Communication takes many forms — and during a pandemic, there are both communication challenges that need to be addressed and communication opportunities that need to be bolstered. The Nutshell Games is one communication opportunity that is shining bright through these socially distanced times.

Every year, the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech hosts a graduate student presentation competition at the conclusion of the Virginia Tech Science Festival, where 30 graduate students get to flex their communicative muscles and present their research in ninety seconds, or a “nutshell,” to a public audience.

In response to the pandemic, this year’s competition will be moving to a first-ever virtual format. Instead of presenting live and in front of a studio audience at Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center, researchers have submitted video recordings of their thought-provoking presentations for judging. The fifth annual Nutshell Games will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 7, at the center’s YouTube channel.

Viewers can tune in at 4 p.m. to watch a welcome video to introduce the event and its  judges. The twenty nine presentation videos will be unveiled at 4:30 p.m., with a 6 p.m. announcement of this year’s three winners. Audience members will have an opportunity to leave their congratulations and comments for individual speakers. Event organizers will also be making a special surprise announcement at the 6 p.m. announcement of the winners.

The Nutshell Games is open to graduate students from every college at Virginia Tech. Registration for the event opened in late September, and the competition entries were accepted on a first come first serve basis, with the first thirty students earning spots on the program.

Because they’re not presenting on the Moss Arts stage this year, the contestants have been granted a bit more freedom to share their work. Competition rules allowed them to have one prop in their hands and to do the recording in whatever environment they chose. 

Other advantages come with an online format.

“I am looking forward to audiences from around the world having access to our wonderful graduate students,” said Patty Raun, the director of the Center for Communicating Science and a professor in the School of Performing Arts. “One of the refreshing benefits of doing this online is the ability of friends, family, and colleagues from around the world to participate in the Nutshell Games.”

Since 2017, the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech has been helping graduate students and researchers to build connections with diverse audiences and disseminate their research through public speaking, social media, and writing. The ultimate goal of the Center is to bridge the divisions between people of all races, cultures, and academic disciplines to create a more empathetic, understanding world.

“Science communication, especially science communication that builds trust and opens dialogue, seems especially important now as we watch the tragedy of the pandemic unroll in front of us,” said Carrie Kroehler, the associate director for the Center for Communicating Science and an instructor of a graduate-level course called Communicating Science.

The three winners of the competition will be determined ahead of November 7 by a panel of judges, who will select the contestants whose presentations are the most engaging and who communicate their research the most clearly.

With an emphasis on communicating to non-scientists, the Nutshell Games will be judged by a diverse panel of people from Virginia Tech, the surrounding Blacksburg community, and beyond. This year’s judges for the Nutshell Games include:

  • Michael Sutphin, vice mayor of Blacksburg and a Virginia Tech graduate in communication.
  • Karen DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate education at Virginia Tech.
  • Patricia Gaudreau, administrator of the science curriculum at Montgomery County Public Schools.
  • Xavier Gitre, a Blacksburg Middle School seventh grader.
  • Anna Drangowska-Way, Ph.D. candidate and Jefferson Fellow, O’Rourke Laboratory, University of Virginia.
  • Adam Rotche, high school science teacher at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia.
  • Nicholas St. Fleur, a science writer from The New York Times, a regular contributor to the science desk’s Trilobites column, and a champion of citizen science, K–12 STEM education, and diversity in science.

“Communication has always been important, especially for universities to share the results of our research and scholarly efforts with society. It is our responsibility as researchers to communicate clearly and accurately, especially today in a world filled with mis-information,” said Karen Depauw, the Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education at Virginia Tech and a Nutshell Games judge.

The Nutshell Games is just one example of the events and workshops that the Center for Communicating Science hosts. To help even more scientists, scholars, health professionals, and others to discover new ways to develop their science communication skills, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is now partnering with the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, which provides financial and administrative support, as well as space, for the Center for Communicating Science. 

“I am delighted that the Fralin Life Sciences Institute has joined us as a supporting partner of the Center,” said Karen Roberto, executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment.

“Having the backing of two of the University’s research investment institutes will help the Center expand upon and move forward several initiatives to help faculty and students learn new ways of communicating their scientific interests and expertise across diverse disciplines and audiences. The importance of scientists being able to listen deeply, interact personally, directly, spontaneously, and responsively, and engage audiences has never been more crucial,” said Roberto.

This year’s contestants, who represent six of Virginia Tech’s colleges as well as its translational biology, medicine, and health graduate program, include:

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

  • Kayla Alward: “Too Much Sunlight, More than Just a Sunburn for Cows” (Dairy Science).
  • Katlyn Catron: “Soldier Beetles: Better Than TV?” (Entomology).
  • Keren Duerksen: “Soybeans Reminiscing About the Good Ol’ Days” (Crop and Soil Science).
  • Alexis Hruby: “Makin’ Moves to Lower Nitrogen Emissions” (Dairy Science).
  • Mika Pagani: “Fungus Among Us: A Worm’s Worst Enemy” (Entomology).

College of Science

  • Mohammad Mahdi Banasaz: “Probabilistic Reduction Application for Volatility Modeling” (Econometrics and Quantitative Economics).
  • Muchin Bazan: “Women in STEM: The Role of Role Models” (Economics.)
  • Max Garvue: “Feeling Stressed? The Earth Is, Too: Understanding Earthquakes and the Evolution of Geologic Faults” (Geosciences).
  • Bailey Howell: “Survival in the City” (Biological Sciences).
  • Abby Lewis: “Freshwater Forecasting: A Crystal Ball for Crystal Clear Water” (Biological Sciences).
  • David Millican: “The Woodpecker Hotel” (Biological Sciences).
  • Tanya Mitropoulos: “What A Day. I Just Want to Go Home And Crash” (Psychology).
  • Sara Richards: “Five Fateful Seconds” (Biological Sciences).
  • Amber Wendler: “Some Birds Need Babysitters Too!” (Biological Sciences).

Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

College of Engineering

  • Nicholas Britten: “Is My Car Driving Itself? Understanding Drivers’ Use of Modern Vehicle Technology” (Industrial and Systems Engineering).
  • Hussein El Hajj: “Robust and Equitable Public Health Screening Strategies with Application to Genetic Diseases and Infectious Diseases” (Industrial and Systems Engineering).
  • Brianna Friedman: “Drones: The Latest Disaster Preventers” (Mechanical Engineering).
  • Wendell Grinton: “Improving Human Behavior Through Optimizing Energy Feedback Messages” (Civil and Environmental Engineering).
  • Joseph James: “What Are Your Current Utility Bills Not Telling You?” (Civil Engineering).
  • Zerin Mahzabin Khan: “A Fatal Attraction: Developing a Hydrogel Platform to Capture and Kill Glioblastoma Brain Cancer Cells” (Biomedical Engineering).
  • Emily Kieffer: “Sex-Specific Differences in Concussion Tolerance” (Biomedical Engineering).
  • Kavan Shah: “Multifunctional Composites: Intelligent Materials for Next-Generation Vehicle Structures” (Mechanical Engineering).
  • Maymoonah Toubeh: “Robots in the Wild” (Computer Engineering).
  • Paige West: “Spotlighting Learning Analytics in Online Engineering Education” (Civil Engineering).

Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program

  • Udaya Sree Datla: “The Pursuit of Happiness During the Pandemic: End to the Horror Story of Our Body’s Hyper-activated Immune System.”
  • Lauren Fritsch: “The ‘STING’ of Traumatic Brain Injury: When Our Immune System Gets It Wrong.”

College of Natural Resources and Environment

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Written by Kendall Daniels