Research at Virginia Tech is booming. Research expenditures have climbed to $531 million as innovation in every corner of campus fuels discovery across the spectrum of academic disciplines. Blossoming transdisciplinary collaborations and powerful industry partnerships carve out new areas of strength and bolster the university’s capacity to address major societal challenges. 

This expansion opens up a multitude of opportunities for researchers; it also calls for a robust infrastructure to underpin new types of projects and help shape bold initiatives that can effectively harness the energy and talent suffusing the research enterprise.

To help ensure that researchers have the tools to pursue their biggest, most ambitious ideas and tackle the stickiest problems in their field, the university is tapping the expertise of the people who know firsthand what it takes to execute research at the highest level: the faculty.  

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI) has established a new Faculty Fellows Program, which selects faculty leaders for up to three-year terms to contribute to the development of Virginia Tech’s research and innovation infrastructure in targeted areas.  

“As we continue our rapid growth in the research and innovation space, we must ensure that Virginia Tech has systems in place to support the exceptional work of our research community,” said Theresa Mayer, the university’s vice president for research and innovation. “This program will offer a new mechanism to engage faculty and deepen the dialogue among the many groups that are working together to move our research enterprise forward.” 

The Faculty Fellows will lead initiatives in areas like human research protections, shared research facilities, and start-ups that are critical to research productivity and smoothing the path from the lab bench to real-world applications. 

A similar program was crafted more than a decade ago in what was then called the Office of the Vice President for Research. Jack Lesko, now the associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering, participated in that program as a Faculty Administrative Fellow.  

“The Faculty Fellows program gave me a unique, eye-opening perspective on the operations of the university and specifically the research enterprise,” Lesko said. “I had the opportunity to witness the day-to-day operations and understand the context of those elements of research administration I had previously witnessed from the vantage point of the work-a-day faculty member.”  

As one of his assignments, Lesko, who is also a faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, helped lead the Dean’s Forum on Energy alongside Richard Hirsh, a professor in the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. 

“The experience of working on issues important to advancing specific interdisciplinary research agendas provided me with skills and perspective that still serve me now as an associate dean,” Lesko said. 

The current form of the program was inspired by conversations with faculty groups, college and institute leadership, the Office of Strategic Affairs, and other stakeholders about the challenges faculty faced in an expanding research ecosystem and how best to align the research enterprise with the university’s strategic priorities. Those ongoing conversations will continue to guide the evolution of the program and inform the selection of focus areas for each new fellowship. 

“Faculty needs inevitably evolve as the research enterprise grows,” Mayer said. “The input and expertise of our Faculty Fellows and their ability to engage effectively with groups across campus, will help OVPRI direct its resources to have the greatest impact on the faculty experience today and lay the groundwork for what we want research at Virginia Tech to look like five or 10 years from now.” 

Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, will be the inaugural member of the program as Virginia Tech’s first OVPRI Faculty Fellow for Health Data Privacy. 

Queen’s fellowship will be formally housed in the Division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance, a division founded last fall and headed by bioethics and human-research expert Lisa M. Lee. Queen will work closely with the Privacy and Research Data Protection Program and members of the faculty to help build a data infrastructure that will answer researchers’ immediate needs and anticipate requirements that emerge over the next decade.   

“We are thrilled to welcome Robin’s expertise on board to help us create a data protection infrastructure that is useful to all researchers across campus,” Lee said. “She will assist us in assessing faculty needs — both current and in the coming years — so we can build a system that meets the needs of our world class researchers,” Lee said.

Queen, who directs the Kevin P. Granata Biomechanics Lab, will lead an initiative to build a university-wide data security infrastructure for research that requires collecting, storing, and using personal and health information of human subjects — an important consideration for Virginia Tech’s growing portfolio of health-sciences research. 

“Launching the Faculty Fellows Program with a focus on health data privacy is timely and will benefit the university on multiple levels,” said Karen Roberto, director of the Institute of Society, Culture, and Environment and University Distinguished Professor. “Privacy and security must be front-and-center when conducting human-centered health research. Both experienced faculty and faculty and students new to the use of such data, as well as university systems that support and monitor this type of research, need clear guidelines and sound guidance to ensure we meet the complex requirements and regulations for handling this information.”

Queen’s own research on the biomechanics of human movement and how it changes following injury or surgery has led her to develop extensive expertise on the regulations and procedures that govern data management for experiments involving human subjects and protected health information. 

That experience will help her support faculty in navigating data-security challenges and guide university-level efforts to develop institutional best practices for everything from appropriately handling data stored on laptops and external hard drives to meeting federal and state requirements for server security. 

“A data security program for protected health information will support and enhance the amazing research our faculty our doing,” Queen said. “I am looking forward to leading this effort, engaging faculty and leaders at Virginia Tech and at our many collaborating institutions.” 

A member of the Virginia Tech faculty since 2015, Queen previously directed the Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Laboratory at Duke University. In addition to her teaching and research in Blacksburg, Queen is also an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, an adjunct faculty member at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, and an affiliate of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. She received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Written by Eleanor Nelsen