Humanizing Graduate Student Research: Center Hosts New StoryMaps Project

This image shows a portion of a map, a photo, and a story title.

Have you ever wondered about the communities whose stories inspire the research done here at Virginia Tech?

Two Virginia Tech graduate students, Susan Chen and Maddy Grupper, did—and decided to start a project that would bring both communities and researchers into sharper focus.

“Food, Water, & Communities: An Atlas of StoryMaps” tells the stories of some of the communities at the center of Virginia Tech research. Supported by the Center for Communicating Science and linked to the center’s Research Stories page, “Food, Water, & Communities: An Atlas of StoryMaps” resides on the ArcGIS StoryMaps website.  At the site, readers will find stories about these communities along with a map of the locations of each story. With more to come as the project progresses, the website currently hosts 12 stories based on the communities that inspire that research.

“We are so pleased to add the StoryMaps project to our Research Stories page,” commented center director Patty Raun. “It fits perfectly with our mission to provide opportunities for researchers to build their communication muscles and with our belief that storytelling is at the heart of effective science communication.”

Grupper, now a research fellow working with the office of research and development at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Chen, now an assistant professor at San Jose State University, created this project through a conversation about how to further science communication work at Virginia Tech.

The project is open to graduate student writers, who may receive a stipend for their work. contact Grupper at if you’d like to write a story for the site or think your research should be featured there.

Amelia Gay, student intern with the Center for Communication Science, had the opportunity to talk with Maddy Grupper about the project. Read on for that interview:

Amelia Gay: Could you start by briefly explaining your Story Maps project and what inspired you to create it?

Maddy Grupper: Something that had always bothered me is how the things that inspire us to do our research, like the stories and the causes, are always sort of afterthoughts or hooks for the science itself. Science is always an ivory tower, a set-apart thing, but a lot of scientists are inspired by the communities that they work for and by the causes that they care about. So Susan and I decided to create something that could help grad students by giving them a way to write about their work, an outlet for science communication—some experience with at least one form of scientific communication—and simultaneously serve as a way to humanize these problems that we work on, the communities we work in, and the researchers themselves. That was the ultimate goal: to take this work that seems sort of technical, and instead shift the focus to the things that are closest to our hearts.

Amelia Gay: So what is “Food, Water, & Communities: An Atlas of Our StoryMaps”?

Maddy Grupper: It’s an ArcGIS StoryMaps-based blog where graduate students can share stories about the communities that inspired their research or communities that inspired them to pursue that track in research. ArcGIS is a major mapping software that came out with a platform, called StoryMaps, to allow writers to tell stories in a dynamic visual format, moving from place to place and image to image on a map of the story’s location as it progresses.

Because Susan studies food science and I study water science, we decided that we would, at least at first, focus the stories around communities that had somehow had their food or water resources changed by climate change or other human influence. By making it an ArcGIS story map format, we are able to demonstrate on a map that each of these stories is from a different place around the world and that the same factors are impacting these communities.

Amelia Gay: Why do you think it is important to share the stories specific to these communities?

Maddy Grupper: I think that oftentimes when you’re talking about any individual issue, even issues that relate to climate change or other global issues, it’s easy to feel like your issue is isolated to your community. So Susan and I wanted to come up with a format to show how prevalent these issues are and that causes can be really similar. I also think that oftentimes researchers can come across as kind of “savior-y.” I wanted to center the community itself and show how to empower them within these research stories. There were many layers to why we chose the formula that we chose, but a lot of it was feeling like our focus is off when we talk about research if we don’t empower communities.

Amelia Gay: How did the project get started?

Maddy Grupper: Susan and I were originally going to do it for a Diversity Scholar project (through the Virginia Tech graduate school), but the diversity scholarship program got canceled because of COVID. We had already begun interviewing people and writing stories, so we were left with this really cool product, but not anywhere to house it. So we pitched it to Carrie [Kroehler] and Patty [Raun] at the Center for Communicating Science and they were like, how could we help improve it? And we said it would be amazing if we could pay our graduate student writers because that way they could leave not only with a product, i.e., a science communication publication, but with paid work, which helps you on your resume. And they’re hosting it on the center’s website.

Amelia Gay: How does the process of getting other students published on that website work?

Maddy Grupper: At first we either interviewed researchers and wrote stories about them or offered them the opportunity to write a story on their own. Now, through partnering with the Center for Communicating Science, part of our mission statement changed from just sharing these stories to helping grad students learn how to write stories and get a product out of that. So now we only have people write stories who are interested in writing their own story, and the project is specifically centered on graduate students.

Amelia Gay: Do you have any future plans for the project or people you want stories from to fill up the map?

Maddy Grupper: The fuller the map could be, I think the better! We certainly got enough interest to put more stories on than we had writer slots available, which was really encouraging. The ideal would be to keep it going and be able to expand it to something that’s bigger than food and water stories or something that’s potentially bigger than Virginia Tech. Right now we’re expanding the project into a mentoring program and bringing Alaina Weinheimer on board as a new editor so that she can carry the work forward. It’s really exciting to have found a way to keep the project going!

By RJ Loyd and Amelia Gay, Center for Communicating Science student interns

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