Karen A. Roberto has been named as the interim director of the newly created Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE), it was announced by Jerry Niles, chair of the new institute's stakeholders' committee.

“Dr. Roberto brings extensive experience as a research administrator who has a long history of successful grant work at Virginia Tech,” said Niles, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Moreover, she is known for her ability to promote highly collaborative interdisciplinary research teams.”

Roberto has directed the university's Center for Gerontology for the last 10 years, bringing in nearly 1.5 million in research dollars. With a primary mission to conduct and support multidisciplinary gerontological research, the center has more than 60 faculty affiliates representing seven colleges and 25 departments/units across campus. In addition to its emphasis on research that enhances the quality of life of older adults, the center also supports the mission of the land-grant university through its learning and engagement activities. The center frequently collaborates with other institutions of higher education, state governmental agencies, hospitals, and community services.

A professor of adult development and aging in the Department of Human Development, Roberto is also an adjunct research professor of community medicine and geriatrics in the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine. In 2002-03, Roberto served as the interim associate dean for research in the former College of Human Science and Education. A fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, and the National Council on Family Relations, Roberto was named the Gordon Streib Academic Gerontologist Award winner by the Southern Gerontological Society in 2004 and honored with the University Alumni Award for Excellence in Research at Virginia Tech in 2006.

“I am honored to serve in a leadership position as the University launches this new institute,” said Roberto. “As noted by the National Academy of Science, there is great potential and need for interdisciplinary research and scholarship. I foresee my primary role as director of ISCE as fostering and facilitating such opportunities within the arts, humanities, and social sciences.”

In concert with its newly updated strategic plan, “the mission, scope, and programmatic focus for ISCE is the area of Social and Individual Transformation which is one of four discovery scholarship domains,” said Mark McNamee, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The new institute will strengthen the university’s competitive position in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.”

According to the 2006-2012 Strategic Plan Update, scholarship in this area “will focus on the causes and consequences of the increased interdependence of economic, social, political, and institutional systems. Research based in social and individual transformation touches both societal and individual life, extending from public policy to personal identity and including explorations of the constructions of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. The results will assist in understanding and addressing critical and emerging issues at the societal and individual levels and contribute toward planning for a sustainable future.”

According to Brad Fenwick, vice president for research, the Virginia Tech plan also “provides direction concerning the goals of ISCE, which include fostering a creative, interactive, and multidisciplinary environment for intellectually important research and creative effort in the social sciences, humanities, and arts” as well as serving “as the main nexus for externally funded interdisciplinary research and creative artistic endeavors.”

The primary programmatic focus of ISCE is centered on five concentrations:

  • governance and globalization;
  • community arts, built environments, and urban formations;
  • human development and behavioral health;
  • rhetoric, representation, and public humanities; and
  • social complexity and individual risk.


The initial funding ($500,000 on an annual basis) will enable the institute to establish its infrastructure, build collaborative relationships and select several focus areas on which to begin work. There will be a need to stage the sequential development of these areas and take advantage of current particularly promising opportunities, including new prospects in the National Capital Region.

The Institute will be guided by a stakeholders committee which includes the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (Chair); dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies; dean of the Pamplin College of Business; dean of the College of Science; dean of the Graduate School; vice president for research; the executive director of the National Capital Region; and the University Senior Fellow for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. The director(s) will be recruited, appointed by, and annually evaluated by the stakeholders.

“The establishment of ISCE represents the university’s firm commitment to the development of research and graduate programs in the arts, humanities, and social sciences,” said Niles. “It will enable faculty in these areas to aggressively and creatively pursue funding opportunities to support their innovative work in enhancing the quality of life for individuals and society as a whole.”

The Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment joins ICTAS (Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science), IBPHS (Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences), VBI (Virginia Bioinformatics Institute) and VTTI (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute) as major university institutes that will contribute to sustained research growth and scholarly advancement. The new institute was developed in tandem with the University’s Strategic Plan update by the Administrative Coordinating Council for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, which adopted the name of Society, Culture and Environment, in 2003 to focus its promotion of new degree programs and research clusters in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment will serve as a “research center incubator” in that it will provide organizational and financial support for emerging multi-disciplinary research groups. In time, these groups will become sufficiently large to warrant the founding of an independent center and ISCE could turn its attention and resources to other opportunities.