From beaker to speaker

Students use art and storytelling to highlight the importance of undergraduate transdisciplinary work


November 19, 2019

Virginia Tech seniors Reiss Gidner and Elijah Griles recently presented projects at the Animal and Poultry Science Research Symposium. Both are double majoring in animal and poultry science and theatre and wanted to combine their work in the arts with their research capstone projects for the semester. 

Gidner got the idea for her project after learning more about the Center for Communicating Science, an on-campus center that provides opportunities for students to use art tools and exercises to help connect and communicate across disciplines.

“I wanted to focus on storytelling, making connections, and making things clear,” said Gidner. “I looked at how communication affects the agricultural extension and on overcoming cultural barriers so as to not make others feel inferior.” 

To this end, Gidner has developed a workshop for undergraduate STEM students to improve their listening and empathy skills through improvisation exercises. Students will present a 30-second commentary on their research or an aspect of science they enjoy. They will then participate in a series of ‘improv’ games to help them deliver it more effectively by the end of session. 

“For example, one exercise,” Gidner excitedly adds, “focuses on body language where you have to sell some kind of product only using gibberish. This is meant to improve your connection with the audience, since most presenters need to work on knowing where their audience is coming from and how they listen to you.”

Gidner will be applying to veterinary school next summer and hopes to eventually work on education programs for the schools that use the techniques and art she has learned. “It really is pretty simple; it’s about making a human connection”

As for Griles, the pieces fell into place as he was looking for opportunities for the summer when V.E.T. Net, a non-governmental organization providing veterinary education in Mongolia, reached out to him. Griles went to Mongolia to help with livestock training and English classes for local veterinarians.

“Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Outside the capital, it is a very rural agrarian society. You see a way of life that doesn’t exist, for the most part, anymore. It’s also unique for the average westerner who doesn’t see how their food is produced.”

English has grown into a vital language for Mongolia, especially due to the fact that most veterinarian research and textbooks are written in English. Griles’ job as an intern had him specifically train vet school graduates in practical English training. 

“A lot of education is relationship building,” Griles elaborated. “As I helped them learn English, it was important for me to learn their language and culture as well. Relationship is communication and language provides the context for that communication. I wanted to be sure to communicate that I value you as a friend and teacher.”

Keeping this in mind, Griles wanted to use his concentration in theatre and cinema to blend some storytelling aspect with his work there. Having taken documentary production the previous year, he created a 12-minute film, “Vital Link”, which explores rural life in Mongolia and Griles’ time in the far eastern province of Sukhbaatar. Griles hopes the visual storytelling will help bring people across the world closer together. 

“We all need to sleep and be fed. Through art we can communicate something from a global and human perspective without alienating. Art takes the truth and presents it in a way that the viewer can understand and relate to.”

In a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers were asked what attributes they sought on a candidate's resume. The top five were: the ability to work in a team (78%), problem-solving (77.3%), written communication skills (75%), Strong work ethic (72%), and verbal communication skills (70.5%). It’s worth it to note these attributes were rated above computer, technical, and analytical skills. Employers want candidates who can work in a group setting to not only gather data and do the work needed, but also proficiently communicate this in multiple ways. 

With an increasing need for students and professionals in STEM areas of study to effectively convey information to wider audiences, Gidner and Griles show that art can better prepare presenters and communicators to exhibit their data and bridge cultural divides.

If you’d like to participate in Gidner’s workshop in December, contact her at

Written by Gabriel Velazquez, an M.F.A. student in arts leadership in the School of Performing Arts.

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