skip to main content

Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / April 

Research teams led by junior faculty win seed funding for new projects

April 5, 2018

Biology professor Kendra Sewall and a student researcher.

Biology professor in lab
Kendra Sewall, right, an assistant professor of biological sciences, with a student researcher in her lab. Sewall is one of the recipients of a Junior Faculty Award. She'll use the seed funding to study how low-level lead exposure affects cognitive development, using songbirds as a model.

What does it take to get a new project off the ground?

An idea — maybe one that offers a new angle on some of the university’s most celebrated research.

It takes expertise — often from several faculty members who pool their knowledge to tackle a question that extends beyond a single researcher’s focus area.

And it takes funding, to support the day-to-day lab work that transforms an idea into data.

“A lot of the time, the limiting factor can be just having enough hands to do the work,” said Kendra Sewall, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and one of the recipients of the latest round of Junior Faculty Awards from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

Junior Faculty Awards provide up to $40,000 in funding each year for two years. That’s about how much it takes to fund a graduate student, and in fact, the award budgets are often allocated that way.

For Sewall, the funding will allow her to assign a doctoral student to a new project: a study of how low levels of lead affect early cognitive development, using an animal model with some unique similarities to human neurological development — songbirds.

The institute’s flagship funding program, the Junior Faculty Awards are designed to provide seed funding for new projects that have the potential to grow into vibrant research programs attracting major federal grants.

In addition to fostering novel research, another goal of the program is to encourage collaboration: eligible projects are partnerships between a pre-tenure, tenure-track faculty member and a more senior researcher in another department.

Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering, is the director of the research institute.

“One way to draw the attention of funding agencies is to present a new take on a difficult problem — sometimes you can spark that by bringing together people with different perspectives.” Duma said. “So we’ve structured the award program to facilitate those collaborations, which also help new faculty members grow their research programs.”  

In Sewall’s case, she’ll be working with Chris Thompson, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience, and Madeline Schreiber, a professor of geosciences. Inspired by University Distinguished Professor Marc Edwards’ work in Flint, Michigan, the team will study one of the particularly insidious aspects of lead contamination.   

Childhood lead exposure has measurable consequences for speech and cognitive development, even at levels below the EPA’s allowable threshold and below what would be clinically treated as lead poisoning.

The mechanism of that damage, however, isn’t well-understood. Songbirds, Sewall reasoned, could be an ideal model for investigating it, because their brain development mirrors human children’s in a couple of key ways.

“They learn the songs they sing in a way that is analogous to the way that humans learn speech,” she explained. And like humans, songbirds have an extended period of rapid brain development.

Sewall hopes that studying how lead interferes with that process in songbirds could help elucidate what happens in humans, and potentially inform the development of possible treatments.

Twelve projects were selected for Junior Faculty Awards in 2018:

  • Noise produced by small unmanned aircraft systems and flight path planning to minimize population annoyance. Led by Nathan Alexander, an assistant professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, with Antonio Trani, a professor in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 
  • Developing a novel platform for generating flavivirus vaccines. Led by Jonathan Auguste, an assistant professor of entomology, with Josep Bassaganya-Riera, a research professor at the Biocomplexity Institute, and X.J. Meng, a University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.  
  • Leveraging metagenomic “big data” for the discovery of novel microbial diversity in the biosphere. Led by Frank Aylward, an assistant professor of biological sciences, with Liqing Zhang, an associate professor of computer science.
  • Macroscopic synthetic trees for water extraction and energy harvesting. Led by Jonathan Boreyko, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, with David Schmale, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
  • Scalable nano-integrated fiber arrays for multifunctional neural interfacing. Led by Xiaoting Jia, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with Harald Sontheimer, the director of the School of Neuroscience.
  • Designing high-energy anode materials for long-life and safe all-solid-state batteries. Led by Feng Lin, an assistant professor of chemistry, with Michael Ellis, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Hongliang Xin, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.
  • Augmenting computer vision with crowdsourcing to identify people in historical and modern photographs. Led by Kurt Luther, an assistant professor of computer science, with Paul Quigley, the James I. Robinson Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
  • The language of online extremism: Computational models for discovery and analysis of framing around extremists’ narratives. Led by Tanushree Mitra, an assistant professor of computer science, with James Hawdon, a professor of sociology.
  • Designing interactive human-aware academic spaces to enhance user experience through ubiquitous information management. Led by Nazila Roofigari-Esfa, an assistant professor of building construction at the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, with Elham Morshedzadeh, an assistant professor of industrial design at the School of Architecture+Design, and Thomas Martin, a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • Song learning in birds as a model for understanding the consequences of childhood lead exposure. Led by Kendra Sewall, an assistant professor of biological sciences, with Madeline Schreiber, a professor of geosciences, and Christopher Thompson, an assistant professor of neuroscience.
  • Balancing collaboration and autonomy for multi-robot multi-human search and rescue. Led by Ryan Williams, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with Nicole Abaid, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, and James McClure, a computational scientist at Advanced Research Computing in the Division of Information Technology.   
  • Mitigation and adaptation: Using silvopasture to sequester carbon and keep cows cool. Led by Gabriel Pent, a ruminant livestock systems specialist at the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Experiment Station, with John Munsell, an associate professor of forest resources and environmental conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and John Fike, an associate professor of crop and soil environmental sciences.

The program focuses on research aligned with five Destination Areas — the adaptive brain and behavior, data and decision sciences, intelligent infrastructure, integrated security, and global systems science — and the economical and sustainable materials Strategic Growth Area.

“I think that it’s encouraging people to find each other and to tap into other areas of expertise, so you can really do something innovative and potentially with a huge impact,” Sewall said.

The award announcement is typically posted in December, with applications due in February. More information on the Junior Faculty Awards and other ICTAS funding programs, is available here