Virginia Tech’s research expenditures are up, in addition to an increase in sponsored awards by 15 percent, building upon the last fiscal year’s expenditure total of $542 million, despite the impact of COVID-19 felt nationally by higher education institutes, according to preliminary fiscal year end reports.
Don Taylor, interim vice president for research and innovation and executive provost, provided an update to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors on Aug. 25.
“I am extremely pleased that we were able to fulfill several high-level goals this year,” said Taylor. “With collaborative efforts from my leadership team, combined with colleges, institutes, and numerous centers, were able to maintain momentum and improve culture and programs, laying the groundwork for future university-wide research and innovation success.”
Taylor and his team’s accomplishments for the year encompass hiring talent to fulfill a critical need for support, building upon large projects of sponsored research that work to enhance and strengthen interdisciplinary projects, strengthening relationships with colleges and institutes, advancing the innovation aspect of the portfolio, and improving overall communications strategy.
Additional wins for the enterprise include creating a task force that will seek to build a single national security center — a partnership between the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology and the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation; completing the merger of Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the entity formerly known as the Biocomplexity Institute with new leadership at the helm; establishing the Shared Facilities Initiative; and fully integrating Destination Areas into the research mission.
Awards reflect momentum for institutes, colleges
For sponsored research awards, funding was up by 15 percent more than the previous year — a leading indicator that next year’s expenditures will be higher. On average, the individual award size was nearly 13 percent larger than last year, an indicator of larger projects with increased predictability and stability for researchers. The largest external sponsors for Virginia Tech for the past year include the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“The increase in award size is directly attributed to university investments since most major awards are tied back to our institutes or cost share,” said Trudy Riley, associate vice president for research and innovation, sponsored programs. “Significant progress in sponsored programs plays a pivotal role in supporting and facilitating the overall continued growth of Virginia Tech’s diverse research portfolio.”
Riley’s leadership of research’s sponsored programs resulted in a steady revenue stream with no reductions in proposal submissions or awards made to Virginia Tech, even during the height of the pandemic. Her team assisted in forming a COVID-19 Rapid Response Team that expedited more than 130 virus-related proposals and worked to maintain compliance regarding federal regulations impacted by the pandemic. In the last few months of the fiscal year, approximately 20 external COVID-related awards were received.
Several of the university’s thematic institutes and university-level centers had record award years. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) had new awards approaching $50 million, up 58 percent over the prior year to further the institute’s ability to lead advancements in roadway safety and technology research. The Hume Center ended the year at $18 million and up 12 percent and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC reached $31 million in annual awards — an increase of 25 percent — with approximately $25 million of its total from the NIH, accounting for approximately half of the NIH funding at Virginia Tech.
VTTI received several large-scale grants and contracts from public- and private-sector partners over the course of this fiscal year, including two external awards totaling $15 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation Automated Driving System Demonstration.
Colleges also saw a rise in awards over the past year. The College of Science saw an increase of awards by 26 percent and a 71 percent increase over the last four years, partially driven by Fralin Biomedical Research Institute faculty that have tenure in the college. The College of Engineering increased external research awards by almost 10 percent over 2019 and up 20 percent since 2016, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine increased its research awards by 40 percent over the prior year.
For the 2020 fiscal year, 14 Virginia Tech early career scientists and engineers were granted National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards totaling more than $4 million in research funding for projects ranging from examining support structures for Black and Latinx students to improving performance growth of cyberinfrastructure systems, such as supercomputers and computing data centers that are critical to the U.S. economy.
The momentum continued into fiscal year 2021 with a major institute-level award to Virginia Tech. The NSF committed almost $23 million to a new multiuniversity partnership to accelerate complex glycomaterials research in the U.S., led by Virginia Tech’s Maren Roman, associate professor of sustainable biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and a transdisciplinary team that will include members from the College of Science, College of Engineering, and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
Researchers pivot to affect humanity on grand scale
As of August, there have been more than 23 million reported cases of COVID-19 infections, worldwide. In response, Virginia Tech faculty from every discipline and practice have put their knowledge to work on behalf of the community, region, state, nation, and the world, thus demonstrating the value of a comprehensive land grant at an unprecedented time in history.
“Our community thrives in our Ut Prosim culture — one of service and selfless dedication to the betterment of humanity,” said Taylor, who also holds the Charles O. Gordon Professorship. “That dedication, coupled with a diverse portfolio of disciplines and sponsors providing flexibility, allow our faculty, staff, and students to be nimble and uniquely respond to major global events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Rising to the challenge, Virginia Tech launched the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens that will position the university to become a national and international leader in advancing transformative science and developing effective countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases. Directed by X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, the center is administratively established in the Fralin Life Science Institute and will include faculty participants from at least seven colleges and more than 25 departments on campus.
A team from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science developed a COVID-19 test and secured federal and state approvals to process samples at on-campus labs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke that are now being used to test on-campus students at a rate of 1,000 per day.
Research groups from colleges, institutes, and multiple campuses joined in a coordinated response to design, produce, and test critical equipment like PPE and ventilator components. Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Engineering; Chris Williams, the L.S Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Alex Leonessa, professor of mechanical engineering; Edmundo Rubio, Carilion’s chief of pulmonology and critical care medicine and professor in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and their students worked to develop, test, and produce face masks and respirators. Matt Hull, Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences (ICTAS) researcher and Virginia Tech alumnus, has been instrumental in coordinating specialized testing required to evaluate the permeability of PPE to nanoscale materials — including the custom face shields the Helmet Lab is developing for the football team.
An international collaboration of William Ducker, professor of chemical engineering, with Leo Poon, professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, developed a surface coating that when painted on common objects, inactivates SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Faculty members Shalini Misra and Kris Wernstedt in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ School of Public and International Affairs received one of the university’s first COVID-19 grants. With the NSF RAPID grant, the researchers will examine the risk and behavior in response to digital information during the COVID-19 crisis, which focuses on the social science effects of the virus and its cross-disciplinary connection to health science and technology.
With funding from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, researchers James Weger-Lucarelli and Nisha Duggal, from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, are establishing a reverse genetics system for SARS-CoV-2 that will serve as the basis for vaccine design and for studying viral mutations associated with COVID-19 severity and viral transmission.
Wu Feng, Professor of Computer Science in the College of Engineering, and Guohua Cao, a visiting scientist in computer science, with an NSF grant, are developing deep-learning-based algorithms that can boost the resolution of CT scans — an approach that searches for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by looking not for the virus itself but for the telltale damage it leaves behind.
Additionally, Virginia Tech faculty are lending their expertise to lead the national and global dialog regarding various aspects of the virus, including Marr; Lisa M. Lee, associate vice president for scholarly integrity and research compliance and a research professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences; and Laura Hungerford, department head of population health sciences and professor of veterinary public health and epidemiology, among many others. They have been quoted in media outlets that include the New York Times, BBC, CBS News, the Wall Street Journal, and more.
Internal funding propels research
In the spring, when research around the country was shutting down, about 50 Virginia Tech COVID-19 research projects were initiated and seed funds put in place to propel projects with funding from the Office of Research and Innovation and various institutes. By investing in faculty projects, these funds enable researchers to pursue larger grants from the federal government to expand current work.
Nearly 100 COVID-19 research proposals were submitted to the internally funded COVID-19 Rapid Response Seed Fund with nine projects selected on research topics that range from neurological impacts of SARS-CoV-2 to assessment and mitigation of virus airborne exposure risk in indoor environments with automated building systems.
All institutes were able to provide internal funding for their faculty in response to the pandemic. For example, the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment provided technical assistance and/or financial support for three social science-oriented NSF RAPID awards for the following projects: Information Privacy Tensions and Decisions in Families during COVID-19, Effects of COVID-19 on Community Solidarity, and Distancing and Digital Information in the Face of COVID-19.
Initiated at the start of the new fiscal year, but spurred on by the seed funding, The TECH Together Campaign leveraged the creativity and talent of the student body to solve real challenges the campus community will face due to COVID-19 in innovative ways.
Strengthening research through collaboration
The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative entered its first year as a statewide, collaborative network. With a total of $20 million supporting advanced cyber technology research and development at the intersection of data, autonomy, and security, CCI represents a major opportunity to ensure Virginia’s lead in the global cyber economy. Over the past year, nodes across Virginia were certified, including a Virginia Tech-led Southwest Virginia node, the network began working to build a statewide 5g wireless security testbed, strengthening trustworthy artificial intelligence, and awarding competitive grants for CCI Fellows and experiential learning programs.
The university entered a new partnership with Children’s National Hospital to build a 12,000-square-foot biomedical research laboratory at the new Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C., that will focus on pediatric brain cancer research. This partnership signifies Virginia Tech’s investment in cancer research, including the formalization of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance – a cohort of more than 25 research teams studying brain, breast, colon, lung, liver, and bone cancers in animals and humans.
The integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, an NIH-funded Clinical and Translational Science Award partnership between Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Carilion Clinic, and Inova Health System, awarded its second round of health research pilot projects to multi-institutional research teams.
At the helm of LINK+LICENSE+LAUNCH, Brandy Salmon, associate vice president for innovation and partnerships, and her team ensured seamless transition to virtual, yet full-service industry and faculty support during the pandemic. LINK facilitated a full suite of partnership discussions, while closing multiple million-dollar-plus investments and gifts-in-kind to support research and educational missions. LICENSE closed out 2020 with more than 20 licenses, including numerous start-ups, a 30 percent increase over 2018 and a 15 percent increase over the previous year, and filed more than 120 patent applications. LAUNCH initiated the Proof-of-Concept fund with over 30 applications and a significant uptick in invention disclosures to seed the next generation of new ventures.
Talent supports research infrastructure
In March, three leadership members were appointed to the research and innovation team that are critical to support the enterprise’s infrastructure and future growth, said Taylor. Luiz A. DaSilva, an internationally recognized expert in networks, joined the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative as the inaugural executive director. Matt Hulver, previously the assistant dean of health sciences and head of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, was appointed executive director for Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Also joining the team — Lindsey Haugh, previously director of communications for the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, was named director of marketing and communications. She is working to advance internal and external communications and marketing strategies for the Office of Research and Innovation.