Are cows afraid of the dark? Are bees OK with weedkiller? Do mothers really know best?

These are only a few of the research topics that will be explained as 30 Virginia Tech graduate students compete for $500 in professional development funding in this year’s Nutshell Games. 

For the seventh year, the  annual event will task students with presenting their research projects using everyday language and a prop in just 90 seconds. A panel of seven judges from the university and surrounding community will evaluate their presentations and award five winners. All participants receive a participation certificate and professional-quality video recording of their talk.  

This year’s Nutshell Games will take place Feb. 8 at 5:30 p.m. at the Moss Arts Center. Admission is open to the public and free.

The Nutshell Games are one of the signature events of the Center for  Communicating Science. In its sixth year, the center provides experiential learning opportunities for researchers to communicate their work in clear, concise, everyday language to audiences outside their specialties. Patty Raun, director of the center, uses the tools of the theatre to help participants discover ways to connect authentically with their audiences. 

“My goal for all of the work of the center is to cultivate empathy, broaden perspectives, and strengthen collaboration to bridge the divides that keep us from understanding one another,” Raun said.

Raun and Carrie Kroehler, associate director of the center, teach graduate courses and facilitate workshops throughout the year to help professionals learn to listen deeply, interact personally and responsively, and express themselves vividly. 

This year’s Nutshell Games are also a part of ComSciCon-Virginia Tech 2023 from Feb. 6-9. A virtual science communication conference for graduate students, ComSciCon is open to all faculty, students, and community members and includes workshops and a keynote speaker. 

"ComSciCon is organized by graduate students for graduate students and others," said Kroehler. "We thought it would be meaningful to highlight the research and communication skills of Virginia Tech's graduate students by scheduling the Nutshell Games to coincide with other ComSciCon-Virginia Tech 2023 events."

Photo of Nutshell Games 2022 participants
Nutshell Games 2022 participants at the Moss Arts Center. The winner were (from left) Prashasti Agarwal, Viverjita Umashankar, Jatia Mills, Ruixuan Wang, and Jennifer Appiah-Kubi. Photo Courtesy of Carrie Kroehler.

This year’s panel of judges are the following university and community members:

Photo of winners of the 2018 Nutshell Games
Winners of the 2018 Nutshell Games with Carrie Kroehler, far left, and Patty Raun, far right. Photo courtesy of Carrie Kroehler.

The graduate student presenters are the following:

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

  • Kayla Alward, dairy science, “Keep your cows in the dark: how darkness affects cows”

  • Erica Howes, human nutrition, foods, and exercise, “You are what you eat: how weight stigma affects how we talk about food in research”

  • Laura McHenry, entomology, “Bees can’t handle their weed(killer)”

  • Julia Montgomery, biochemistry, “Using a computer to simulate membranes and membrane proteins”


College of Engineering

  • Eileen Herbers, biomedical engineering and mechanics, “Measuring the safety of automated driving systems: how safe is safe enough?”

  • Naga Nitish Chamala, aerospace engineering, “The problems of flowing water”

  • Raj Sahu, computer science, “Running critical softwares without getting hijacked”

  • Benedict Isaac, electrical engineering, “Applications of 5G and indoor positioning”

  • Nure Tasnina, computer science, “Find drug combinations to fight cancer”

  • Bala Priya Shanmugam, engineering mechanics, “Meshfree magnetics”

  • Pratiksha Dhakal, structural engineering, “Innovative FRP retrofit for deficient concrete diaphragms”

  • Chandan Sinha, mechanical engineering, “Robot mechanic in space”

  • Sanjay Vasanth, aerospace and ocean engineering, “Exploring the connection between fluid flow, surface roughness, and cavitation”


College of Liberal Arts and Life Sciences

  • Emily Burns, higher education, “Meeting disabled college students’ access needs”


College of Natural Resources and Environment

  • Holly Funkhouser, fish and wildlife conservation, “Raising hell(benders): a quest to understand the mysterious disappearance of a giant salamander species”

  • Sharon Dorsey, fish and wildlife conservation, “Keep your head on a swivel: importance of view to see predators in plover nest site selection”

  • Poulomi Dey, forest resources and environmental conservation, “Carbon sequestration: what affects the path and fate of stable soil organic matter formation?”


College of Science

  • Christopher Huynh, industrial/organizational psychology, “What’s your story? Measuring personality by hearing people’s stories”

  • Mohammad Khorrami, geosciences, “CO2 capture and storage impact on our environment”

  • Evangelos Piliouras, physics, “Quantum cartoons and where to find them”

  • Emily Ellis, geosciences, “Observing river temperatures from space”

  • Christina McCutchin, chemistry, “Silica-macromolecule interactions: toward a Rosetta Stone for biosilicification”

  • Tristan Anderson, physics, “Quantum interferometry”

  • Jennifer R. Bertollo, clinical psychology, “On the road again: mobile autism assessment in Southwest Virginia”

  • Jennifer Phillips, developmental science, “Mother knows best? Maternal influences on early childhood emotion regulation”


College of Veterinary Medicine

  • Zuleka Woods, public health, “Oh baby! A community-based doula intervention for black birthing people”

  • Juselyn Tupik, biomedical and veterinary sciences, “Body vs. bacteria: how our immune system battles Lyme Disease”

  • Abdullahi Jamiu, biomedical sciences and pathobiology, “Designing therapeutics to tame viruses”


Interdisciplinary Studies

The Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, The Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Communicating Science Club are also sponsors of the Nutshell Games and of ComSciCon-Virginia Tech 2023.

Written by Felicia Spencer