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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2007 / 10 

For researchers, a new facility can make all the difference

October 25, 2007

Percival Zhang (left) works with a student in a biological systems engineering research laboratory.
Percival Zhang (left) works with a student in a biological systems engineering research laboratory.

When Percival Zhang started at Virginia Tech he worked in shared lab space. But when Latham Hall opened last year, Zhang, along with colleagues from across campus, received a lot more room in which to work and innovate.

Like many others, Zhang (at left in photo) has made the most of his new surroundings. The U.S. Air Force recently announced Zhang will receive one of its Young Investigator Research Program grants. The grant will further Zhang’s work converting plant sugars to hydrogen, a step towards more efficient, clean burning engines that run on plant matter instead of fossil fuels.

An assistant professor of biological systems engineering, whose past discoveries include how to make better use of corn in ethanol production, Zhang said access to Latham Hall has “made a big difference for me.”

Zhang is one of several Virginia Tech researchers, from across multiple departments, working on projects to tap biological material for energy. Bingyu Zhao, assistant professor of horticulture, is investigating which breeds of switch grass have the most potential as fuel. Associate Professor of Horticulture Eric Beers and Associate Professor of Forestry Amy Brunner are studying the genetics of poplar trees to try to increase their biomass and make them more suitable for fuel.

Craig Nessler, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), said Latham Hall has become a gathering place where faculty from different departments are discovering how their individual research interests can complement the work of colleagues.

“We have the ability to share equipment,” Nessler said. “We have the ability to share ideas, and we have the ability for our students to interact with a variety of faculty.”

University officials want all research deans to be able to say the same thing. To ensure that is the case, they are seeking private support to improve research facilities as one of the main goals of The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, a $1 billion fundraising initiative announced Oct. 20. Within the campaign, a goal of $130 million was set for improving research infrastructure with new equipment, new buildings, and renovations to existing structures.

University officials believe that, along with the role they play in important discoveries, research facilities are one of the key things that faculty members and students look at when deciding whether to work at or attend Virginia Tech.

“One of the things that active faculty need is to attract the best graduate students and undergraduates to work in their lab,” Nessler explained. “So the facilities are important for that.”

Nessler added, “I was lured from Texas A&M to Virginia Tech because I was shown the plans for Latham Hall.”

The hall was named for William and Elizabeth Latham in recognition of their longstanding support of the university, including a $5 million gift to support CALS research.

With a total goal of $1 billion, The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future marks a new era in private fundraising for the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The campaign’s funding priorities target five goals: academic excellence, the undergraduate experience, research facilities, Virginia Tech and the community, and the President’s Discovery Fund, a pool of unrestricted funds.