Slammers share how their younger selves would view their research interests today

Student Research

Dan Moser, March 29, 2024

Slammers share how their younger selves would view their research interests today

If you want a glimpse into the future career choices of today’s bright, inquisitive 11-year-olds, you could do worse than consider the pop culture diet they’re consuming now. That’s one takeaway from the 2024 Student Research Days Slam, in which participants mentioned “Star Wars,” sci-fi novels, assorted Disney, Pixar and Marvel movies, and even Aldous Huxley as inspirations. 

All six University of Nebraska-Lincoln slammers based their five-minutes-or-less talks on the prompt “Imagine your 11-year-old self shadowing you during your research or creative activity. What would 11-year-old you think is the coolest or most surprising part of the work you do today?” 

Alyssa Grube, graduate student in chemical engineering, took the $500 first place prize, voted by the audience, with her reflections on teaching herself to knit as a kid with a book and kit she received for her birthday. From an early desire to be a fashion designer, she’s now creating wearable technology. 

“I wanted to see clothing like the super suits by Edna Mode in ‘The Incredibles,’” she said. “I realized I would need to make it myself and … I would need an engineering degree that would give me the skills and knowledge required to design and build wearable technology that was not only functional but also creative and visually interesting.” 

Like Edna, Grube said, she’s creating tactical fabrics for heroes – in Grube’s case, ones that can monitor vital signs such as heart rates and body temperatures for those in military, athletic and medical fields. 

At 11, Grube added, she couldn’t have imagined the connection between knitting and computer programming.   

The slam, part of Student Research Days March 25-29, was moderated by Jocelyn Bosley, UNL research impact coordinator. Other competitors, all of whom received $100 for participating, included: 

— Anika Azme, graduate student, environmental engineering, whose talk, “Forever Chemicals vs. Light-Activated Materials,” traced her childhood love of cooking and hatred of cleaning up, from the nonstick frying pan she loved, to her discovery it was chock-full of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are present almost everywhere and are responsible for a host of health and environmental problems. 

“But don’t you worry. I’m just one of the thousands of scientists, or let’s call ourselves ‘Avengers,’ on a mission to take down our own Thanos – PFAS,” said Azme, whose work involves developing light-activated nanomaterials to break down PFAS. 

— Alisha Bevins, graduate student, computer science, whose slam presentation, “Magical Motions: The Power of Non-Verbal Communication in Robotics,” covered her research into communication with drones, an interest that began when she was a child fascinated by robots and Disney movies. 

“I want people to understand robots in the real world like they can understand ‘WALL-E’,” she said. “Just like WALL-E, I look at how my robots can use nonverbal communication to ‘speak’ to whoever they are interacting with.” 

Researchers are studying how they can adapt non-verbal communication cues humans use to drone technology, Bevins added. 

— Micah Fullinfaw, senior, emerging media arts. His talk, “Exploring Uncertainty,” recalled his path from an 11-year-old who avoided risk out of a fear of embarrassment to a young man who made and sold spray paint art in high school while gaining an impressive TikTok following in the process, set out to study engineering at UNL, then got captivated by graphic design.  

Since then, embracing uncertainty and risk has served him well, he said: working as a videographer for the athletic department, running a TikTok account for the NCAA, traveling the world by himself, doing standup comedy, shaving his head, running a half marathon in a Santa Claus onesie. “Why not?” is his theme now. 

“I wish my 11-year-old self could have seen all that he was capable of because the world has so much to offer, and being scared of your own voice and others only stops you from discovering your stories.” 

— Lincoln Graham, junior, emerging media arts, whose talk, “My Liquid Latex Life” remembered an existential dread that began around age 11. “I was focused on just getting through each day.”  

He decided he wanted to be a psychiatrist, but later became a theater kid – his most influential role, Henry Foster in “Brave New World”– and got interested in practical effects in film. 

“My specialty is liquid latex that rips and tears much like our own skin,” Graham said. He said his 11-year-old self might be disappointed at his interests now, but still impressed by “the fact that I’m here and that I can choose to pursue my passions.” 

— Ryleigh Grove, sophomore, plant biology, whose talk “In the Garden of Discovery: A Scientist’s Evolution” remembered the lessons she learned from her family’s garden when she was a child: finding insects; eating dirt; discovering snakes, which to her mother’s horror she brought into the house. 

Now, as she works with high-throughput phenotyping, she’s living her desire to understand intricate connections within biological systems. She encouraged other young researchers to incorporate elements of nature into their own work.  

“Let’s cultivate the seeds of curiosity, nurture the roots of discovery and continue to bloom in the garden of discovery,” Grove said. 

The Slam was co-sponsored by the Office of Graduate Studies and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. 

Student Research