Adapting to Coronavirus Pandemic Creates New Opportunities

This photo shows the backs of 4-5 people's heads and a speaker, with a powerpoint slide that describes Nut Grafs.
In February, Center for Communicating Science advisory board member and digital editor for American Scientist Katie Burke helped ComSciCon-VA Tech 2020 participants think about their writing. Photo credit: Minh Duong

In everything we do, we aim to help people develop skills that help them to be more personal, direct, spontaneous, responsive, and emotionally expressive in their communication. We facilitate workshops and teach courses that are highly interactive and based on theatre improvisation exercises and serious games. We encourage community building and genuine connection.

And then a pandemic strikes, and we are told to avoid contact with others. Time to adapt!

For the Center for Communicating Science, spring semester was busy before spring break—and busy in new ways afterwards.

In January, February, and early March, we provided workshop experiences to undergraduate landscape architecture students, the Biochemistry Graduate Student Association, students in the Preparing the Future Professoriate course, and the Orion Living-Learning Community.

We also co-hosted the Fralin Life Science Seminar Series speaker Cassandra Quave, who traveled to campus from Emory University February 21 to speak on “Medicinal Plants as a Resource for Drug Discovery in the Post-Antibiotic Era” and to spend time with graduate students interested in communicating science. Committed to sharing her research with a broad audience, Quave has her own podcast, Foodie Pharmacology. Statistician and journalist Regina Nuzzo launched ComSciCon-VA Tech 2020 with her February 27 keynote address, and February 28 saw a full day of ComSciCon workshops and panel discussions.

Several workshops scheduled for later in the spring—after the university shifted to online instruction—were canceled or postponed. We’ll be facilitating an all-day workshop on effective communication for the Roanoke Higher Education Center next fall instead of this spring, and have similarly postponed a workshop for researchers in the Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area. Other events went online, including our co-sponsorship of a climate change workshop with Virginia Tech alum and co-director of Superhero Clubhouse Lanxing Fu.

In our Girls Launch! project, we provided three science visits to the kindergarten children of Eastern Elementary/Middle School in Giles County this spring before the school had to close in response to state orders. We’re working with ten graduate women this summer to make videos and design activities to be used in lieu of personal visits, should that be required in the future. You can read more about that elsewhere in this newsletter.

We were able to continue our collaboration with the English department’s science writing course, this year taught by Kelly Scarff, in which undergraduate writing students are paired with graduate researchers. The undergraduate students schedule and conduct interviews—this year by phone, Zoom, or email—and write feature stories to submit for publication on our center website Research stories page. This is a great way for graduate students to gain experience with media interviews and for undergraduate writing students to interview, write, revise, and submit science feature stories.

Science on Tap, a monthly community event that provides opportunities for researchers to share their work with a public audience, underwent some changes described in a VT News story. Human Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Ph.D. students Grace Davis and Stephanie Edwards Compton were our January Science on Tap speakers, with “Cancer: A Traveling Ecosystem” their topic. February’s Science on Tap event was the ComSciCon keynote presentation by Regina Nuzzo, “Connecting 21st-Century Information to Stone-Age Brains: Numbers, Uncertainty, Surprise, and More.

The chaos of March caused us to push our next Science on Tap event into early April, when we made available online an interview with Virginia Tech viral transmission researchers Linsey Marr and Kaisen Lin. The interview was also made available as a post on the American Scientist blog Macroscope,Optimal Conditions for Viral Transmission.” In May we met with our community in an online synchronous event. North Carolina State University’s Erin McKenney talked about wild sourdough starters and citizen science, and Virginia Tech food science and technology Ph.D. student Lester Schonberger explained the connections between supply chains and food pantries. Next up: A July 23 panel discussion with graduate students about their experiences with being Black in STEM fields. Please join us on Zoom!

Our collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Research also has shifted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Last summer, we developed and taught a series of communicating science workshops for 28 undergraduate students who were doing research with researchers at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. This summer center Faculty Fellow Daniel Bird Tobin is offering communicating science workshops online for summer undergraduate researchers. More than 250 students signed up to participate in the OUR’s summer programming, which includes weekly seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and more.

Other forays into online workshop facilitation have been made by center director Patty Raun, who provided an “Introduction to Distilling Your Message” workshop for researchers in the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity in the College of Medicine at Ohio State, and by associate director Carrie Kroehler, who is facilitating workshops for the graduate women participating in the kindergarten videos project.

Our work with the Cranwell International Center to provide a communicating science summer institute for German Fulbright students was cut short by the pandemic. After extensive planning and preparation here at Virginia Tech, the students who had been accepted into the program by the German-American Fulbright Commission were informed that the program was being postponed for a year. We’ll miss the three weeks of fun and excitement (and hard work!) that this program has provided for the past three years and look forward to resuming our collaboration next summer.

We’re learning from the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture about the power of online storytelling circles and experimenting and exploring the possibility of using such participatory events as part of online science communication and community building.

Stay tuned for invitations and announcements!

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