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2019 State of the College

College of Science Dean Sally C. Morton presented the 2019 State of the College on September 19  for faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the college, as well as the university community. Below is a full transcript of the prepared talk, with a video link.

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Nearly everywhere we go these days, we are generating data. We create data when we grocery shop, when we use a credit card, or when we use our phones. We create data when we Google something, click on an advertisement, check a weather app, or track steps while taking a walk

We have so much data, we have run out of ways to describe it. We are swimming in data, deluged by data. Whatever the metaphor, we have a lot of data available. 

This incredible wealth of data can help us address immediate problems: Alzheimer’s, Autism, climate change, nuclear threats…huge, seemingly intractable problems that challenge our society.

Addressing these issues can seem ambitious, even impossible. However, data can mitigate problems that our world faces, if the data is leveraged via analysis and modeling, and implemented in decisions and action. 

We are using data analytics and scientific modeling in the College of Science at Virginia Tech to fuel discoveries, in real ways, against real problems, and we are making real breakthroughs.

Dr. Kate Langwig, an assistant professor in Biological Sciences, and her team are researching ways that the efficacy of vaccines can be improved. The United States and other countries thought they had eliminated measles years ago, but the disease has re-emerged. To understand how a vaccine can be more effective, Kate and her team used data to build mathematical models of the susceptibility of communities to measles. They included variables such as age, vaccination levels, different pathogen doses, and nutrition.

Kate’s research uncovered the unexpected: Many scientists are “vaguely aware” that vaccines may not work at higher pathogen doses, but few had ever researched this issue in detail. The real-world models that Kate and her team produced can help determine how communities can be better protected against measles.

The College of Science is breaking new ground.

Dr. Lauren Childs, an assistant professor in Mathematics, is working with colleagues from Harvard to help prevent a disease that has long proven to be one of the world’s most persistent and deadly. In 2017, more than 435,000 people died of malaria, many of them children. 

Lauren and her team – which included experts in biology, epidemiology, and public health – incorporated data into computational models to lead to discovery. Coating the surface of mosquito bed nets with an anti-malarial drug can essentially “cure” the mosquitoes of malaria if the insects stay on the net for at least six minutes. If the mosquitoes are cured, they cannot spread malaria.

Lauren’s modeling explored how adding the drug to bed nets can affect malaria prevalence. The anti-malarial drug is already approved for humans. People in Africa already use bed nets.

“There are a lot of reasons this could move quickly to action,” Lauren said.

The College of Science is improving lives.

It is not just about data. It is about the understanding the data provides given analysis and modeling. This understanding results in scientific discovery. This understanding allows people to make well-informed decisions. Those decisions can prevent illness. Those decisions can save lives.

Without a doubt, fundamental basic science remains essential to the College of Science. Examples such as experiments to find the fourth neutrino, or the development of a deeper understanding of cell division, are vital components of our mission.  Furthermore, the College of Science complements and extends the advancement of scientific discovery by infusing our traditional disciplines with data analytics and computational modeling.   

Welcome to the 2019 State of the College of Science.

I am delivering this address today from Virginia Tech’s Arlington Research Center to demonstrate the importance of the greater Washington, D.C., metro area to the future of Virginia Tech. Welcome to those here in person, to those viewing in Blacksburg, or streaming this address. Welcome to the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of the College.

Let me pause so we can consider what President Sands says about the College of Science.

"Science was a pillar that supported Virginia Tech’s development into the great university it is today, and scientific excellence is essential for advancing Virginia Tech to even greater heights as we look toward the future.” 

As President Sands says, the College of Science is essential to the present and future of Virginia Tech. That’s one reason that a key focus of our College’s work this year is to align our strategic plan with the Beyond Boundaries vision of the University.  Our College’s work explores, advances, and applies science to promote healthy people, strong communities, and a sustainable planet. The College of Science is grounded in the fundamental scientific disciplines, fueled by data, focused on discovery, and directed at decisions.

Reimagining Science Education

The vast majority of our research is done not by individuals but by transdisciplinary teams: chemists and physicists working with mathematical modelers. Biologists working with statisticians. Economists and psychologists joining together.

If team science is the way university researchers work, and the way that government agencies and corporations tackle issues, our students need to learn how to collaborate as well, and they do so in many of our programs right now. Our Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program melds Virginia Tech’s expertise in mathematics, statistics and computer science. The first two are in the College of Science, the third is in the College of Engineering.

The CMDA program is one of the fastest growing majors at the University, and its students are highly sought after by employers. If we were to observe a student CMDA Capstone presentation, we would see Virginia Tech students giving talks that would be at home in any corporate boardroom.

These students are asked to solve real world problems that companies face. Our College’s corporate partners attend in person. Among the issues brought to the teams last year: Helping the American Red Cross get blood to combat zones; and improving supply chain logistics for GE Aviation. 

CMDA director and professor of mathematics Dr. Mark Embree explained the motivation for this Capstone approach. To quote Mark: “We’re trying to give students experiences here that model a real professional environment, so they can make some mistakes in class, and not make the same mistakes when they take their first job.” This is what the College of Science is about. Preparing students to hit the ground running on the first day of their first job. Ready for action. Our students know this. CMDA alumna Dasha Savina said “It’s really interesting to get a chance to talk to people that are actually in industry … and be able to apply what we’ve learned, to prepare for meetings and communicate with the client.” Dasha is now a cognitive and analytics consultant at IBM. 

Students clamor for this type of relevant education.

Similar educational programs exist across our eight departments, the School of Neuroscience and the Academy of Integrated Science. We are always thinking of innovative degrees to add to our portfolio. We are finalizing a Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Decision Science, a collaboration of Economics, Neuroscience, and Psychology. We will train students to understand how individuals, groups, communities, and machines make decisions and prepare our students to act on that understanding.

The Academy’s Integrated Science Curriculum is another example of academic innovation. The curriculum addresses subjects tackled by scientific thinkers from Galileo to modern-day Nobel Prize recipients. Students are taught via a transdisciplinary approach, combining biology, chemistry, physics and statistics to address problems. Classes occur in an active-learning environment that emphasizes collaboration and creativity. In the College of Science, we study science and we do science.

The Reach of the College

At Virginia Tech, we have a mission of outreach to the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world. In the College of Science, we do that in many ways.

I will start with an obvious extension by Virginia Tech and the College of Science. About a year ago, Virginia Tech announced its intent to create a 1-million square-foot graduate campus of academic classrooms, incubator space for start-ups and research and development, and offices for collaboration with industry. This will be called “Innovation Campus.”

Even before this announcement, the College was already increasing our presence in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

I am very proud to let you know that the first student cohort has joined our Data Analytics and Applied Statistics Master’s program. Several of these students are with us here tonight. Welcome, we are glad you have joined Virginia Tech. This Master’s degree provides data analysis skills to early and mid-career professionals to enhance their careers, and addresses a shortage of data scientists in the D.C. area. Dr. Tom Woteki, a three-time Virginia Tech alumnus, directs this new program. 

Our College is also involved with the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, which is a network of cyber research, innovation, and learning created by connecting Virginia’s public universities, community colleges, and businesses. The College of Science is committing its strengths in artificial intelligence, cryptography, machine learning, and quantum information science to the Initiative. 

With respect to Roanoke, this year we established a Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science. In collaboration with clinicians and researchers, biostatisticians design experiments, collect and analyze data, interpret and disseminate results. Dr. Alexandra Hanlon, director of the center and a member of the Statistics Department, has more than three decades experience working on a wide variety of clinical topics. Dr. Mike Friedlander, Executive Director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, said a key to the Institute’s success is transdisciplinary collaboration coupled with inter-university partnerships “exemplified by those with the College of Science.”

As Mike said, “I’m delighted that our researchers can tap into the deep expertise and open collegial culture within the College of Science.”

Outreach and collaboration happen daily in Blacksburg as well. One example was the August “Advancing Neuroscience Research at Virginia Tech Summer Symposium”  – a show of scientific strength that would be the envy of many universities. The Symposium was jointly sponsored by the College’s School of Neuroscience and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Members participated from both those entities, as well as from Biological Sciences, Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and many others. If you looked at the research posters, you would see that these groups were not working alone, but with each other, and with other universities. That is how we do science at Virginia Tech: collaborating together to combine crucial skill sets.

In further School of Neuroscience news, the School officially moved into Sandy Hall on the Drillfield this fall, giving the School new prominence in Blacksburg.

Science and leadership from the College of Science is central to impactful research in Blacksburg, Roanoke, the Washington Metro area, and beyond. An example is Coastal@VT, which brings a wide and deep team of researchers together to address sea-level rise, population growth, ocean acidification, and many other problems threatening the coast. Fifty faculty from eight Colleges are members, with many from the College of Science, including Co-Lead Dr. Robert Weiss from Geosciences. Coastal@VT uses data, analysis and modeling to help municipal governments, private corporations, and the military make decisions given coastal change.

In another example, researchers from our departments of Chemistry and Physics are laying the groundwork for the future of quantum computing. They are developing and testing algorithms that could potentially exploit the capabilities of quantum computing before large-scale machines become available. In the future, quantum computing could simulate molecular properties, accelerating the development of new materials or drug discovery.

In a final example, Dr. Cayelan Carey of Biological Sciences and her research team have collected data and constructed models to forecast water quality for the Western Virginia Water Authority, which provides drinking water in the Roanoke Valley. Cayelan’s model can be used by communities around the world to make decisions and take action. 

Via our research and outreach, the College of Science impacts the world. 

Investing in Our People

I often begin presentations by emphatically stating: The power of the College of Science comes from our people. Our informative research about women in powerful government positions or the discovery of a mini T-rex fossil, our innovative educational programs, our excellent staff support, everything we do and all our success in the College – all originates from, and relies on, our people, our faculty, staff and students.

We strengthen the College of Science by investing in our people. Thanks to generous alumni and friends, this semester we awarded 15 faculty honorifics to support and encourage our talented faculty. Elaboration of just one fellowship, the Patricia Caldwell Fellowship awarded to Dr. Shuhai Xiao, will demonstrate the importance of our faculty and our College’s work to support them. 

Shuhai is a historical geobiologist in the Department of Geosciences. He analyzes geological, fossil, and geochemical data to examine critical periods of Earth’s history. Just two weeks ago, Shuhai and his team announced they had found a 550 million year-old fossil that could be among the first trails of an animal moving from one place to another. Coverage of the discovery appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, on CNN, and the BBC.

This discovery helps us understand the world’s past, present and future, and we are delighted to have a faculty fellowship to recognize and support Shuhai. Shuhai explained that the fellowship will allow him to expand his research and educational contributions at Virginia Tech. He said:

“This fellowship will help me to create greater global visibility of Virginia Tech through my teaching and research activities. My enthusiasm for teaching is motivated by the need for a new generation of globally engaged scientists."

Shuhai’s words encompass the vision of the College of Science –  to explore, advance, and apply science to promote healthy people, strong communities, and a sustainable planet, and to do so in the spirit of Ut Prosim.

Together we can achieve this vision in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and inspire a new generation of scientists. 

 Thank you.