This image shows the ComSciCon Virginia Tech 2023 logo with those words plus "A Science Communication Conference for Grad Students"

After months of planning, organizing, and rallying participants, another educational ComSciCon-VirginiaTech 2023 has come to an end. Organized by graduate students for graduate students, this year’s communicating science conference consisted of three live virtual events via Zoom, with the Center for Communicating Science’s annual Nutshell Games event midweek. ComSciCon, which began on February 6, encouraged students across disciplines to communicate their work in a more efficient and engaging manner. The Zoom format allowed Virginia Tech’s ComSciCon to host students from outside Blacksburg, including participants from as far away as California and India. 

    A keynote address by Dr. Cana Itchuaqiyaq kicked off the week’s events and is covered in a separate story. Here we’d like to share with our readers the information provided by workshop leaders.

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Deborah Carr, D.V.M., M.P.H., M.F.A. discussed how to tell your research in a story format at the February 7 workshop.

    “Once upon a time: Turning science into stories”

    The February 7 workshop focused on taking a storytelling approach for communicating scientific research. Story elements, including theme, characters, and other components typical in fiction writing, provide a creative way for scientists to engage an audience and make their material interesting. 

    The workshop was led by Deborah Carr, an experienced veterinarian, communicator, and writer. Carr holds a D.V.M. from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in addition to a Master’s in Public Health and an M.F.A. in creative writing. Her expertise lies in infectious disease communication, promoting understanding so that senior decision makers are able to make more informed choices to keep the public safe. Carr has written both fiction and nonfiction, and her writing can be found in various journals online. 

    A story approach allows researchers to help the audience see why they should care, as well as giving scientists the ability to provide an easy-to-understand outline of their work, Carr said.

    A story arc, otherwise known as a timeline, is a visual representation of how a story progresses. According to Carr, there are 11 elements to a story:

  1. Plot – events that occur in a story
  2. Protagonist – main character
  3. Antagonist – person or thing that opposes the main character
  4. Characters
  5. Motivation of the characters
  6. Inciting incident
  7. Pursuit of goal and obstacles to achieve goal
  8. Twists/complications
  9. Climax
  10. Conclusion
  11. Theme

    A nonfiction piece, which must include factual information, is not inherently boring, Carr told participants. The writer (or presenter) has freedom in constructing the research story they want to tell. The perspective can be changed to that of an animal or inanimate object. As long as the presenter’s choices do not confuse the audience, the presenter can craft a story about their topic of choice in a variety of ways.

    Two other considerations for a story, Carr said, are the medium and genre. The medium, she said, is how one tells a story — a short story, a screenplay, a dramatic monologue, a poem. Genre, on the other hand, is the category the story falls into and includes romance, thriller, fantasy, and horror. 

    After presenting this information, Carr engaged with the virtual audience to create examples for communicating their research. One such case included using a bacterium as a protagonist and the environment as an antagonist. Topics from the audience included batteries and battery recycling; forest plants affected by climate change; bird behavior and bird color; and house finches and disease spread. Other resources, also provided by Carr, provide more information about building a story.



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Viverijita Umashankar, who earned her M.S. in Engineering Mechanics from Virginia Tech, was a winner of the 2022 Nutshell Games.

    “Pop talks workshop with former Nutshell Games winners”

    The February 9 “pop talks” workshop included interviews of three 2022 Nutshell Games winners: Viverjita Umashankar, Jennifer Appiah-Kubi, and Jatia Mills. The president of the Virginia Tech student Communicating Science Club, Sara Teemer Richards, led the discussion, asking the interviewees questions about their experiences with the Nutshell Games and other science communication.

    Each participant had a different approach to communication going into the Nutshell Games. Mills expressed a desire to talk about traumatic brain injuries and the brain without being too graphic, a crucial part of the family-friendly event. Appiah-Kubi, who felt that her knowledge was focused on a very specific area, wanted to broaden the audience’s understanding of the research to ensure they could relate to and care about her topic. Umashankar agreed, explaining that the emphasis on why the research matters was one of the most important components of her talk. 

    How can researchers keep an audience interested in their topic, especially something as complicated as engineering, neuroscience, or sustainability? All three winners believe the connection between a speaker and the audience is vital. Making your talk relatable bridges those gaps in expertise, helping the subject seem less like scientific gibberish and more like a conversation. Adding personal meaning, as well as keeping the talks accessible, builds a sense of trust between the speaker and audience members, they said. Let them know why your research matters – to you as well as them.

    Future Nutshell Games participants should be aware that different public speaking tactics work for different people. A script can be helpful, said Appiah-Kubi, especially when it comes to preventing filler words such as “um,” “like,” and “so.” Others, like Mills, prefer to focus on the general flow and overall outline of content rather than specific words. 

A young Black woman with shoulder-length hair is set against a gray brick background. She wears a blue and white patterned dress below a white lab coat with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine logo on the left breast.
Jatia Mills, Ph.D. Student in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, was one of three previous Nutshell Games winners who spoke to her experience during a February 9 ComSciCon workshop.

    “For me, the biggest challenge was time,” Umashankar said, recalling the need to stay focused during the 90-second time period given for the talks. “I had to stay with only the most essential content.”

    For Umashankar, the challenge of connecting ideas while also condensing information was necessary tactical experience. The concept of storytelling, already made difficult by the scientific nature of the talk, was further stressed by the short time given to speak. 

    Appiah-Kubi spoke of her gratitude for the experience, saying it allowed her to make her language more concise. For her, the experience of giving an overall picture that then narrows into more specific information is valuable in her current position. 

    Mills also believes her participation in the Nutshell Games helped her become more comfortable with public speaking. Additionally, she learned how to put her personality into her work, which she felt helped lead to her victory last year. 

    The latter part of the workshop was spent engaging with the workshop participants. Using a story spine worksheet as a guide, individuals were encouraged to share about their research as if they were participating in the Nutshell Games. The winners provided critique and encouragement, using their own perspectives and experience to offer guidance. 

    Umashankar graduated from Virginia Tech in 2020 with an M.S. in Engineering Mechanics. She received her undergraduate degree in Tech Aerospace Engineering from the Amrita School of Engineering in 2014. Umashankar now holds a sustainability consultant position at Edge Environment while working toward her M.S. in Sustainable Biomaterials.

A young Black woman with long hair tied back into a ponytail, set in front of a field with trees background. She is smiling and wears a dark blue blouse with white polka dots.
Jennifer Appiah-Kubi, who earned her M.S. and Ph.D. In electrical engineering, gave helpful presentation tips for aspiring Nutshell Games participants.

    With an M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech, Appiah-Kubi now works as a cybersecurity research engineer with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. She received a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana in 2016. 

    Mills is pursuing her Ph.D. in Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine focusing on neuroimmunology. Mills graduated with her Bachelor’s in Biology from Morgan State University and came to Virginia Tech after completing a post-baccalaureate research program concerning nurse shark immunology at the University of Maryland.

    Organizers of this year’s ComSciCon-Virginia Tech included Ph.D. candidates Sara Teemer Richards, Emma Bueren, and Mychala Snead. The event was sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science, the Communicating Science Club, Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment.

    We would like to offer a huge thanks to all of our speakers and to the organizers and supporters of this year’s ComSciCon! 

By Quinn Richards, Center for Communicating Science graduate assistant