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Storymodelers Jumpstart the Year with the First Co-Laboratory Mini-Conference

I have been quietly checking out the curb appeal of the lab next door. As a recent Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) in the Graduate Program in International Studies (GPIS), I am careful to smile and say hello as I pass familiar faces. However, I wasn’t ready to expose myself as a baby researcher. As a part-time extrovert, I needed to get the layout of who’s who in the zoo. With curiosity as a motivator, it was time make a move, hopefully chess and not checkers.

The Storymodelers kicked off the new year with a cross-laboratory mini-conference to get to know what’s happening down the hall in the Digital Senses lab. Researchers, to include faculty, project scientists, program managers, and students from different parts of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center (VMASC) met to (re)establish relationships necessary to present ongoing research projects, bring new ideas to life, and discuss potential intersections of these ideas.

This joint venture was more than a meeting of the minds, “interdisciplinary research is a social project, which upsets or potentially uproots existing conceptualizations of selves and group identity” (Leigh & Brown, 2021) .

This creates a collaborative environment that challenges the bias of our unique experiences, including all of the factors that influence the way we view the world.

In the wake of the recent pandemic, productivity may not have declined much, but creativity did. Researchers from WeWork, in partnership with Brightspot Strategy, show that collaboration requires social relationships and opportunities to brainstorm (WeWork, 2021), and at the mini-conference we did just that. Storymodelers began with a universal gesture of connection: lunch. Keep in mind that “fun” is an important ingredient in building a sense of community. Over pizza and donuts (American community-building staples!), we shared stories, talked about our backgrounds and life goals, and shared laughs. As students, we felt like this took some of the pressure off before we did more formal flash talks of our current projects.

Storymodeler Lab at VMASC

With imposter syndrome minimized, junior researchers from the Storymodelers and Digital Senses labs jumpstarted the mini-conference with ten-minute presentations. The humanities, and social and technical sciences were represented. It was intimidating, at first, to be in a room with different disciplines and wondering if we had anything in common.

Professors challenged junior researchers about the ways our research could intersect. We weren’t expecting that; it got us thinking on a broader scale. Out with the imposter syndrome, in with the critical thinker! We started to think about questions like, how could the effects of colonialism be better understood through agent-based modeling? And, how is trust linked to advancements in the study of Autism as seen through the theater arts?

This was the plot-twist we needed to bring out our creativity.

After each presentation, attendees asked questions about the future potential of our research and what we would need to get there. Then, Dr. Krzysztof Rechowicz, creator of the Digital Senses Lab, shared his wisdom and experiences about interdisciplinary work, specifically between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and arts/humanities fields, urging the group to reflect on how these ideas could be applied, in a practical way, to better understand real-world issues with the potential of helping people improve the quality of their lives.

At the end of the mini-conference, we all agreed that this type of collaboration is not something we could have achieved through virtual platforms. In fact, Bloom backs this up, asserting that “in-person collaboration is necessary for creativity and innovation…research has shown that face-to-face meetings are essential for developing new ideas and keeping staff motivated and focused” (Bloom, 2020).

We left feeling more like neighbors that could borrow the occasional cup of sugar, encouraged by ways that we could be helpful to each other on our journey to full-grown researchers. The buzz hasn’t stopped. A few days ago, I had a spot of tea with our neighbors. Another person stopped me near the water fountain to tell me how the mini-conference stirred up new ideas about ways to approach current projects in completely different research areas in the building.

Drawing on the momentum from the conference, junior researchers plan on inviting other labs to the next mini conference, so we can get the word out about the different types of expertise in our neighborhood. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram, @ Storymodelers, for more buzz.

Leigh, Jennifer and Nicole Brown, (2021) Researcher experiences in practice-based interdisciplinary research, Research Evaluation, Volume 30, Issue 4, Pages 421–430,

We Work. (2021). The impact of working from home on collaboration. Retrieved from:

Bloom, Nicholas (2020). The productivity pitfalls of working from home in the age of COVID-19. Stanford News. Retrieved from:

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