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Inaugural College of Science Dean’s Discovery Fund provides support for faculty research

June 23, 2017

College of Science Dean Sally Morton with students.

Sally Morton speaks with students
College of Science Dean Sally C. Morton speaks with students on the Virginia Tech campus.

Ten faculty projects have been selected for the inaugural year of the alumni-endowed Virginia Tech College of Science Dean’s Discovery Fund as part of its mission to support vital research advances. Funded projects range from cancer treatment to a neutrino detector.

Established by Dean Sally C. Morton, the fund is made possible by the Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Chair, endowed by the College of Science Roundtable Advisory Board. The fund was established after Morton heard a common refrain from faculty during her initial visits to college laboratories and offices: There is an unmet need for pilot funding to kick-start new ideas, invite speakers, support pilot research, and more. 

All funded projects meet the college’s core research themes of integrated science; data and decision sciences, including the adaptive brain; global change; and materials for health, information, and energy, which support the Virginia Tech Beyond Boundaries initiative launched by President Tim Sands.

“Investing the discretionary funds from this endowed chair back into faculty and their research efforts carries on the legacy of Dean Chang, honors the intent of the advisory board’s gift, and seeds the growth and prosperity of the college’s future,” Morton said. “Our shared vision is to be science leaders who discover, create, inspire, and inform, and if these funds help, if only a little, in this endeavor, they will be well-spent. We are grateful for this funding opportunity through our Roundtable Advisory Board.”

Because dozens of research proposals were submitted this past spring from across the college, members of the Dean’s Discovery Fund selection committee decided to fund 10 projects rather than an original five, with $80,000 in funding for the added projects coming from the college’s Annual Fund for supporting activities with the greatest impact on faculty and students. A total of $160,100 was funded. 

Selectees this year are:

  • Daniela Cimini, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences. Amount: $10,000. Project: Tetraploidy as a driver of tumor evolution.
  • Carla Finkielstein, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences. Amount: $20,000. Project: 3-D engineered scaffolds to study mechanotransduction in tumor dormancy. Research partner: Rafael Davalos, professor in Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.
  • Jonathan Link, professor, Department of Physics. Amount: $20,000. Project: The CHANDLER reactor neutrino detector. Research partners: Patrick Huber, professor, and Camilli Mariani, associate professor, Department of Physics; and Ali Haghighat, professor in Department of Mechanical Engineering, part of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.
  • Honghu Liu, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics. Amount: $11,000. Project: Stochastic nonlinear reduced order modeling of the El Nino southern oscillation. Research partner: Traian Iliescu, professor in the Department of Mathematics.
  • Shaowen Luo, assistant professor, Department of Economics. Amount: $19,400. Project: A tale of two networks: trade and financial linkages in the global economy. Research partners: Shyam Ranganathan, assistant professor with Department of Statistics; Sudipta Sarangi, professor, and Kwok Ping ‘Byron’ Tsang, associate professor, both Department of Economics.
  • Amanda Morris, associate professor, Department of Chemistry. Amount: $20,000. Project: Acquisition of a Micromeritics 3Flex surface area analyzer. Researcher partners: Robert Moore, professor; John Morris, professor; Greg Liu, assistant professor; Richard Turner, research professor, all Department of Chemistry; and Michael Ellis, associate professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering.
  • John Richey, assistant professor, Department of Psychology. Amount: $19,700. Project: Mechanisms of innate immune responses to mindfulness meditation. Research partner: Irving Coy Allen, assistant professor in Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, part of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • Judy Riffle, professor, Department of Chemistry. Amount: $10,000. Project: Desalination of water via membrane separations: electrodialysis.
  • Birgit Scharf, associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences. Amount: $20,000. Project: Identification of cancer-induced bacterial promoters and discovery of new cancer targets through dual transcriptome analysis. Research partner: Liwu Li, professor, biological sciences.
  • Srijan Sengupta, assistant professor, Department of Statistics. Amount: $10,000. Project: Scalable statistical inference and anomaly detection for large, sparse networks.

Projects were selected for their potential to advance the frontiers of scientific research and to catalyze funding from external sources, said Randy Heflin, associate dean for research and graduate studies with the College of Science. 

The Lay Nam Chang Dean’s Chair in the College of Science was established in 2016 by the College of Science Roundtable Advisory Board in honor of Lay Nam Chang, founding dean of the College of Science. The Roundtable Advisory Board comprises college alumni and friends that have helped guide the college since its founding in 2003.

In establishing the chair, the group sought to provide discretionary funds to enhance existing programs and develop new initiatives within the College of Science and help ensure its overall strong future.

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