Sustainability Week Offers Fast-Paced “Lightning Talks”

An audience listens to a young man speak; behind him is a slide showing a nuber of people with binoculars raised to their faces and a title about wildlife recreationists and sustainability.
Bennett Grooms talks to a Sustainability Week audience about wildlife recreation. Photo credit: Lauren Holt

On September 18, students and community members gathered at the Alexander Black House for this year’s Lightning Talks, a collection of fun and fast-paced presentations focusing on a range of sustainability topics.  

Lightning Talks speakers each prepared a presentation aimed at sharing information with a general audience, but there was a twist: they were required to use exactly 20 slides, advancing automatically every 20 seconds.  

Three of this year’s speakers were Virginia Tech graduate students who had completed the graduate-level communicating science course and are involved with the Center for Communicating Science in other ways: Susan Chen, Bennett Grooms, and Vasiliy Lakoba.

Susan Chen, a Human Nutrition, Food, and Exercise PhD student, Nutshell Games winner, and Science on Tap emcee, gave a talk titled, “Fantastic food waste and where to find it.” Chen began by sharing a personal story about a recent experience cooking with Chinese eggplant.

“Chinese eggplant is my favorite food,” she said, “but this dish turned out disgusting and I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Chen described her struggle to decide whether to choke the dish down or throw it away: despite her aversion to wasting food, she ended up doing the latter, shrugging, “It happens.”

Chen shared that about 20% of the food supply in the United States is wasted, equating to about $218 billion every year. She joked, “Bill Gates is worth about 98 billion dollars, so that’s like wasting more than two Bill Gates!”

Reaching her last 20 seconds, Chen explained to the audience how they can address food waste in their own lives, listing advice such as meal planning, buying less at the grocery store, composting, and the most basic of advice, “Just eat your food!” However, Chen did stress that there are bigger systemic issues in place that create a large part of our food waste problems, one of the major issues being a lack of regulation in food expiration date labeling. 

“There are about 27 different food date terms in the United States, and most of them are confusing or misleading,” she said. This leads to people throwing out food that is still edible and of good quality. 

Later in the series of presentations, Bennett Grooms, a PhD student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, another Nutshell Games participant and member of the Center for Communicating Science’s advisory board, shared his talk, “How wildlife recreation can help sustainability.” 

Grooms described several approaches to incorporating wildlife recreation conservation methods into our daily lives, with various suggestions for lifestyle behaviors, educational outreach, and habitat improvement, among others. 

“With a show of hands,” Grooms addressed the audience, “who has a birdfeeder in their yard? Or a pollinator garden?” 

Many among the audience raised their hands.

Grooms continued, “Great! These are small things we can all do to physically help wildlife, while also promoting education about these practices.”

Grooms also encouraged current wildlife recreationalists – fisherman, birdwatchers, hikers, etc. – to “invite someone along” and “build a bridge with your community.”

Concluding the Lightning Talks, Vasiliy Lakoba, a PhD student in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences with research focusing on invasive plants, spoke on “Are you smarter than a dandelion? Sustainable approaches to invasive plant management.” Lakoba’s presentation focused on the role of invasive species in factors such as the spread of disease, habitat loss, and climate change. 

Lakoba provided the audience an important fact about dandelions: “They reproduce clonally, but they can change a lot through epigenetics.” Environmental factors and stimuli can cause modifications to the plant’s gene expression. This is what allows them to spread to so many different places. 

“Essentially, the dandelions are outwitting us,” Lakoba said. 

Lakoba explained that traditional invasive species management practices, such as mechanical removal and chemical treatment, are good, but that the best strategy is to “manage for the crops, rather than against the dandelions.”

As Lakoba reached the end of his talk, he emphasized to the audience that “strategizing and planning are what will make our sustainability efforts manageable.”

 Other speakers at this year’s event focused on topics ranging from the benefits of community supported agriculture (CSA), with Gwynn Hamilton from Stonecrop Farm sharing different CSA programs around Blacksburg, to the importance of supporting local businesses, with Sara Vogl explaining her role with NRV Homegrown, a local business directory. 

For more information about this year’s speakers, and to find out about other events hosted by Sustainable Blacksburg, you can visit their website or follow them on Facebook.

By Lauren Holt, Center for Communicating Science student intern




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