Robin Queen is an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering. Matthew McCullough is an associate professor in chemical, biological, and bioengineering at North Carolina A&T State University.

Both professors are interested in how tracking human movement can help prevent injuries and improve quality of life. They’ve known each other for years, worked together on a variety of initiatives through the American Society of Biomechanics, and had talked often about striking up a research collaboration.  

“But the question was, how do we get something big off the ground?” said Queen, who directs the Kevin P. Granata Biomechanics Lab. “We needed some pilot data to go after larger grants.”

The research required to collect pilot data launches this year, supported by startup funding from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

The Diversity and Inclusion Seed Grants program, now in its second year, is designed to foster sustained research partnerships between Virginia Tech faculty and faculty at historically black colleges and universities or other institutions serving primarily minority or under-represented students.

Stefan Duma is the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and the institute’s director.

“Ultimately, what we hope to see are long-term relationships between Virginia Tech and the institutions our faculty are partnering with,” Duma said. “Those connections will influence students at both schools far beyond the term of the original grant. And any time two faculty members bring complementary talents and perspectives to an important research problem, it multiplies the impact of their work.”

The movement data Queen and McCullough are interested in can help assess how well athletes are recovering from injuries, for example, or whether older adults might be at risk of a fall or other health problems. Locomotion reveals information about the health of the physical structures producing those movements and could be invaluable in detecting early functional decline.

But collecting that data in the real world, where people move in complex, unpredictable ways in sometimes-chaotic environments, is a technological challenge that current motion sensors haven’t quite caught up with yet.

Queen, McCullough, and their students will test potential solutions on a handful of participants at both campuses, evaluating whether one technology or method might be a promising topic for a larger study.

As the research unfolds, the groups will travel back and forth between the two universities, and Queen and McCullough will present exchange lectures in each other’s departments.

Active collaborations like this one yield extensive interaction between students and faculty, facilitating the fluid exchange of ideas and broadening the academic experience for students at both campuses.

“Opportunities for people to get outside their institution are incredibly important,” Queen said. “Not just for historically black universities, but also for women and underrepresented minority groups, especially for us in engineering.”

One reason, she says, is that expanding the pool of other academics students interact with gives them more opportunities to encounter potential role models and mentors. That’s important, because being able to identify with a mentor can determine whether or not a student decides to pursue a career in research and in many cases is a determining factor in these students remaining in academia.

“If you don’t see someone who looks like you who’s been successful, it’s really easy to think, ‘How am I going to break into that world, is it even possible?’” Queen explains.

It’s a challenge that she and McCullough are both familiar with.

“Neither one of us have had many mentors in our careers from our respective minority group — for me female mentors and for him African-American mentors in our respective fields,” Queen said. 

“So to a certain extent, both of us as faculty feel a sense of obligation to be that person — to say ‘You can accomplish this. It’s not always easy but it’s doable, and this is how you can manage it.’ We believe that the more people you encounter that can provide this type of example and reassurance, the easier it is for students to jump in and say, ‘I absolutely can do this.’”

Fifteen projects were funded by ICTAS Diversity and Inclusion Seed Grants this year:

  • Quenching quorum sensing molecules for biofilm control. Led by Zhiwu Wang, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, with Kimberly Jones, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Howard University, and Patrick Ymele-Leki, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Howard.
  • Developing an engineering-focused physics curriculum in preparation for transfer to a partner university. Led by Jake Socha, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, and Willie Rockward, an associate professor of physics at Morehouse College.
  • New generation of energy-harvesting systems. Led by Shima Shahab, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, with Jerald Dumas, an assistant professor of engineering at Hampton University.  
  • Stormwater modeling and monitoring for green infrastructure. Led by David Sample, an associate professor of biological systems engineering, with Shobha Sriharan, a professor of agriculture at Virginia State University.
  • Noninvasive health assessment and tracking. Led by Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and director of the Granata Biomechanics Lab, with Matthew McCullough, an associate professor of chemical, biological, and bioengineering at North Carolina A&T State University.
  • In-situ experiments on additively manufactured 3-D metals to uncover the origins of the loss in their mechanical properties. Led by Reza Mirzaeifar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with Emmanuel Karikari, an assistant professor of physics at Morehouse College.
  • From chemistry to multifunctional materials. Led by Kathy Lu, a professor of materials science and engineering, with Victor Vilchiz and Grace Ndip, both associate professors of chemistry at Virginia State University, and Godwin Mbagwu, a professor of chemistry at Virginia State.
  • Responsible Innovation in the 21st Century: Exploring the importance of intercultural and interdisciplinary experiences. Led by Matthew Hull, a business development manager at ICTAS, with Carla Padilla of Fayetteville State University.
  • Compact electron transport layers. Led by Feng Lin, an assistant professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech, and Qilin Dai, an assistant professor of physics at Jackson State University.
  • RNA Sequencing. Led by Glenda Gillaspy, a professor of biochemistry, with Camellia Okpodu, a professor of biology at Norfolk State University.
  • Drone-based lidar for measuring forage quality in small animal production systems. Led by Cully Hession, a professor of biological systems engineering, with Peter Sforza, the director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology, and Vitalis W. Temu, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University.
  • Isolation and application of thermophilic bacteria isolated from Yellowstone for production of ethanol and other biochemicals from lignocellulose waste material. Led by Haibo Huang, an assistant professor in the department of food science and technology, with Suping Zhou, a research professor at Tennessee State University
  • Machine Learning-based data analytics for online quality control of additive manufacturing. Led by James Kong, an associate professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, with Zhenhua Wu, an assistant professor at Virginia State University.
  • LEWAS Lab-based collaborative activities. Led by Vinod Lohani, a professor of engineering education, with Eui Park and Manoj Jha, a professor and an associate professor at North Carolina A&T State University.
  • A joint partnership for modeling and simulation in applied mathematics. Led by James Turner, a professor of mathematics, with faculty members at Morgan State University, North Carolina A&T University, and Virginia State University.

The projects led by Hession, Lohani, Huang, Kong, and Turner were all developed following this year’s HBCU/Minority-Serving Institution Research Summit.

The summit, a partnership of the College of Engineering, the Graduate School, and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, is a multiday event during which students can explore research and degree opportunities, and hear from others who have gone on to pursue graduate studies.

The Diversity and Inclusion Seed Grants provide $10,000 to each team of collaborators. The funding can be used for shared equipment, lab space, technology, or travel.

Seed funding can sometimes be the key to launching a collaboration that can take both researchers’ work in new directions.

“It’s easy to collaborate with the person next door. It’s harder to collaborate with someone who’s a state or two away but has some really amazing ideas,” Queen said. “Providing a little bit of funding, even if all it does is cover the cost of travel back and forth between institutions, can bridge that gap and allow sustainable collaborations.”