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These prize winning poets are science majors at Virginia Tech

Ayah Ali is an engineering student at Virginia Tech. She won first prize at a recent poetry competition
Roxy Todd
Radio IQ
Ayah Ali is an engineering student at Virginia Tech. She won first prize at a recent poetry competition

Poetry might not fuel cars or feed people, but it can feed the soul. And not only for literature students. Scientists write poetry too. At a recent poetry competition at Virginia Tech, the two top winners were science majors.

It’s possible that freshman Ayah Ali doesn’t get much sleep. She brought a viola to our interview because she was headed off to perform that evening. She’s learning calligraphy. And as an engineering student she says she wrote her first place poem before dawn one morning, while she was studying for a math exam.

“At, like 4 am,” said Ali. “And I just had this, like, urge to like write something down.”

So she did. She wrote her poem in a few minutes, and though she doesn’t recall how she did on that math exam, she did win first prize at the Giovanni-Steger poetry competition.

“As an engineering student, I try to make time for myself to be creative, and I think that’s important for me to have that space to express myself,” Ali said.

Top three winners at the 2024 Giovanni-Steger competition read their winning poems.
Ayah Ali, Emily Paquette and Caroline Foltz<br/>

Another science major won second prize this year, Emily Paquette, an animal and poultry sciences senior.

She was inspired to write her poem while walking home one evening from the Virginia Tech farm. While passing cows in the field, she called her best friend, who lives in Boston.

“We’ve been best friends since high school,” said Paquette.

Her poem is called “Swallow Song.” Here’s the last section:

Seven hundred miles from you, I’m cast in fading light.

As wires cleave the winter sky, silvering in gloam,

I send my thoughts along them, flashing through the night.

The starlings murmur overhead as I walk home alone,

taunting me with the ease of their balletic flight.

Still clustered on the wires, the swallows sing. Come home.

As a student who loves both poetry and science, she likes to take a break from her biology studies to focus on words and images, and thinks poetry helps her be a better scientist.

Ali, the engineering student who won first place, said she likes how poetry can give her brain a little break. And give voice to emotions she’s been dealing with, beneath the surface.

“This poem is a reflection on my identity as an Arab person living in America, and the disconnect that I experience with my culture,” Ali said.

Ali grew up in Virginia but her grandparents immigrated from Egypt, and she’s visited several times in recent years.

Her poem is called “The Ephemerality of Incense”. Here’s part of it:

The smoke lingers like generations of Egypt

recalling relics of lineage,

conserving echoes of Arabic in our home,

but never the symphony in her entirety.


I wish I could hear the symphony in her entirety.

As she reads it, Ali’s eyes look sad. She said for years she’s felt a sense of wanting to belong to two worlds.

“I really want to connect with my Arab culture more, and I think that’s difficult here in America where I don’t have the exposure to the language and the exposure to the culture so much,” Ali said. “So I think it’s hard to bridge that gap that I feel.”

The last part of her poem is, on its surface, about the challenge of learning calligraphy, using a set her grandfather recently gave to her. But it’s also about the struggle to connect with her culture, while studying at a campus miles away from her family.

I try to coax my Arabic out on paper.

The ink of my calligraphy pen blots my fingertips in sable smudges,

but it all fades quickly under the faucet.

Sometimes I wish it would sink into my skin,

pulsate in the lattice of veins

and circulate the language,

let it pervade my tongue

and imbue my lips with the poetic lilt of Arabic.


I wish I could traverse the decadence

of this culture beyond a sample—in submergence.

I wish it wouldn’t dissipate so quickly.

After she won the poetry competition, events at Ali’s campus have made her think about her poem in a new light. She’s watched as other students at Virginia Tech were arrested for protesting the war in Gaza. The situation here, and overseas, feels to her like Arab voices are being suppressed. It makes her even more committed to cultivating better spaces for these voices to be heard.


Updated: May 9, 2024 at 4:25 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.