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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2015 / 02 

Virginia Tech to confront environmental problems through interdisciplinary Global Change Center

February 16, 2015

Stephen Schoenholtz in Glacier National Park
Tree mortality is rising in many western parks due to the combined impacts of climate change, disease, and invasive species. Here, Stephen Schoenholtz, a professor of forest hydrology and soils in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, examines impacted forests in Glacier National Park.

The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech was officially chartered by the university as a center under the Fralin Life Science Institute.

Serving as director is Bill Hopkins, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and a Fralin affiliate. 

The center’s aim is to confront large-scale environmental problems such as habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change with interdisciplinary, innovative team science, drawing on the diverse expertise of researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Natural Resources and Environment, and the College of Science

“We have incredible expertise at Virginia Tech on each of these problems, but this talent is scattered around campus in different colleges and departments,” said Hopkins. “The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech will foster interactions among experts in a diversity of fields so that we can approach global change problems with a more holistic, interdisciplinary perspective.”

A recent example of a global change issue, according to Hopkins, is the sudden, rapid growth of phytoplankton in lakes and reservoirs in the United States, which impairs community drinking water. These toxic blooms are caused by a series of human-related factors such as climate change, altered land use, and pollution. 

“To effectively mitigate such complex environmental problems, research teams comprised of biologists, toxicologists, geochemists, engineers, climate modelers, and social scientists are needed,” Hopkins said.

In addition to establishing a core group of faculty researchers, the center is administering the Virginia Tech Graduate School’s Interfaces of Global Change Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program, established in 2013, which already supports 15 doctoral fellows from multiple colleges who are committed to research at the science-policy interface.

Together, faculty and student researchers aim to make the best science available to policymakers at the state, federal, and international levels. A key objective is to form meaningful partnerships with external stakeholders, including federal agencies, nongovernment organizations, and industry.

The center is a faculty-driven initiative with broad support from college deans and the upper university administration.

Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science, are excited about the center’s potential to use research to confront major societal issues.

“We have heard a lot about the changing climate over the past decade, and the reality is that the climate-induced changes taking place will impact our environment, our health, our water, our plants and animals, energy, diseases, and all aspects of life on the planet,” Winistorfer said. “Virginia Tech has deep and multi-faceted faculty expertise to ask the challenging questions about a changing future and how we can mitigate and cope with a very different world than we live in today. The Global Change Center will be a convening space on campus that will bring disciplines and expertise together.”

“The world is undergoing changes in all parts of the environment, all of which could lead to transformations that impact the stability of all societies,” Chang said. “These include warming trends globally, changes in the flora and fauna in distinct parts of the world, inclement weather patterns that affect food production, among others. Controlling undesirable consequences requires the application of expertise from multiple disciplines.Virginia Tech's culture and make-up provide the ideal setting for addressing the issues. And, the Global Change Center is the proper framework to carry out this important task and position the university to be the leader in this enterprise.” 

“Establishment of a Global Change Center is aligned with Virginia Tech’s mission as a land-grant university,” said Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “I am especially excited that the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is part of this collaborative effort because the center will help to integrate our research, education, and outreach efforts that address various global threats to agriculture, food, and health.”

Richard C. Benson, dean of the College of Engineering and the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Chair of Engineering, is excited about the center’s potential to create global engagement opportunities for students and faculty members.

"One of the strategic goals for the College of Engineering is to create a variety of international experiences for our students, including research," Benson said. "With the addition of the Global Change Center on the Virginia Tech campus, we look forward to new opportunities that will help us meet our goals."

An integral part of the Global Change Center is to create novel research training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, according to Hopkins. The center’s successful graduate education program already boasts graduate student researchers working across the commonwealth as well as in Panama, Ecuador, the Bahamas, Canada, and Namibia. 

“Regardless of whether students are working here in Virginia or in remote locations around the world, we want to help them think outside of their primary scientific discipline, consider how their research can benefit society, and develop skills to better communicate their findings to the public and to decision makers,” Hopkins said. “We are providing opportunities to students that might not be available in a traditional program.  We have already attracted enormously talented students to Virginia Tech who are hungry for this unique opportunity.  I am thrilled to see what the future holds for them.”

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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