F.A. in Dance. She intends to graduate this June. She heard about Grad Slam through emails from her department. “I had been searching additional funding opportunities for my thesis,” said Bhat, “And upon seeing this, thought, ‘why not!’”

Bhat’s research synthesizes her knowledge of both Contemporary and Classical Indian dance with her interest in the poetry of T.S. Eliot—in particular, his Four Quartets. She is drawn to both the freedom of Contemporary Indian dance, as well as the capacity for Classical Indian dance—and she is focused on utilizing the intersection of both to help visualize Eliot’s work.

“I’ve read Four Quartets several times, and remarkably I find new meaning in every read,” Bhat explained. “I think the beauty is in the fact that the meanings are ever-exchanging—I find new linguistic approaches, or new associations with my own life, or new ways to incorporate and understand them via choreography each time I ponder them, which for me is a large part of the draw of poetry.”

With her research relating two Indian dance forms and one of the English language’s most famous poets, condensing the essentials of her work into three minutes or less is no easy feat—still, Bhat is taking it in stride.

“It’s been a rather lovely creative challenge! It's so difficult to fit the relevant background and research into just three minutes, but in a way, I feel like the process of condensing has made me understand my own research more!”

Outside of the challenge of condensing her research, Bhat also discussed the difficulties of being an artist and dancer in a STEM-oriented competition. “Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and I don’t feel at odds,” she reassured, “But I recognize and find difficulty in subverting the bias towards scientific research in academia. The best way to overcome it, for me, is to just be true to myself and my art and recognize the value in my own research—which I can then communicate in my presentation.”

When asked about what she found most valuable about Grad Slam, Bhat replied “Definitely the people I am meeting and the connections I am making. It’s always a wonder to learn about the incredible work of my peers, and meet the people who make an event like this possible.”

Image: New Slate 2021. Left to right: Isabel Harding, Robert Davis, Isabella Granqvist, Katie Waldvogel. (Photo: Leandro Damasco)

James Ilgenfritz, Music

James Ilgenfritz is currently in his last year of his Ph.D. program in Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology (ICIT)—a fairly new Ph.D. program at UCI that he chose due to its focus on the relationship between several contemporary musical disciplines and practices that had often solely been analyzed separately.

He learned about Grad Slam through faculty members, including his dissertation advisor Kojiro Umezaki. “What really struck me about Grad Slam, and confirmed for me that I should apply, was that the project involves a very performative embodiment of one’s research interests,” James explained. “As a performer whose personal story, research interests, and creative output are all very closely interrelated, I immediately recognized the potential for Grad Slam to serve as a meaningful platform from which to project my unique experiences out to a wider audience.”

Ilgenfritz’s research is titled “The Ambigram Series: Aphasia and Empathy.” It’s a culmination of a research path he’s been on for about thirty years. Aphasia is a disorder in which brain damage results in a reduced ability to speak or understand speech. Ilgenfritz’s interest in the topic was fueled when he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in the late 2000s and had to undergo surgery.

“My story is very personal and deals with a very vulnerable moment in my life—when I was recovering from brain surgery and had to relearn things I’d taken for granted, like speaking and writing my name—not to mention playing an instrument,” he explained. “What I learned from the experience is that what makes us different is also what makes us stronger. My life took a dramatic change for the better when I learned to see my misfortunes as opportunities—as gifts.”

Ilgenfritz seeks to combine his personal story with his knowledge of music. One passion he’s developed at UCI is how music can respond to and embody the relationships individuals have with systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry. Part of his research has been experimenting with alternative tunings on his five-string contrabass to encourage his audience to reconsider the binary between the self and the other, the familiar and the uncanny—the same binary which he sees at the heart of these oppressions.

Image: © 2022 James Ilgenfitz. Left to right: Chivangi Cancean, Willie Fastenow, Rebecca Larkin, & Fabricio Cavero

Despite the challenge that could come with recounting a story that’s both deeply personal and covers a wide theoretical range, Ilgenfritz has found the whole experience both intellectually stimulating and fun. “I specifically sought to filter as many aspects of my creative practice as possible into a three-minute presentation,” said Ilgenfritz. “Because I naturally tend to focus on the relationships between a vast array of ideas that usually seem quite unrelated, I knew that the biggest challenge for me would be to decide which ideas most effectively conveyed the big picture without overwhelming those to whom I’m speaking.”

Encouraging research communication to be as accessible to the general public as possible is one of the primary goals of Grad Slam, and one of the things Ilgenfritz has focused on while developing his presentation. “I definitely see the value of translating research findings into language that is accessible, without the need for any specialized knowledge of a particular field. I have a strong passion for esoteric ideas, but this passion is tempered by a strong preference for speaking in very non-specialized language.”

An important part of this process for Ilgenfritz is ensuring that his enjoyment and passion for research come through in his presentation. “I always want to help people learn new things,” said Ilgenfritz, who draws upon his experience in teaching music to children in crafting his presentation, “I find people are most open to new ideas when they feel they are able to enjoy themselves.”

Image: Courtesy SEM Ensemble. (Left to right) Chris Nappi, Roscoe Mitchell, Sara Schoenbeck, Thomas Buckner, James Ilgenfritz, Lucie Vítková, George Lewis
James Ilgenfritz headshot and top Image: © 2020, Music For Your Inbox. 

The UCI Grad Slam Finals were held Thursday, March 9, 2023 at Edward Lifesciences. To learn more about UC Grad Slam, visit the UCI Graduate Division website here. View the entire event below.

2023 UCI Grad Slam Finals from UCI Media on Vimeo.