College of Science Dean Sally C. Morton presented the 2018 State of the College on Oct. 25 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, and downloadable copies of the photographic slideshow.


I’ve spent a lot of time in California. My brother was a fire fighter in the Sequoia National Forest. If you walk among those breath-taking, monumental trees, beyond the beaten path, a silence surrounds you.

There is a simple beauty in that silence, among those trees. Each one, by itself, is amazing.

And like those trees, there is a beauty to science, to how it builds upon itself month after month, year after year, themes merging together.

That is science.

The “Eureka” moments are few and far between, but they do come, with patience and persistence. We talk a lot at Virginia Tech about transdisciplinary work, harnessing the power of deep disciplinary skills to work on complex problems.

That is important, and I will talk about it today.

However, I want you to understand: Fundamental science is essential. If our foundation is not solid, whatever we build on top of it will fall apart. Our partners in the College of Engineering, in the Pamplin College of Business, in the College of Natural Resources and Environemnt, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, across the University and world, they need our fundamental scientific advances, so that their work rests on stable ground. There is majesty in each single scientific discipline, in each tree of fundamental science.          

Good morning, and welcome to the third annual State of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Thank you for coming this morning to the Holtzman Alumni Center or for joining us via livestream from here in Blacksburg,  at our growing campus in Roanoke, our facilities in the nation’s capital, or from wherever you are today. 

The vision

I began today with the importance of fundamental science, because I think there are those who hear the discussion of new majors, transdisciplinary research, and Destination Areas, and wonder if there is a place for them. The answer is, you bet. It is your science, your mathematics, your psychology, biology, physics and chemistry, your economics, statistics, and geosciences – you  are the bedrock of our College and science at Virginia Tech.

The essential work of our eight College departments made it possible for us to create the Academy of Integrated Science. And our School of Neuroscience relies on its students’ deep knowledge of traditional sciences in order to develop an expansive understanding of the nervous system. 

I’ve been at Virginia Tech for just over two years, and I’ve been thinking about the future of the College of Science. When we work toward a single goal together, we make incredible progress.

Our vision in the College of Science is to produce science leaders who Discover, Create, Inspire, and Inform. Our mission is to use the most advanced scientific techniques and apply them to the complex problems that our world faces.

If that sounds theoretical, it’s not. What are some problems that you are working on and our students are learning about?

Climate change. Opioid addiction. Solar energy storage. Government corruption. Medical imaging.Depression. Gender bias. Cancer. Nuclear nonproliferation monitoring. Endangered species. Epilepsy. Clean water.

These are major, societal issues and everyone in the College, each of you, has an essential role in finding solutions. We are scientists in service to society. At Virginia Tech, science is inherently Ut Prosim.

We are conducting science in service to the towns and cities, to the state and country, to the world, that we live in.

Here at Virginia Tech, our College also conducts University-wide outreach. We teach at least one course to 98.4 percent of all students who come to Tech. That’s necessary, but it’s also an opportunity.

In this age of skepticism toward science, this as an opportunity to impart scientific literacy to all students. Throughout life, knowing how to use scientific principles is a critical skill.

Our core values in the College of Science are Excellence, Discovery and Diversity. Diversity, inclusion, access and opportunity are at our core.  President Sands has established a University goal: that 40 percent of our student body will be minority or first-generation college students by 2022.

That’s important, and it is the right thing to do: Virginia Tech is a Land Grant university. We should educate people who come from all the varied and diverse backgrounds of our state’s residents.

And it is important for science also. A team of scientists who are from a broad range of life experiences -– women, men, different ethnicities, those who grew up in the suburbs and those who lived in cities or on farms – they will see different problems to explore.

The power of their differences, working together, will find better solutions.

Much as we need every group represented at Virginia Tech, we also need them to be involved in science. That’s why I like to say: Diversity makes science strong.

And the College of Science is making progress -– of 22 instructional faculty hired last year, 8 are women and 4 are underrepresented minorities. Our entering class of students is also more diverse.  

2018 State of the College Slideshow.pptx

Re-imagining education

Now, go back with me again to the forest. The tall expansive trees can each stand on their own, but what happens in between them is critical. In between those trees – those foundational scientific disciplines – there’s a whole organic world of activity.

Think of the areas in between those trees, in the small plants taking root, as the transdisciplinary work. Experts from several disciplines, you the members of the College of Science, collaborate with each other and across the University, and tell us how the forest is evolving.

When we talk about “transdisciplinary” research, integrated science, and education, we’re talking about science taking place in those in-between spaces.

Our college has made impressive progress. We’re increasingly teaching students and conducting research in ways that mirror how corporations, research institutions, and government agencies leverage science and seek answers to major problems.  

For example:

·  In our integrated science curriculum, we weave together biology, chemistry, math, and physics to help undergraduates see how the power of traditional disciplines grows exponentially when working together.

·   We’re pioneering a new world in undergraduate education. A Nanomedicine major that began this fall is the first of its kind in the United States. It’s tough to keep up with the Virginia Tech College of Science.

·   The College of Science will be the home of the new Data and Decisions Destination Area minor, part of the university-wide transdisciplinary effort to help all students learn to make data-driven decisions.

·    We’ve proposed a new bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Decision Sciences, integrating our Economics and Psychology departments and our School of Neuroscience expertise.

·    We’ve supported the new Molecular and Cellular Biology graduate program that is a collaboration of Biological Sciences, Neuroscience, and the Colleges of Agriculture, Liberal Arts, and Veterinary Medicine.

·    We are considering how to expand our research and educational offerings in quantum information science and cyber analytics, particularly given the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative.

All these new academic programs nicely fit with the spirit of the four Scientific Themes that we established for the College two years ago: Integrated Science; Data and Decision Sciences, including the Adaptive Brain; Global Change; and Materials for Health, Information, and Energy.

They also fit with our spirit of collaboration among our College’s departments, and with other Colleges and Institutes at Virginia Tech. And they also fit with our energy and commitment – we don’t wait, when we see something that we think could work better, we do it.

To me, these are all amazing, cutting-edge ways that we are transforming scientific education. Our graduates will be more relevant to businesses, produce better outcomes in their research, and have a greater impact on the world. Science Leaders who discover, create, inspire and inform.

We need to ensure that our great programs are open to all students by increasing our access and opportunity to Virginia Tech. And we are doing so.

Last year, we had the first recipients of the Luther and Alice Hamlett Undergraduate Research fellowships –- 31 undergraduate students received financial support and were paired with a faculty member to conduct research.

Dr. Hamlett earned his bachelor’s in Biology in 1945, went on to become a physician, and never forgot his journey began at Virginia Tech. And he has generously ensured that others can begin their journeys here as well.

We now also have the Jean D. Gibbons Fellowship for graduate students in Statistics. Dr. Gibbons was the second woman ever to earn a doctorate in Statistics from Virginia Tech, and she wanted to provide an opportunity for others to follow her path.   

It’s critical that we continue to build this generous base of support. Diversity makes science strong.

For faculty members, if we have the ability to recruit undergraduate and graduate students by offering scholarships, this broadens the types of students in your classes, fills your lectures and labs with students who are ready to learn and succeed, and enhances your research. And we fulfill our land grant mission.

Eric Ramos introduces Sally Morton
Eric Ramos, a sophomore in the Department of Biological Sciences , introduces Dean Sally C. Morton at the State of the College.

Our People

All of the programs I’ve discussed so far -– our progress, the issues we are seeking to address, the support of our vision -– none of that would be possible without you – the faculty and staff of the College of Science.

Whenever I speak to those outside of the College, I always talk about our people. When I talk with University leadership, the Board of Visitors, the College’s donors and friends. When Provost Cyril Clarke says the College of Science shines, he is talking about you. A College is its faculty and staff.

I believe this and I support you. We have to make sure you have the intellectual, administrative and physical environment you need to keep being successful.

Here’s what we’re doing.

To support the intellectual community of the college, we’ve established a workgroup focusing on the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning across the sciences. We have experts in these methodologies in our College and across the University – how can we learn from each other as a wealth of data continues to impact all of our sciences?  

We plan to have an introductory overview this November. And more focused sessions will occur in the spring, including workshops on how to use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools as well as talks in departmental seminar series and external speakers.

And this is just one emerging area in science –- we’ll figure out what works this year and have an open call in the spring for future topics. What ideas do you have?

We’ve clarified promotion expectations for tenure-track faculty, Professors of Practice, and Collegiate faculty. These expectations are based on disciplinary norms and I thank departments for their thorough work on this important issue.

We need to assist our colleagues, especially early-career faculty, with mentoring and support. To that end, we will have a College Promotion and Tenure workshop again this year, and will continue our successful proposal training and writing groups.

When we think about a person, there are many things that contribute to her success. It’s whether she’s confident about her knowledge, and it’s also the office and lab she works in.

I know when we think about facilities in our college, we all immediately think of the buildings that are in need of renovation. I do not want to dismiss the large need we have in many physical spaces in our College. However, we should recognize the successes we have recently achieved.

Davidson Hall, which houses some of our Chemistry Department, was overhauled with state-of-the-art laboratory space and a newly constructed 300-seat lecture hall.

And at the south end of the Drillfield, they are working every day on renovating Sandy Hall. That will be the new home of the School of Neuroscience.

Both of these were complex and expensive projects. That’s what it takes to bring nearly 100-year-old historic buildings not just up to modern standards, but to leading-edge facilities. We greatly appreciate the University’s effort.

 Completion might be a few years off, but the College of Science is an active and strong partner with the Pamplin College of Business and the College of Engineering as the new Data and Decisions Building is being planned, which will give us additional space.

We are also integrally involved in the planning of the Global Systems Sciences building.

I’m very aware we have other science buildings that are in need of extensive renovations.  The College of Science is not alone in this challenge here in Blacksburg. It’s best to think of the work needed in terms of long, medium and short -term projects.

The University has a long-term master plan for the Blacksburg campus. The College is included in that plan in numerous ways. In addition, we have advocated for Robeson Hall to be placed on the state capital planning list.

We’re working with the departments in Derring and Hahn to help us prioritize renovations, in collaboration with the Provost and the Facilities Department. The Provost has agreed to co-fund an architectural assessment of Derring. We are also advocating for a University-level approach to shared facilities.

I would like to thank all members of the college for your patience, innovation and flexibility as we improve our facilities.

With respect to implementing the University’s new budget model, we will continue as we do now – allocating our resources in an open and transparent manner to further the vision of our College.

The College of Science is a community of faculty, staff and students in which the well-being of any one unit is critically dependent on the well-being of all units.

I promise I will communicate often and thoroughly regarding the decisions made.

We will continue the Dean’s Discovery Fund, which comes from the endowed Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Chair, funded by our College Roundtable. I began this program because I heard a consistent theme when I first came here – an unmet need for funding to kick-start new ideas.

We’ve funded 14 projects in just two years, all of which fit our scientific themes. These projects have included research into cancer treatments, a neutrino detector, tumor evolution, modeling El Nino, treatments for sepsis, and field work in Triassic fossils. Big topics.

As further validation of the work we do in the College every single day, let’s look at the National Science Foundation’s CAREER grants. The NSF calls these its most prestigious awards.

They are given to early-career faculty who excel at being both scholars and teachers –- the academic leaders of the future. The bar is very high.

College of Science faculty have earned SIX of these awards in the past two years. Three each year, the most we have ever had in consecutive years. Congratulations.

I could stand up here all day and tell you how incredible the College is, how incredible you are, but this is independent validation. And I know that all faculty are aware of how important our staff are as well.

Without these staff, we could not deliver on our education, research, and outreach missions.

To that end, this year we established a College Outstanding Staff Award to recognize the excellent contributions our staff make to their departments, the College and the University. 

This year, we recognized two awardees and we look forward to continuing to recognize and thank our staff each and every day in the College of Science. Thank you.

Sally Morton at the State of the College
Dean Sally C. Morton

Outreach and impact

Part of our mission at Virginia Tech, and certainly in the College of Science, is to spread the word about our work, so people can use what we do to improve their lives. That’s a standard for a Land Grant University, and at Virginia Tech this outreach is embedded in all we do.

As I said at the beginning of the talk – science is inherently Ut Prosim.

Sometimes, it is easy to see how we extend ourselves into the communities around us.

Our Mobile Autism Clinic is a 31-foot-long Winnebago, outfitted to help diagnose children with autism spectrum disorder. Imagine you’re the parent of a child in rural Southwest Virginia and you wonder if your child has autism. The closest clinic is three to four hours away. How helpful the Mobile Autism Clinic is to you and your family.

At the Virginia Tech Science Festival, we reach thousands of school children and their families from across the Commonwealth. We bring them to Blacksburg, for a day of immersive science.

Our departments continually reach out to the community: Our Museum of Geosciences is open throughout the year, and our Department of Chemistry hosts a summer camp that shows school children that chemistry is everywhere, including in the making of ice cream.

For the past six years, our summer Nanocamp has brought high school students to Blacksburg to learn about nanoscience. I’m proud to say one result is that several campers have told us their goal is to come to Virginia Tech.

Experiences like this show young minds the possibilities that lie ahead.

The College of Science also performs some less obvious and just as important outreach. One example is our Statistical Applications and Innovations Group, S.A.I.G, pronounced “SAIG,” it even sounds like it is adding wisdom to your work. And that is just what they do.

This group of faculty and students from the Statistics Department are available to help anyone at Virginia Tech who is conducting research, and they also partner with industry. They can help you with experimental design, with analysis, with communicating your results.

I wish we had time to mention every great thing you are doing in the college. I want to let you know how critical sharing your work with the wider University community and those outside the University is.

Getting the word out about all you do is crucial. As my Dad used to say, if you cannot be seen and heard, it doesn’t matter how good you are.

We want the College of Science to be seen. And heard. We’re going to enhance our communication even more this year as we adapt our college and departmental websites to the new University website infrastructure.       

We absolutely must extend our reach. We’re having meaningful impact with our research. Our awards have increased by 40 percent in just the past two years due to your hard work.

President Sands highlighted your success in his State of the University address last month.

Finally, I think we have to change the way we think about Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech is more than Blacksburg. Virginia Tech is in every county in the Commonwealth.

Two places that the College of Science  is turning dotted line connections to Blacksburg into bold solid connections are the National Capital Region and Roanoke.  

I’ll tell you a little bit about what we are doing now. In the National Capital Region, we’re on course to duplicate our applied statistics Master’s degree next fall, and we will spinoff other educational opportunities such as certificates in the future.

We look to you to help us enhance our impact in the nation’s capital.  We can work with you to set up a “Tech Talk” in Arlington. We can arrange a guest lecture, and coordinate a dinner where you speak with alumni who can support and fund your work.

With respect to Roanoke, we are fortunate to have a large contingent of talented faculty and staff in Roanoke who are members of our college. We are enhancing our connections to the beautiful campus there – for example, we are building health analytics and biostatistics capabilities there.

We want and need to do more. We want to be bold. How can we expand the educational experience for our students in Roanoke beyond what is already happening?

Virginia Tech is well-established in Western Virginia -– now let’s take over the rest of the state.

I am open to ideas. Come to Dean’s office hours, stop by my office, or send me an email. I want to hear your innovative ideas and suggestions.

Remember the beginning of this talk, the strength of science, the impact of science. The beauty of science.

The importance of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

The importance of you. 

Let’s together continue to produce science leaders who discover, create, inspire and inform. Let’s together continue to spread the word about the beauty and importance of science.

Let’s make a difference. Let’s make an impact.

Thank you.