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"Air, Land, & SEE" Virginia Tech Science Festival

An unusual exhibit this Saturday at the Virginia Tech Science Festival in Blacksburg will give people an immersive encounter with the mysteries of science.  And when we say “immersive” we mean that almost literally. 

A 360-degree underwater video playing in the Cube at Virginia Tech will have viewers feeling like they’re practically swimming with the fish. “And in our particular experience, you are underwater in southwest Virginia rivers, watching a mussel conservationist do some amazing work to save one of the most endangered species on the planet.”  

Justin Perkinson teaches Cinema at Virginia Tech's School of the Performing Arts, and with collaborator Mathew Hull a Nano-scientist, made the video, using a special camera that can shoot in every direction at once, so, “everywhere you look is an experience as if you are at the bed of the river, or as if you were a mussel conservation scientist.”

Jess Jones is a mussel conservation scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and that’s him you’ll see swimming with his longtime associates, freshwater mussels; vital for their keeping our rivers clean and fascinating in how they orchestrate the whole process. “You see the colors of these fish and the amazing things that the muscles do.”  For one thing, they lay their eggs on other fish, who then transport the babies up or down stream. “What people don't realize is that they might look in a river and they might experience a river by canoeing or fishing, but right at their feet, right underneath their canoe is this unbelievable, biota that they can see.”

The video will play in the Cube at the Moss Arts Center, on a special screening platform called a Cyclorama --- the only way this type of immersive technology can be experienced. 

“Traditionally with film, you tell a story in a rectangle on a screen,” says Perkinson, “and now with technology, we have the opportunity to tell a story in a sphere, where the audience member, the participant is actually inside of the movie experience in a way.” 

Jones, a restoration biologist, has been studying mussels for decades at the Virginia Tech Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center.He received the Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence for the work he has done to repopulate them. Jones says he got hooked on studying the creatures decades ago, fascinated not only by their important function, cleaning rivers and streams, but also for the intricate and creative way they perpetuate their own species.

“What's interesting about mussels is that they have involved a complex mimicry, in fact, in my mind, it’s some of the most complex mimicry known in the natural world, where they're using things to attract fish, to their babies. They'll create things like insect larvae, things that mimic worms, mimic fish. So, in essence, they're going fishing, for their fish hosts to complete their life cycle.”

The Virginia Tech Science Festival is Saturday, November 16, 2019, from 10AM to 4PM. All festival events are free.

Click here for a link to the schedule of events.

Here is additional information about the Science Festival:

  • AIR. Drones will be used to obtain 360-degree views of shooting locations.  The Drone Cage provides an environment for safe operation of drones.  Ms. Sarah Macey will on-site to discuss the drone cage and the unique benefits it offers both researchers and the public.  
  • LAND. Nanoscale science and engineering is used to understand how contaminants affect environmental systems.  NanoEarth has tools and expertise to help understand complex environmental impacts, like those affecting endangered freshwater mussels.  Ms. Tonya Pruitt and colleagues will be on-site to discuss nanotechnology and the NanoEarth center.
  • SEE. Conservation biologists are working to protect and propagate federally endangered freshwater mussels.  The FMCC is a unique resource on the VT campus dedicated to conserving these unique faunae.  Footage on the primary cyclotron screen shows a conservation biologist, Dr. Jess Jones, searching for mussels.  Also, Dr. Jones will be on-site to discuss a hands-on freshwater mussel display.    

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.