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Music, humor reign at Nebraska’s latest science slam
“She’s a super teach! Super teach! Super teacher… Yyyeeeooowwwww!”
In belting out a parody of “Super Freak” that would make “Weird Al” Yankovic proud, Crystal Uminski recently put on a show that earned her cheers, a $1,000 prize and a place atop the latest science slam from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Held Aug. 18, the virtual, livestreamed event continued Nebraska’s legacy as the first U.S. university to embrace the science slam: a sibling of the poetry slam whose performers compete to communicate their science with as much verve, style and wit as they can muster.
Uminski more than passed muster with her musical tribute to the late Rick James and the event’s prompt, “Tell us about a time during your research when you discovered you were wrong.” Inspired by a panel from Nathan Pyle’s comic series “Strange Planet,” the prompt prompted the slammers to consider what knowledge their wrongness imparted, how it helped them grow, and how the scientific process benefits from it.
“The great scientists, I think, totally embrace and love being proven wrong,” said Jocelyn Bosley, the event’s organizer, co-host and the research impact coordinator with Nebraska’s Office of Research and Economic Development. “Something I love about all the talks … is (that) you’re really getting a sense of the emotional journey that is science.
“This is what science is. This is not just (about) being objective and in the lab. Science is the whole experience. It’s a rollercoaster ride, but it’s an awesome one.”
Unbeknownst to her, Uminski purchased a ticket to that ride the moment she stepped to the head of a high school classroom, taking on the challenge of teaching biology and Earth science after assembling a college transcript littered with A’s.
“I was convinced I was going to be a great teacher,” said Uminski, now a three-time science slam veteran, first-time winner and doctoral student in biological sciences at Nebraska. “But then I actually started teaching — and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
“I’d get to these moments where I was just overstressed, overworked, underpaid and just, like, frantic. And I would make not-so-great education choices. I ended up relying too much on lecturing and memorizing facts about science. And unsurprisingly, nobody was having a real great time in my class, myself included. I would be halfway through this lecture, and half my class was half-asleep.”
So Uminski started approaching her instruction like a scientist would a research question. She made observations: Were her students awake? Were they engaged? She collected data in the form of homework questions, quizzes and tests, then analyzed it to evaluate various teaching methods.
“Once I started thinking about education as kind of like a science process, I was hooked,” Uminski told the audience, explaining why she decided to study STEM-based education at Nebraska. “But it took a lot of failures for me to get to that point, and those failures really helped to inform the work that I do now.”
Then came the song, an a cappella tour de force that helped Uminski earn 36% of the 160-plus audience votes and lent credence to the adage of third-time-as-charm.
Six other slammers, ranging from undergrads to grad students to faculty, also joined the fray. Some were Huskers, performing from the local confines of Lincoln. Others took part from elsewhere in the United States or, in the case of Puerto Rico’s Yarelis Acevedo and Brazil’s Leonardo Parreira, even abroad.
If Uminski’s musical stylings propelled her to victory, it was a visual gag from Parreira that earned him second place — and the largest laugh of the night. But Parreira embedded humor right from the outset, introducing himself with an absurdist bit worthy of “Catch-22.”
“As I don’t speak a word of English,” he began, “my life colleague and good friend George wrote all the things in English for your better understanding. So I’ll read it to you guys.
“‘Hi, everyone. This is George. Everything that this idiot Leonardo is saying, I wrote it.’”
George/Leonardo proceeded to shuffle a deck of cards, each featuring a potential side effect of a chemotherapy drug. He showed one to the camera — “Erectile Dysfunction” — told the audience to memorize it, then, like any magician worth a wand, made it disappear. That magic, the Brazilian would explain, came from the Brazil nut. While studying potential counters to the side effects in rats, Parreira fed the rats one Brazil nut a day in hopes of finding evidence that it could combat their erectile dysfunction. Two years later? Nada.
“In science, we learn that all results are a result — even the bad ones,” George/Leonardo said. “So Leonardo decided to increase the amount of Brazil nut offered to the rats. We know that Brazil nuts act directly in the testicles,” he said, eating a Brazil nut, “increase testosterone levels,” he continued, eating another, “the sperm production,” another, “and probably the libido.”
As if by magic, Parreira’s gray necktie began rising from his white dress shirt, elevating to a 120-degree angle as his eyes darted sheepishly to the right. George/Leonardo eventually got his bearings, dragging the tie back down to his shirt before explaining that, yes, multiple Brazil nuts a day finally did the trick.
Wini Waters, meanwhile, told a story that played as a converse to Uminski’s: She enrolled as a doctoral student at Nebraska expecting to embark on a career in research. Only later would she reject the hypothesis that she wanted to join academia, which she ultimately left to teach high school chemistry in Chicago.
Each of the seven performances epitomized what Husker slammer Ashley Foltz described as “how to be successful at failing,” whether by mistaking a standard electric current for a technological triumph or while struggling for a year to extract DNA from the bacteria in roundworms.
“It’s not just the results; it’s the process,” Bosley said of science. “It’s not about the answers; it’s about the questions. Being wrong raises a lot more questions, sometimes, than being right. And questions are what drive progress in science.”