World-class research can provide plenty to chew on, so researchers like Matt Camden know the importance of presenting it in a digestible fashion.

“One thing that’s really important in science and research is knowing how to communicate your results to the general public,” said Camden, senior research associate with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “One of the keys is putting our research into bite-size pieces to get people interested and make that impact.”

Camden is one of 16 Virginia Tech faculty spanning six colleges, as well as a research institute and University Libraries, who will attempt to present research in such a fashion during the first Faculty Nutshell Talks at the Moss Arts Center on Sept. 7 at 5:30 p.m. Modeled after the graduate student-focused Nutshell Games, researchers will have 90 seconds and be limited to one prop in sharing their work with the public and a panel of judges.

“Folks who come out and join us are going to learn some really interesting things about these researchers and the work they’re doing,” said Patty Raun, director of the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech. “And the stories they’re going to hear are incredibly engaging for everyone from 10 to 110 years old.”

The pilot project will be presented by the Center for Communicating Science with the support of the Virginia Tech Office of Research and Innovation and Faculty Affairs.

Also a professor of performance and voice at Virginia Tech, Raun and the center’s associate director, Carrie Kroehler, started the Nutshell Games in 2017 and it’s since become an annual event. The faculty version of the event came as result of Dan Sui, senior vice president for research and innovation and chief research and innovation officer, attending the Nutshell Games in February.

“He was so excited about what he saw that he approached us immediately after and said, ‘We need to do this with the faculty. Can we do it in about a month?’” Raun said. “I thought, ‘Oh, goodness, probably not in a month.’ But it felt like a good way to put some time and energy toward a larger collaboration.”

Working with Sui and Ron Fricker, vice provost of faculty affairs, Raun and Kroehler organized the pilot event, a pre-event all-day workshop, and individual coaching sessions for each participating faculty member. The Office of Research and Innovation and Faculty Affairs sent out a call to academic deans to nominate faculty who might enjoy and benefit from the experience.

Florian Zach, assistant professor in the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, was one of those nominees. Zach, whose research focuses on innovation and the hospitality industry, said the whole process had been super interesting and stretched him to think about his work from a non-technical perspective.

“One of things they told us to do in the workshop was write down the 10 key words you use for your research and then talk to the person beside you about it without using those 10 words,” Zach said. “It really makes you think about how to convey your message to people who have never heard of it.”

Raun said getting the faculty members out of their comfort zones through jokes, improvisation, and other storytelling exercises was key in helping them learn to work in partnership with their audience.

“By the time they are going into their one-on-one coaching sessions, they will have talked about their research in many different ways,” Raun said. “It’s really important they start to see the audience as a partner, rather than just the receiver of knowledge.”

Lina Ni, associate professor of neuroscience, said such activities helped her drill down on the important potential impacts of her work.

“It really makes you ask: Why is this research important to yourself, to your field, and to the whole society,” Ni said. “These kinds of questions, sometimes we forget them, and it’s a good reminder for us, and in this case, it’s also reminded me how important this work is to me.”

Focusing on the most attractive and accessible parts of the research is also something Camden said he picked up on during the workshop. Working with the transportation institute’s Division of Freight, Transit, and Heavy Vehicle Safety, Camden said the practical applications of his team’s research is extremely important to communicate, so capitalizing on his audience’s interests was critical.

“A lot of times as faculty and scientists, we’re so ingrained in what we’re doing and the data and the numbers, we forget that for a lot of people, that’s not what they’re interested in. They just want to get to, why does it matter to me,” Camden said. “I’m going to remember that and use that, not only in the nutshell talks, but in the future when I’m doing presentations or media requests.”

Judges for the Faculty Nutshell Talks are:

  • Brady Alexander, a seventh grade student from Blacksburg
  • Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost
  • Shania Clinedinst, Graduate School diversity initiatives support specialist
  • Nolan Schmidt, Chief Strategy Officer at Li Industries, Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center  
  • Melissa Nelson, member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors
  • Daniel Smith, presidential postdoctoral fellow
  • Tracy Vosburgh, vice president for communications and marketing
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