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Discover, create, inspire, and inform: Dean Sally C. Morton’s vision for the College of Science

As Dean Sally C. Morton began visiting with College of Science faculty, staff, and students, she started to see a unique pattern of collaboration and excellence. 


Sally Morton, Dean, College of Science

Sally C. Morton
Dean Sally C. Morton at Burruss Hall

In paleontology labs, she met undergraduate and graduate students working side by side, cleaning the bones of dinosaur ancestors tens of millions of years old. She met faculty and students using computers to model molecular cells to speed the process of drug development. And she learned of undergraduate students, years before medical school, taking advantage of an amazing opportunity only offered at Virginia Tech: to watch neurosurgeries inside an operating room in Roanoke. In the National Capital Region in Arlington, Virginia, she has met faculty, researchers, and graduate students using data analytics to help build “smart cities.” 

Morton found a college comprised of scientists who discover, create, inspire, and inform across Virginia and the world. Taken together, the community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni forms a scientific hub that energizes exploration across the university—and feeds the vision set forth by President Tim Sands and Provost Thanassis Rikakis to recast Virginia Tech as a global top-100 university. 

The college’s research efforts are instrumental in creating a university that tackles real-world challenges and produces students who show exceptional disciplinary preparation and interdisciplinary capabilities, students driven by purpose and engagement. Recognizing this central role early in her tenure, Morton called for the college to move forward as a leader on campus and beyond. 

In her State of the College address, delivered in November 2016 after just five months on the job, Morton articulated a new direction—for the college, its eight departments, the Academy of Integrated Science, and the School of Neuroscience. “We have an important service role at the university, but we also need to step up and lead. The university looks to us to lead,” she said. “What are the next scientific ideas? We shouldn’t wait for Virginia Tech to ask; we should be proactive. We are leaders and we are teaching our students to be leaders as well.” 

Morton’s vision for the college is forward-looking and foundational, and Virginia Tech leaders have taken notice. “It has been exciting to watch the innovative and strategic discipline that Dean Morton has brought to the College of Science,” said Provost Rikakis, who was instrumental in recruiting Morton to Blacksburg. “Sally’s passion for excellence and unrelenting energy have left an indelible mark on our campus in less than one year. Sally combines commitment to science, a 21st-century vision, and unique experience bridging academia and industry. This combination makes Sally uniquely qualified to lead our College of Science in retooling science for 21st-century workforce preparation and transdisciplinary discovery.” 

Fellow deans concur. “Dean Morton has immediately gotten engaged with the leadership of the colleges on campus,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of College of Natural Resources and Environment. “She brings an enthusiastic and professional approach to every conversation and her diverse background, working outside academia, also adds to her fresh perspective. She is a strategic thinker, as well as a person of action, and the College of Science is in great hands moving forward.” 

In lock-step with the university’s call to become a world leader in research and reshape higher education, Morton has asked College of Science faculty to focus on four key themes:


Evolving science education to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce and help them become generators of knowledge; supporting the basic scientific disciplines essential to discovery; and advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge to address the world’s most pressing challenges. 


Applying quantitative and qualitative methodologies to the sciences, engineering, healthcare, business, and industry to promote evidence-based decisions; and pursuing a fundamental understanding of decision-making in all human endeavors, including understanding the brain and human decision-making processes, both clinically and behaviorally. 


Studying global systems and how they affect all aspects of life, how they are impacted by human behavior, and how they can be employed to promote well-being; and considering human and environmental interactions that range from earth resource challenges to infectious disease, and from cellular to community levels. 


Discovering and understanding the use of advanced materials, including polymers, biomaterials, bio-inspired materials, and geo-inspired materials, for health and medicine, the processing and communication of information, and energy generation and storage. 

“Everyone in the college belongs to this vision. Everyone in the college is essential to achieving this vision,” Morton said in her State of the College address. “Underlying these vital strategies is an iterative and flexible approach to reviewing and revising our plan with the university and the college so that we can adapt to opportunities as dictated by scientific progress and available resources and personnel.” 

Alongside the four key themes, the college faces a challenge—and an opportunity—in educating the vast majority of Virginia Tech students. At the undergraduate and graduate levels, the college annually teaches 248,000 credit hours; the majority are undergraduate, at 220,000. The college delivers close to 50 percent of the service teaching credit hours at Virginia Tech. 

“Almost every single student at Virginia Tech takes a class in the College of Science,” Morton said. “That could be considered a burden, but it is an opportunity to impact all students at Virginia Tech, and therefore to have a very wide impact on society. It’s our opportunity to teach the scientific method and scientific content to all students at the university.”