As Reiss Gidner was nearing the end of her volunteer shift at the Virginia Tech Copenhaver Sheep Center and getting ready to walk across campus to her theatre history class, she noticed something unusual in the farm’s field. A ewe was about to give birth.

Gidner, a double major in animal and poultry sciences and theatre, knew she could not miss this moment. She alerted her professor about why she would be late. Forty-five minutes later, when she walked into the classroom, she found a receptive audience for the recounting of her adventure. Unsurprised, she said this response is one reason she enjoys being a Hokie. 

“The connections I’ve made with those in theatre,” she said, “make me feel like I can reach out to anyone — any of my professors or any of my classmates — and we’re all going to be there for each other. It’s like having a little community within the bigger community.”

Gidner, recently named the 2020 Outstanding Senior of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, has spent four years balancing two completely distinctive majors. 

“I have a mix of classes,” she said, “where for half my day, I’m on my feet, doing theatre work, and then I go across campus, where I sit taking notes about biology. So the two are very different.”

But different is what helped her decide to pursue a double major at Virginia Tech in the first place. She applied to 13 schools — some were arts conservatories; others offered pure science curriculums. But at Virginia Tech, she could delve into her two interests.

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During a campus tour, she was able to hold a lamb, and from that moment she knew this was the university for her. But her father also thought they should visit the theatre program before committing to one path. 

“We met Greg Justice, who sat down with me and took nearly an hour of his day to just talk about the program,” she said. “And he mentioned he had other students who did both animal science and theatre. After that meeting, I thought, well, I have to do that. As long as I don’t have to choose, I’m not going to.”

This decision ultimately led to her interest in integrating the two disciplines. For Gidner’s animal science capstone project, she focused on helping scientists enhance their communication skills. After working with Patricia Raun, a theatre professor and director of the Center for Communicating Science, Gidner created a workshop for an animal and poultry sciences research symposium. 

“Reiss can see the full picture because she works hard to understand things from many angles,” Raun said. “She sees what the arts can bring to science and what science can bring to the arts. We talk about educating the whole person at Virginia Tech, and the project that Reiss did was a result of that kind of education. She explored the intersections of her areas of expertise. She’s a real polymath, and her breadth allows her to innovate by making connections.”

As co-president of the campus improvisational theatre troupe, Deep Fried Improv, Gidner found it was a natural fit for her to use those skills as the basis of her workshop.

And that’s when she found herself speaking gibberish.

“I discovered that once we got to the exercise that was the silliest, which was where they had to sell a product using gibberish, everyone just opened up so much more,” she said. “By the time we got to the end, they were onstage just talking to us. It was cool to see how just an hour and a half of working with a group can help someone connect with an audience.” 

Gidner expanded upon her research and experience by incorporating communicating science into a term paper on how veterinary schools and animal outreach programs can use theatre training when interacting with clients or the public.

“Reiss exemplifies Virginia Tech’s commitment to breaking down displinary silos and to enabling exceptional students like her to combine ambitious and creative courses of study,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “She excels in making sure her work in the sciences serves humanity through the arts.”

After Gidner finishes both degrees — she will graduate with a degree in theatre in May and finish her other degree in December 2020 — she plans to attend veterinary school. She also plans to continue her efforts to use theatre to help other scientists communicate more effectively.

Gidner believes that these intersecting interests helped her land a potential summer dream job. During previous summers, she was able to participate in study abroad experiences in Thailand and Ecuador. If the COVID-19 pandemic does not cause this summer’s program to be cancelled, she will return to Thailand as summer support staff.

“During my interview application I talked about my capstone project and how I could bring communication and fun theatre activities to the students,” she said. “I think that was one reason they picked me for the job.”

Gidner is an advocate for incorporating the liberal arts into science-based curriculums. From her theatre classes to roles on stage such as Darleen in the School of Performing Arts’ production of “Balm in Gilead,” which Gidner describes as an emotional rollercoaster of a part, she has gained a profound sense of empathy for others. She said this is an important attribute that all scientists — especially those in health care — should cultivate.

“Studies have shown that having more empathy or making more empathetic statements toward patients improves their health, their care, and their satisfaction with their care,” she said. “So being able to sense how other people react to you, understanding how you can help someone, and knowing how you can reach out to someone are all incredibly important. If we all just stay in our own bubbles all the time, we can’t make the connections we need to make things happen.” 

Written by Leslie King