An afternoon at TEDx and why we do outreach


TED conferences focus on Technology, Education, and Design. TED is a global nonprofit centered on Ideas Worth Spreading and TED talks are wildly popular all over the interwebs. A TEDx is an independently organized TED event. On Thursday, November 20 2014 was the third TEDx event held at Virginia Tech. Our group has been excited about the TEDx initiative at Virginia Tech and we have been participating in it since inception: In the first TEDx, our director Peter Vikesland gave a talk about how Nanotechnology Will Revolutionize Water Supply Sustainability , at the second TEDx, we held a booth at the TEDxLab and this year we did it again.



We had the great opportunity to do, once more, something that is so hard to do in academia. We got up from our desks, we turned away from the lab bench and – wince – left our experiments unattended, just for a little bit. And we found an hour or two to talk to other people about our research. Yes, of course the guilt was present. Leaving the lab is hard. We work long hours in the pursuit of a PhD, so taking a couple of hours to do a different kind of work, one that doesn’t give the same type of return is difficult to do. Outreach unfortunately is still not widely seen as a productive use of our time, although we hope to change this perception!

Hopefully all the students felt the same satisfaction I did today. Although the TEDxLabs did not get a record high attendance,  the interactions we had were meaningful and our booth was very well received. We had hands-on experiments demonstrating ferrofluids and moving a dollar bill with a magnet (did you know you can do that?), surface area with nails and iron filings, and crashing gold nanoparticles out of suspension on the spot with kitchen salt. We also had some nano-enhanced consumer products and an iPad with cool images of nanoparticles and the Lycurgus Cup.



I had the fun experience to teach nanoscience and nanotechnology during 10 minutes to a group of about a dozen 7- to 10-year-olds from a local school. They were very engaged and interested in all the experiments. Every time I asked a question, like “Have you even heard about nanotechnology?”, at least half the group would promptly shoot their hands up.




We also spoke to many grown-ups, from whom we got very positive feedback. Some of our visitors were undergraduate and graduate students at Virginia Tech, but many were professionals from broad backgrounds outside academia, who had come to town for TEDx. During our exchanges, we heard things like “It’s nice to see that there’s someone working on the environmental side of nanotechnology” or “Thank you for coming out and explaining these concepts!”. Overall, it was a very rewarding experience.



This year’s theme was Illuminate. We hope we were able to shed some light into the subject of nanotechnology for our visitors. We sure gained a lot by leaving our beloved lab for a few hours and bringing the work we do out to the public for their education, for their scrutiny,  for our own enlightenment.

For more on our outreach activities, see more blog posts here and the outreach section of our website here.


About the Author:  Marina Vance is the Associate Director for VTSuN: Virginia Tech’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and a research scientist of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) at Virginia Tech.

Leave a Comment