Jessica Howard is a 3rd year graduate student in particle physics, who is the primary administrative coordinator for the blog team and one of the ten UCI 2020 Grad Slam finalists. Jessica’s was always curious about how things in the world around her worked. Once she learned about the role particle physics plays in this curiosity, she was hooked! She says that particle physics is a way to study not only how all known matter in the universe works, but also how the fundamental forces of the universe work. Particle physics has a lot of interesting questions that need answering, and Jessica says that she is interested in almost all of them. She says this makes it hard to choose exactly what to study within her sub-field. In general, she is interested in physics that is beyond the Standard Model. What is the nature of dark matter? Why do neutrinos have mass? And why are we made out of matter and not anti-matter? Jessica is working on applying methods from machine learning as a tool to help answer these questions. In the future, Jessica wants to continue doing particle physics research as well as working to communicate her research to the general public. At this point, she believes the best way she can accomplish this is by becoming a professor at a research university. 

Recently, Jessica participated in UCI’s 2020 Grad Slam competition. Grad Slam is an annual UC wide competition where graduate students compete to have the best 3-minute research presentation for a lay audience. Jessica was one of the ten UCI 2020 Grad Slam finalists. She entered the competition because she believes communicating your research is just as important as doing it. She says if you toil away in silence and solitude, you will never learn how to sell your work to others; and selling your work is crucial to success after grad school.  For her personally, Jessica says she is terrified of public speaking. She decided to participate in Grad Slam as a challenge for herself to get out of her comfort zone. One of the things that helped her the most in this experience was taking Activate to Captivate’s public speaking certificate course at the Graduate Resource Center led by Bri McWhorter. Jessica says she couldn’t recommend this class enough; for her it really gave concrete strategies to craft and present a presentation. When it came to actually making her pitch for Grad Slam, Jessica started by figuring out the objective by looking at the rubric and seeing how her research could address each of the points listed. Then she considered the audience for the pitch and tried to rework her answers to be familiar to that audience. Lastly, she tried to make sure these pieces were strung together in a logical way. As for practicing the pitch, Jessica followed many of the techniques from Bri’s class. She says the most useful tip is to visualize what you’re saying; don’t just memorize a script. Jessica urges others to take advantage of these preparation workshops and certificate courses that the Graduate Division provides. But most importantly, she urges anyone wishing to participate in a competition such as Grad Slam to have fun. She says everyone is very friendly and supportive during the competition. Jessica highly recommends Grad Slam to anyone who is trying to overcome public speaking anxiety.

Jessica’s work with the blog team began from the concept that science communication is extremely important to professional development and research. When a fellow UCI graduate student, Sophia Gad-Nasr, had the idea for a blog that would communicate the research and activities of the department, Jessica immediately knew this was something that she wanted to be involved in. Currently, she is the primary administrative coordinator for the blog; meaning she runs meetings, makes sure that people are on task, and helps plan the timelines for the various facets of the blog. On occasion she also has time to participate in creating content. Jessica has written some of the articles and is involved with the video aspects of the blog (content in the works, coming soon!). She says it is very exciting that we have so many graduate students participating in the blog, yielding the person-power to produce some very cool content. Looking forward, Jessica would really like to see the blog collaborate with other creative clubs on campus. 

Outside of academia, Jessica is a very artsy person. She typically chooses to draw, paint, sew, or crochet; but she says she is always up for learning something new. A fun excuse to apply all of her crafts together is by cosplaying; which she describes as halloween costumes – but to the extreme. Jessica takes a favorite character from a TV show, movie, or comic and recreates them in the real world. She then shares her creation at conventions such as San Diego’s Comic Con. When asked about advice for work-life balance, Jessica says tracking your time is the most important step. She explained that often in research you can pour hours into your work and not have much to show for it. This can be demoralizing and the guilt of needing to produce more leaks into the rest of your life. Tracking your time gives you another quantity that you can measure. Jessica says this helps you realize that not having produced as much as you would have liked wasn’t because you didn’t put in the effort, but rather it’s because research is hard sometimes. Jessica urges that it’s okay to give yourself a break.


The Student Spotlights are a series brought to you by a collaboration between the UCI Physics and Astronomy Blog Team and the Physics Graduate Caucus at UCI