In today’s competitive research environment, developing an innovative and compelling project that makes an impact is more important than ever.

Whether focusing on issues of obesity prevention, improved decision-making about the built environment, or the effects of role models in reducing educational inequalities, researchers must demonstrate the merit of their ideas and a strong track record to secure external funding to move their research agendas forward.

The mission of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE) is to support faculty to do just that. As part of its signature ISCE Scholars Program, the institute has awarded six interdisciplinary teams seed funding for 2018-2019 to prepare them to successfully compete for external funding through such agencies as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other sources of public and private funding.

Brenda Davy, a professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise, is leading an interdisciplinary team focused on testing pre-meal water consumption to improve cognitive function and dietary adherence. ISCE funding will enable her to test a proof of concept for her team’s hypotheses, establish study measures, and obtain data to generate an appropriate sample size for a larger grant. Once this critical groundwork is completed, Davy’s team will be well positioned to strengthen a prior grant application that received positive reviews and favorable scores from NIH reviewers.

“We can now build upon our previous work in this area by conducting preliminary work to investigate potential mechanisms by which pre-meal water consumption facilitates weight loss and weight-loss maintenance,” said Davy, who is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are thrilled to add assistant professor of human development Ben Katz’s expertise in cognitive function assessment to our research team – this will greatly enhance the novelty and impact of our previously submitted proposal.” 

Davy and colleagues will conduct a pilot study with two groups, a pre-meal water group and a control group, to determine if the pre-meal water strategy improves performance on attention and inhibitory control measures and to determine whether these changes in turn promote weight loss and maintenance.

 “Although increasing water intake could be an effective weight management strategy, no evidence-based recommendations exist for the timing of water intake needed for this benefit,” Davy said. “Building upon our prior efficacy trial, we will propose a large-scale, rigorously designed intervention trial to address this research gap.”

Pre-tenured faculty also benefit as ISCE Scholars. Tripp Shealy, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Tom Skuzinski, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning, are collaborating to test interventions that vary the vividness of future scenarios and measure people’s reactions. They will use their study findings to inform and improve decision making about the built environment, especially related to land-use, development, and infrastructure.

“Oftentimes, planners, engineers, and residents make decisions that prioritize short-term gains over long-term resilience,” said Skuzinski who’s in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “For example, planners, developers, or residents may make decisions or support policies that increase development in coastal areas for economic reasons despite long-term concerns about sea-level rise and associated flooding.”

The potential impacts from their study are substantial. “Development and infrastructure in high risk areas – such as coastal lowlands – might satisfy current regulations and standard practices, but damage to coastal lowlands has cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $1 billion every year for the past decade due to flooding alone, apart from the many noneconomic costs to households and communities. Identifying low-cost interventions to change this kind of thinking is critical given the increased likelihood of extreme events in the coming decades,” said Shealy, of the College of Engineering.

The ISCE Scholars Program provides up to $30,000 for one year of funding for interdisciplinary teams to develop their projects and enhance their chances of success with outside funding sources.

“The six new projects show the breadth and depth of social and behavioral research engaged in by faculty supported by ISCE,” said Karen Roberto, ISCE director. “Their work addresses contemporary issues at the individual, community, and societal level that require interdisciplinary approaches. It’s this kind of collaboration that attracts the attention of external funding agencies and decision makers.”

The 2018-2019 ISCE Scholars and their projects are:

  •     France Belanger, professor of accounting and information systems in the Pamplin College of Business, and Katherine Allen, professor of human development and family science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who are conducting an interdisciplinary study of intelligent home assistants’ invasiveness in family units.
  •     Brenda Davy and Kevin Davy, both professors of human foods, nutrition, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Ben Katz, assistant professor of human development and family science, and J. Tina Savla, associate professor of human development and research methodologist for the Center for Gerontology, both in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who are exploring the cognitive, behavioral, and physiological aspects of pre-meal water consumption and weight loss.
  •       Siddharth Hari, assistant professor in economics; Sudipta Sarangi, professor and department head of economics, both in the College of Science; and Lisa McNair, associate professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering, who are seeking to understand the effects of role models in reducing inequalities in STEM education in Peru.
  •        Eunju Hwang, assistant professor of apparel, housing, and resource management in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; Nancy Brossoie, senior research associate in the Center for Gerontology; Sophie Wenzel, lecturer in population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Max Stephenson, professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, who are studying age-friendly community initiatives and policies.
  •       Ron Meyers, research assistant professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment; Todd Schenk, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies; Peter Sforza, of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology; and W. Mark Ford, unit leader of the U.S. Geological Survey Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, who are developing and testing an improved siting process for sustainable renewable energy facilities.
  •       Tripp Shealy, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and Thomas Skuzinski, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, who are identifying ways to use vividness to improve and rethink long-term resilience related to the built environment. 

Many of the projects align with Virginia Tech’s Destination Areas and Strategic Growth Areas, including the Adaptive Brain and Behavior, Data and Decisions, Global Systems Science, Integrated Security, and Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities destination areas, as well as the Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition and Policy strategic growth areas. 

For more information on the ISCE scholars, visit: https://isce.vt.edu/index3/index1.html.

Written by Yancey Crawford