New Destination Area 2.0 grants fund four interdisciplinary research projects

Originally posted by Melody Warnick

Four transdisciplinary Virginia Tech teams attempting to solve some of the world’s stickiest and most urgent challenges are getting a boost this spring from Destination Area 2.0 grants.

In December, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost awarded Destination Area 2.0 grants to collaborative projects that have the potential to heighten the university’s impact around invasive species mitigation, human-systems integration in health care, public interest technology, and pandemic prediction and prevention.

“These Destination Area 2.0 grants were a vote of confidence in the potential of these diverse, transdisciplinary teams to become global leaders in their areas of research,” said Dan Sui, Virginia Tech’s senior vice president for research and innovation, who co-chaired, along with Graduate School Dean Aimee Surprenant, the DA 2.0 proposal review committee. “They have an opportunity to make significant impacts, not only here at Virginia Tech, but worldwide.”

At Virginia Tech, the term “Destination Area” (DA) was introduced in 2016 to describe nine transdisciplinary communities that were formed around existing academic and research strengths. Investment in Adaptive Brain and Behavior, Creativity + Innovation, Data and Decisions, Economical and Sustainable Materials, Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition, Global Systems Science, Integrated Security, Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities, and +Policy yielded research centers, cluster hires, major grants, new courses and curricula, and an umbrella under which faculty from a broad range of departments could collaborate. 

As Executive Vice Provost Don Taylor explained, “Previous DA efforts have made us a destination for students interested in new transdisciplinary curricula, faculty members interested in building research programs in the boundaries between disciplines, and companies interested in hiring graduates who are ready to contribute to the creation of solutions across boundaries. We now turn our attention to funding DA-related projects with a tighter research focus to solve some of the world’s most daunting problems.”

The initial $50,000 planning and development grant includes an opportunity to apply for a larger Destination Area 2.0 grant later this spring to fund additional research, outreach and engagement, faculty lines, or student learning opportunities. 

Transdisciplinary collaboration across colleges remains key to Destination Areas. “It’s less about ownership by a college or by a specific institute,” said Associate Vice Provost Catherine Amelink. “That’s what’s going to make these faculty teams successful and allow them to do good work.”

The four recipients of Destination Area 2.0 grants are as follows:

Human Systems Integration in Health Care

Principal investigator: Sarah Parker, associate professor and chair of health systems and implementation science, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM)

Team members: Leslie LaConte, VTCSOM; Tom Martin, Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Aki Ishida, School of Architecture; Denis Gracanin, Department of Computer Science; Quinton Nottingham, Department of Business Information Technology; Nathan Lau, Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering; Kwok-Leung Tsui, Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering; Taylan Topcu, Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Technology infuses every aspect of modern-day health care, but not always effectively. Troublesome electronic charts exacerbate provider burnout. The design of telemonitoring and telehealth software isn’t optimized for the medical providers who use it.

With the Human Systems Integration in Health Care project, Parker and her team aim to integrate technology into health care settings in ways that improve both patient care and provider well-being. “It’s a different way of thinking about what health research means,” she said.

Researchers who have joined the project from engineering, business, architecture, and computer science have been thrilled by how much scope there is for rapid improvements. “We’re grateful for the chance to bring all of these people together and crystallize this idea  because it’s new and there’s a huge opportunity for Virginia Tech to become the destination for this type of research,” said LaConte, assistant dean of research with VTCSOM.

Invasive Species: Mitigating a Global Threat to Security

Principal investigator: Jacob Barney, associate professor, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences

Team members: Bryan Brown, Department of Biological Sciences; Luis Escobar, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; David Haak, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences; Emily Reed, Global Change Center; Haldre Rogers, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; Scott Salom, Department of Entomology; Mike Sorice, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation; Todd Schenk, School of Public and International Affairs

Invasive species, whether plants, animals, or pathogens, wreak havoc on human health, natural resources, and economic systems worldwide, costing an estimated $1.3 trillion globally each year. A team led by Barney plans to position Virginia Tech as a global leader in developing innovative science and policy solutions to better predict, detect, assess, and control invasive species. “This is an unparalleled effort that does not exist elsewhere,” said Barney.

Formed in 2017, the invasive species working group will use support from the Destination Areas 2.0 grant to host internal and external summits as well as to visit Washington, D.C., to connect with national and international leaders across stakeholder groups and plan next steps to make meaningful change.

Because of Virginia Tech’s proximity to federal policy-making centers and the diverse expertise of its plant ecologists, entomologists, social scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists, “we see an opportunity to be a leader and establish a center of excellence in this space,” said Barney.

Public Interest Technology Initiative

Principal investigator: Shalini Misra, associate professor, School of Public and International Affairs

Team members: Elinor Benami, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics; Fernanda Rosa, Department of Science, Technology, and Society; Benjamin Katz, Department of Human Development and Family Science; Navid Ghaffarzadegan, Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering; Patrick Roberts, School of Public and International Affairs; Shaddi Hasan, Department of Computer Science; Sylvester Johnson, associate vice provost for public interest technology

While the jury is still out on whether technology’s benefits outweigh its harms, the Public Interest Technology Initiative aims to tip the scales in favor of the public good by putting “justice, equity, accountability, and transparency in the forefront,” said Misra.

With a Destination Area 2.0 grant, Virginia Tech researchers will create a global research, education, and outreach program that collaborates with stakeholders to design, deploy, and govern technologies that address societal problems and advance equity.

The first project will be a partnership with the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency to develop technologies that add cultural and racial nuance to how managers address crises. “We want to close the responsibility gaps between machine decisions and human decisions,” said Misra.

Pandemic Prediction and Prevention

Principal investigator: T.M. Murali, professor, Department of Computer Science

Team members: Debswapna Bhattacharya, Department of Computer Science; Sanket Deshmukh, Department of Chemical Engineering; Luis Escobar, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation; Julie Gerdes, Department of English; Kathy Hosig, Department of Population Health Sciences; Anuj Karpatne, Department of Computer Science; Lisa M. Lee, Department of Population Health Sciences; X.J. Meng, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology; Padma Rajagopalan, Department of Chemical Engineering; Patricia Raun, School of Performing Arts; Webster Santos, Department of Chemistry; Paul Skolnik, VTCSOM; James Weger-Lucarelli, Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology

The Pandemic Prediction and Prevention project’s interdisciplinary team aims to battle the ever-present bugaboo of the next pandemic by training scientists to forecast and control future global outbreaks. How? By developing models of pathogen transmission, the evolution of viral sequences, and organoid models that support viral replication; designing automated methods to repurpose drugs for new viral infections; and ethically engaging communities to effectively shape and communicate pandemic science. 

The Pandemic Prediction and Prevention team already received a $1 million National Science Foundation grant. With funding from a Destination Area 2.0 grant, “we want to figure out the vision for this field of pandemic science for the next 10, 15, 20 years,” said Murali. “There’s a lot of concern in the scientific community about a lack of trust in federal health agencies. We’ve brought in these excellent collaborators to learn how to engage the community, understand their concerns about the science that we’re doing, and incorporate these interactions into the research we do.”