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2017 State of the College

October 27, 2017

Dean Morton 2017 State of the College address
Dean Sally C. Morton at the 2017 State of the College, held at Holtzman Alumni Center.

College of Science Dean Sally C. Morton presented the 2017 State of the College on Oct. 27 for faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the college, as well as the university community. Below is a full transcript of the talk, a video link, and downloadable copies of the presented slides (as PDFs).


Welcome to the second annual State of the Virginia Tech College of Science address. I am delighted you could join us here in the Holtzman Alumni Center. And for those of you joining us on webinar -- welcome.

If you have any comments and questions you can put them in the comment box on your screen and we’ll share those aloud here. For those of you in the audience, at the end of the presentation, I’ll ask you to come to the microphone so those on the webinar can hear your questions as well. I look forward to hearing your comments and questions, and suggestions on where the College of Science has been in the past year and where we are going, and the world challenges that we will help solve together with our colleagues from across Virginia Tech.

I would like to begin by celebrating our college and all your successes in the past year. I have had the honor of serving as your dean for the past 16 months and it has been a privilege to meet and learn from all of you, our faculty and our staff, as well as our alumni, donors, friends, and of course, our students.

So, I am often asked: What is the Virginia Tech College of Science?

And I could answer in the default way -- there are eight departments, one school, and one academy.

But the real answer is: The College of Science is people. You. Our faculty and our staff. Our students. Our Alumni. The families of our students. And our friends.

People are our most vital asset. 

People are our greatest asset

We develop and foster knowledge, but most importantly, we develop and foster knowledgeable people, future leaders in science, who will leave our campus, enter industry, academia, and government, building a better future for all.

Every member of the College of Science contributes to our mission and every member, all of you, are valued. 

I see this every day as your dean and it is an honor to do so.

The most important two words that I say every day are -– thank you. Thank you for your contributions to the College of Science.

So, let us take a moment to celebrate your accomplishments across the College. Your accomplishments in research, in education, and in outreach. I know at times we are all busy, but please take the moment to reflect on what you have accomplished, what your colleagues have accomplished, and what your students have accomplished, and what the College of Science has accomplished.

Prior to my arrival at Virginia Tech, I was struck by the strength of the College of Science and since my arrival I have been even more impressed. The depth and heterogeneity of our research, programs, and contributions is incredible. We are a leader in research and education at Virginia Tech, and we are also an integral part of the university, supporting other colleges through education in Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Economics, Geosciences, Mathematics, Neuroscience, Physics, Psychology, and S\tatistics.

We are the foundation of Virginia Tech. And I am honored to lead our College.

Celebrate! And once again – those two most important words – thank you!

The spirit of Ut Prosim

We are community of scientists who discover, create, inspire, and inform. Our core values of excellence, discovery, and diversity infuse all we do.

The College of Science combines the disciplinary pillars of basic science that are essential to discovery with transdisciplinary collaborations to address the world’s most pressing problems. 

The spirit of Ut Prosim pervades all of Virginia Tech and it inspires me every day in so many different ways. For instance, sometimes the job of a dean requires one to step outside her comfort zone. Such as representing the College of Science by rowing in a canoe on a river in a silly hat. And yes, that is me on the slide.

Our work shines not only in the College of Science, but across campus. And not only in Blacksburg but also in Roanoke, and in Arlington. Our 386 faculty and 116 support staff in eight departments, plus the Academy of Integrated Science and the School of Neuroscience, teach an estimated 248,000 credit hours each year. That’s more than any other college at Virginia Tech. And just about every student who graduates from Virginia Tech comes through the College of Science first, and benefits from you.

Our undergraduates shine

Now our students truly are the best at Virginia Tech. You may have read about one of them last week.

Arianna Krinos is a junior triple majoring in Biological Sciences, Computational Modeling and Data Analytics, and Computer Science.

Arianna this month received a scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation -- an effort started by the original Mercury 7 astronauts to promote the next leaders in STEM, while commemorating the legacy of America’s pioneering space program.

She is the first recipient of this scholarship at Virginia Tech. She studies water ecosystems. She collects samples alongside Cayelan Carey of Biological Sciences. And Drs. Carey and Lisa Belden, who is also a member of Biological Sciences, nominated Arianna for this scholarship. When President Sands and Provost Rikakis talk about V-T-shaped students, they mean students like Arianna.

Arianna’s success is a product of her hard work, her love for the environment, her curiosity, and her drive, but also the dedication of you -– our faculty and staff.

Whenever I talk with alumni, and that is one of the pleasures of being dean, I always ask them to share why they are so supportive of Virginia Tech, I ask them to say what happened here at the University that made a difference in their lives, and they always mention a person -– a faculty member or a staff member –- that reached them. That inspired them. That amazing instructor, the lab experience, the advisor who went above and beyond to support them.

You make the difference for our students. Thank you.

Building new degree programs

Now, if you head to the bookstore and look for the November issue of Popular Mechanics, or visit their website, you’ll see our Academy of Integrated Science, and in particular, our Integrated Science curriculum, recognized as the “future of science classrooms.”

The magazine states, and I quote, “Virginia Tech’s most notable development is its Academy of Integrated Science. The school opened with the goal of providing hands-on classes drawing from multiple departments to develop collaborative and critical-thinking skills with research experience. If technology employers could create the perfect college graduate in a lab, this is the skill set they would choose.”

The magazine highlights our thriving Computational Modeling and Data Analytics (CMDA) program, and its blend of mathematics, statistics, and computer science. And the magazine quotes a student about how our program is helping her impress job recruiters.

Popular Mechanics is my new favorite magazine.

So, this chart shows the growth of new programs in our college –- CMDA, Microbiology, Nanoscience, Neuroscience and Systems Biology –- innovative programs being developed across our departments, the Academy, and the School of Neuroscience, programs that are attracting students, and making the College of Science an important driver in the overall growth at the University. We had an 11.2 percent growth in first and second majors in our College, and the largest absolute increase in numbers of total majors across the University, resulting in a total of 4,305 undergraduate students enrolled in our College, with a total of 4,905 first and second majors.

The University itself is continuing to grow. We increased to just more than 27,000 undergraduates here at Virginia Tech this fall, with the largest ever freshman class of 6,800 students entering. Growth is projected to 30,000 students by the year 2023 in Virginia Tech undergraduates.

The “secret” of Virginia Tech is becoming well-known beyond Blacksburg, and students are coming here and they are coming to our College.

2017 State of the College slides.pdf 2017 State of the College slides, presented 27 October 2017 by Dean Sally C. Morton
Dean Sally C. Morton at State of the College
Dean Sally C. Morton speaks about the great successes of undergraduate students such as Arianna Krinos

Our graduate students lead

Now, our graduate programs are also growing. We have close to 600 graduate students this year. Along with others at the University, we are developing graduate programs in the National Capital Region, including planning to offer our MS in Applied Statistics in Falls Church.

Our graduate students can be found across our campus, and across our community.

Recently, in preparation for the November 4 Virginia Tech Science Festival, and I hope to see you there, that is two weekends since, Department of Psychology graduate students Jordan Albright and Tyler McFayden, who work with the Center for Autism Research, helped train volunteers to work with children who have autism or other sensory challenges.

Tyler and Jordan, who are shown here on the slide, are part of an effort to help create safe environments and inviting public events for these youth, such as Hokie BugFest.

Tyler and Jordan are working with Angela Scarpa, director of the center and a member of Psychology, as they bring educational and outreach efforts to rural Virginia.  This work represents a mixture of what we do best here, research and education, in the spirit of Ut Prosim.

And our graduate students’ impact and work can be found across Virginia. They also are in Roanoke with our partners at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI), including Deb Kelly of Biological Sciences, who is conducting cancer research there, and Warren Bickel of Psychology, who recently opened the Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors.

Thank you for all your efforts on behalf of all of our students.

Access and opportunity

At the core of what we do every day is educate students. Student recruitment is a key measure of our success. Our goal is to provide access and opportunity and we commit to increasing the numbers of first-generation students and traditionally underserved constituencies in our College.

The keystone to solving many of the nation’s problems is educating a new generation of leaders for careers that did not even exist a few years ago. We welcome this change.

On April 14, the inaugural recipients of the Luther and Alice Hamlett Scholarships were recognized during the Academy of Integrated Science Awards Celebration. Luther Hamlett earned his bachelor's in Biological Sciences from Virginia Tech in 1945 and he went on to earn an M.D. from the Medical College of Virginia. He sadly passed away in 2016. His legacy of generosity will be felt throughout our college forever, but most strongly in the Academy, where dozens of students already have benefitted from the scholarships he created, and you will see a picture of those students on the slide.

These scholarships are endowed, and they will continue to support students for years to come. And Dr. Hamlett and his wife, Alice, who passed away in 2009 – you can see them here on this slide – are among the most generous supporters our college has ever had.

We also were able to increase underrepresented minority graduate student stipends because of philanthropic support. Last year, we made offers to graduate students in Biological Sciences, Psychology, Physics, and Chemistry. Four of these students accepted our offers, including two African-American women, one Native American woman, and one Hispanic and Pacific Islander man.

Moving forward this year, I will continue to work with Michel Pleimling, our college director of inclusion and diversity, our AdvanceVT/InclusiveVT representatives, and our departmental diversity committees, to achieve greater diversity in our college.

Department awards

Speaking of successes -– and if you came to the faculty and staff awards this year, you may have heard this story, I hope you won’t mind my repeating it -– a few months ago, I was sitting quietly at my desk in my office, minding my own business, and the phone rang.

Now my phone is the kind where you can see the name of the person who is calling, and it said “Jim Tanko.”

Now I have to be honest, sometimes I don’t answer the phone when Jim Tanko calls, but I decided for this time I would answer it. So, I pick up the phone and it’s Jim, and he said, “Guess what! Our Department of Chemistry won the departmental Exemplary Award.” And I said, “that’s great, congratulations!”

And I hung up the phone. Now the phone rings again a few moments later. And it was Mark Pitt. Now Mark Pitt, I always answer the phone when Mark Pitt calls. Mark Pitt is the head of Physics.

And he said, “The Department of Physics has won the university’s Exemplary Department Award.” And I said, “Wow, that’s great! Congratulations!”

Hang up the phone again. A few minutes later, phone rings again. Now it’s Brenda Winkel.

I always, always, always answer the phone when it’s Brenda Winkel, Chair of Biological Sciences. And she said, you guessed it, the Department of Biological Sciences has won VT’s Exemplary Department Award for 2016.

So I hang up the phone, and I’m thinking, now I am new to the University but how many dang awards can there be?

There were three, of course, and our college received all three this year. This marks the first time that one college has captured all the awards, which are given by the Office of the Provost and facilitated by the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research. And the 2016 award honored departments for developing and sustaining effective large-class instruction

And I am so thrilled for our college, and more importantly for you, our faculty and staff, who shared in this award. So, again, to the Department of Biological Sciences, the Department of Chemistry, Physics, thank you. And I am hoping that my phone rings again next year.

And I will say one more thing… I agree with Jim Tanko’s quote to the Collegiate Times! So thank you, Jim.

Our amazing staff

So, I’d also like to continue to celebrate our staff, who are just incredible. And this year I want to make that fact more well-known. To better recognize their contributions, the College is establishing three staff awards –- two Outstanding Staff Awards, and one Ut Prosim Award.

Two Outstanding Staff Awards will be given annually to staff members who make a major contribution to advancing their Department and the College of Science.

And the Ut Prosim Award will be given to a staff member or perhaps a group of staff in recognition of outstanding contributions to the community in the spirit of Ut Prosim, that I may serve.

All of you are doing this on a daily basis, and we want to recognize your efforts. The first call for these new awards will be this spring -– and please nominate your colleagues.


Our faculty have also had an incredible year. For the first time in a decade, three College of Science assistant professors have won CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation. And as you can see good things come in three, three Exemplary Department Awards, three CAREER Awards.

The CAREER winners this year are Julianne Chung of Mathematics and our Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program, Marc Michel of the Department of Geosciences and our Nanoscience program, and Kendra Sewell of the Department of Biological Sciences and the School of Neuroscience.

These early-career faculty were hired to do research and teach in our departments and our Academy of Integrated Science. They are redefining the role of educator and researcher, blurring the lines between the disciplines. Congratulations to all of them. Tremendous achievement.

New department leaders

Faculty recruitment is one of the most essential tasks of our College. Thank you all of you for your efforts to recruit the next generation of Hokie scientists. I look to our departments to ensure that the University is at the cutting edge of your disciplines. Virginia Tech depends on the College’s departments to identify the areas that we should expand in – this relates directly to our College’s vision to be “Science Leaders.”

Our faculty grew by 23 tenure/tenure-track and collegiate faculty members this year, and 10 of our new colleagues are women and three are Hispanic.

We welcome in particular the new head of Geosciences, Steve Holbrook. And I’d also like to announce that Roseanne Foti will take over as chair of Psychology in this coming summer of 2018, and many thanks to Bob Stevens for his leadership.

I am particularly appreciative of all the chairs and heads of our departments. They all advocate strongly for you, their disciplines, and they do so in a collaborative manner. It has been a delight to work with all the chairs and heads. 

We have 26 faculty recruiting efforts underway this year. Thank you to all of you for serving on hiring committees, going to talks, giving feedback. This is our future. Thank you for your efforts.

And in particular, the College of Science is dedicating two faculty lines this year and two next year to develop a program of education and research in Behavioral Decision Sciences. We plan to develop an undergraduate major that will reside in the Academy.

We have invited all departments to participate. The initial group includes Economics, Neuroscience, and Psychology, though we expect more departments to join over time. Associate Dean Robin Panneton is coordinating this effort. I invite you to talk with Robin about your ideas in this space that is sure to become an important part of the university’s future.

Now, recruiting is vital, but the key to faculty success is mentorship and clear and transparent promotion and tenure processes. And I was so impressed with the departmental and College processes, and the high quality of our candidates last year. I applaud the departments for producing promotion and tenure expectation documents as requested by Provost Rikakis.

To ensure transparency and to support our faculty at the College level, we have scheduled a College Promotion and Tenure Workshop on February 6. It will include a panel of College faculty who have served on P+T committees at both the College and the University levels, as well as some recently promoted faculty. I look forward to seeing you there.

So, let’s now turn to research across the College.

Research and expenditures

So, you know I am a statistician, so you know how much I love data. This chart shows the fiscal year expenditures and awards during the past four years in our College. Congratulations on the excellent results in a very challenging funding environment. You can see the increase over the past few years in awards.

We are very fortunate to have the $20 million NSF-funded Molecular Sciences Software Institute led by Daniel Crawford of Chemistry in our portfolio. And we are continuing to work with all of you to attain large grants of this type.

Now I looked at the numbers so for this fiscal year, so we are four months in, already into this fiscal year and so just a few days ago, and we are already past $20 million in awards this year, so I am fairly confident we will have a new record in 2019. I would like to especially thank our colleague Andy Volker in the College office for assisting with proposals –- please do not hesitate to contact Andy to involve him in your proposal work.

Research across our college

Earlier I mentioned the legacy commitment of the Hamletts, and their gifts in support of more than two dozen students. But there is more to this legacy. Another portion of this family’s legacy is the establishment of faculty fellow positions for early-career faculty to recognize scholarship in our college.

I have made the recommendation to our Board of Visitors to award Hamlett fellows to Lara Anderson of Physics and Marc Michel of Geosciences respectively. I also am delighted to have recommended another new fellow appointment to the Board of Visitors –- John Morris of Chemistry for the Lilly Nanoscience Fellowship. 

I’d like to also quickly highlight several research results of which we are truly proud.

In Physics, John Simonetti recently took part in the worldwide detection of a kilonova -— a collision of two neutron stars that unleashed a set of gravitational waves into outer space. This work is part of the LIGO collaboration, which is related to the recent Nobel Prize awarded in Physics.

This year, an economist was awarded a Nobel for his work in championing behavioral economics, or neuroeconomics. And in our own Department of Economics, Sheryl Ball and Alec Smith are working with student researchers to study how people make decisions.

In Chemistry, we have groundbreaking work by Tim Long on 3-D printing of insulation used in space.

And in Neuroscience, Georgia Hodes is studying how differences in the immune system may contribute to sex differences in depression. This research is vital to so many people and families, and is funded by a grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

I could have stood up here all day and talked about your research, I had to pick just a few examples of the wonderful work that takes place by all of you across the College. Thank you.


Much of our research and our efforts to foster science leaders of tomorrow would not be possible without our corporate and government agency sponsors who work with us day in and day out. And there are many wonderful examples.

For example, General Dynamics is a major supporter, including our annual DataFest and a new class led by Scotland Leman of our Statistics Department. Booz Allen Hamilton was on campus to meet with students from our College, Engineering, and the Pamplin College of Business, to discuss internship and job opportunities. And Carbon 3D, which was founded by Joe DeSimone, an alumnus of Chemistry, hosted a summer visit by myself and many alumni in California, and you see a picture of me there holding the shoe that they are producing with the 3D printing. And students in our Nanoscience program recently visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Our departments have cherished, long relationships with industry and national laboratories.

All of this great work and support, gives me the opportunity to describe LINK, which is our campus-based center for advancing industry-based partnerships. LINK allows us to open doors to industry; and as you can tell from the slide their work is far-reaching, forward thinking, and essential.

Industry partnerships are a vital part of who we are and our success, and will become even more important in the future.

Dean’s Discovery Fund

Now soon after my arrival here 16 months ago, and after hearing your comments and needs, I established the College of Science Dean’s Discovery Fund to support vital research advances. Investing funds from my endowed chair, the Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Chair, back into the faculty and their research efforts, this carries on the legacy of Dean Chang, honors the generosity and Ut Prosim spirit of our Roundtable Advisory Board, and seeds the growth and prosperity of the college’s future. Using those funds to help kick-start new ideas, invite speakers, and support pilot research, seemed perfect to me.

So, through the help of several associate deans, we asked you to propose ideas, and we ended up selecting not our original goal of five projects, but we actually funded 10, for a total of $160,000 total funding distributed across the College, across almost all our departments. Collaborations with other Colleges were included, and we received cost-sharing from departments. Thank you.

The vast majority of the funds are being used to support graduate students and undergraduates, and for materials and supplies.

The next Dean’s Discovery Fund call will be sent out in January, with proposals due at the end of March, and I encourage you to apply.

Supporting our faculty

Now I realize that attaining funding is challenging and the College would like to continue to provide you information and training that will maximize your chances. So, to that end, we are planning a workshop in March that will address several grant issues.

In this workshop, we will introduce you to the resources that exist across the University to provide you with training and guidance for success at a variety of funding agencies, such as the National Institute for Health (NIH), the Department of Defense, and others.

In addition, we are very fortunate in our College to have several faculty who have served as NSF Program Directors. NSF of course is one of our most important funders, you heard about the CAREER Awards.

We will organize a panel of these colleagues so they can provide you their advice on how to be successful at NSF. And I look forward to seeing you at the workshop.


Beginning in July of this past year, this past July, Virginia Tech launched the silent phase of a capital campaign in which the College of Science will be a significant participant and beneficiary. This past year, we have had a huge success in commitments, philanthropic commitments to the College. We began the year with a goal of $3.5 million, by year’s end, we had obtained $11.5 million in donations for 2017.

Thank you to all of our talented advancement staff and most especially to our donors! You make a difference.

My commitment as your Dean will be to continue this success with a student aid focus in the coming year with a goal of attaining 14 new Beyond Boundaries Scholarships to keep our college competitive in student recruitment efforts.

Additionally, I am working with our department chairs and heads on increased departmental annual fund support. Annual fund support is flexible funding that can help every department achieve your objectives.

This focus on annual funds is a part of a broader University initiative for 22 percent alumni giving by 2022. The College of Science is currently at 9 percent alumni support.

Our alumni and friends are our partners and every gift makes a difference, whether it is a $100 gift to our annual fund, a gift to endow a student scholarship, or a gift to support a professorship. Every gift is important and it contributes to our shared success here in the College of Science. Thank you.

Discover, create, inspire and inform

So who are we in the College of Science?

We are science leaders who discover, create, inspire, and inform.

The University looks to us to identify new scientific issues, educational components, engagement opportunities, partners, and so on. We should not wait to be asked, we should not wait to be called upon – we should proactively lead.

We are science: Basic science, cross-disciplinary science, transdisciplinary science. We produce knowledge and we produce knowledgeable people.

Everyone in the College belongs to this vision. And everyone in the College, all of you, are essential to achieving this vision. Thank you.

Four strategic themes

We have identified four central themes to our College. These themes emanate from our established strengths and our interests. And they also align with President Sands’ Beyond Boundaries vision. They are:

● Integrated Science

● Data and Decision Sciences, including the Adaptive Brain and Behavior

● Global Change

●  Materials for Health, Information, and Energy

This is our vision and this is our future. And as I have shared with you today, we are well on our way.

Community and communication

I have continued to spend this year listening to you -– College internal stakeholders, faculty, alumni, and friends –- and I will continue doing so.

I have shared the College’s vision, our mission, our values, our research and education successes.

These are an affirmation that embodies who we are.

And I am here for you. As for many of you, Ut Prosim has been a driving force in my career and defines my goal as dean -– leadership in service to others – to you, our College.

I have welcomed your thoughts and ideas by establishing a community based on communication -– creating transparency, respect and empowerment. Today and in the future.

I am fortunate to do so in all types of venues –- for faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends. I’d like to especially thank the College of Science Faculty Association (COSFA) and the College of Science Staff Association (COSSA) for facilitating many of these conversations. Thank you.

New this year has been Dean’s Open Office Hours in Williams 100. I have had two so far and I have two planned on November 15 and December 7 – please stop by no appointments are necessary. I look forward to hearing your ideas, your comments, your questions, and your suggestions. I hope to see you there.

Science is vital to our future

So, I’d like to close with a challenge and an opportunity for all of us, inspired by taking part in the March for Science earlier this year.

There, I had the chance to –- and this was a first –- speak on a bullhorn before a crowd of 400 people perched on a wall. There were about 400 people there, students, faculty, staff, Blacksburg residents, all dedicated to science, and keeping science alive, and strong, and always growing. Dedicated to good. To serving others.

We all must make science relevant and impactful. Here at Virginia Tech, and across the world.

We need to do this via our research, we need to do this via our students, and we need to do this via our outreach.

We are the people to do this, and we are the College to do this. This is our responsibility, this is our challenge, and this is our opportunity.

So, I say to you be loud. Use a bullhorn.

So, let me give a try at what I did when I was there at the March for Science.

We are the College of Science! [Audience responds in echo.] Very good.

More seriously, I really agree with Chris Coons, his quote is shown here on the slide, “…don’t just publish your research – publicize it. Scientists simply can’t be silent, or else science truly will be silenced.”

Thank you

So, I now open the floor for questions. For those of you here, we ask you to come and use a microphone so you can be heard on the webinar. If you are watching on the webinar, you can send questions as indicated on the slide.

So, thank you for your attention. And, once again, thank you all for all you do for the Virginia Tech College of Science. Thank you.


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Watch the 2016 State of the College, given by Dean Morton on Nov. 9, 2016