Drone wind studies, water rescue manikins, and underwater robots tracking a fluorescent dye: these were not scenes from a science fiction movie but research that was part of a recent field campaign led by Virginia Tech investigators Shane Ross and David Schmale.

Ross and Schmale brought six undergraduate students from partnering colleges to Virginia Tech to conduct data and decisions research in March during spring break.

The students came from Morehouse College in Georgia, an all-male historically Black college and university (HBCU), Bennett College in North Carolina, an all-female HBCU, and Hampden Sydney College in Virginia, an all-male college.

“The field campaign was a really valuable experience for the visiting students. They collected data and learned to make decisions from their data. We have submitted grants to continue collaborating with faculty at these three colleges. We hope to bring more undergraduate students to Virginia Tech for summer research experiences in the area of biological transport,” said Schmale, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

On the cold and windy first day of the research campaign, the students participated in drone wind-monitoring experiments at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems (KEAS) laboratory located at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm agricultural research facility.

“We explained to the students why it is important to measure the weather and wind with drones. With this technology, we have the potential to monitor the spread of plant diseases and even the spread of wildfires with on-the-spot accuracy,” said Ross, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering.

The students were divided into two drone teams, with three students to each team. One team made direct measurements of wind using a unique weather station mounted on top of the drone. The other team made indirect measurements of wind, estimated from the motion of the drone. Schmale worked closely with one team, and Javier González-Rocha, a Ph.D. student in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, worked with the other team. Each team worked together to safely operate the drones, record important details of the experiments, and download and curate data off the drones.

“This research campaign placed students right in the middle of the action. They had to work and communicate across the fields of engineering and biology. They got to see an engineer and mathematician (Ross) speak about biology and a biologist (Schmale) speak in the language of an engineer. When you are participating in interdisciplinary research, it’s always important to be humble, stay engaged, and ask questions,” said Schmale.

The students came to the field campaign from diverse scientific and educational backgrounds. There were three biology students and three engineering students within the group. Trent Malone, Donovan Hardy, and Bryan Bloomfield came from Morehouse College; Milan Tisdale and Arianna Shynett came from Bennett College; and Damian Martinez Pineda came from Hampden Sydney College.

“These students chose to spend their spring break participating in this research involving the use of unique sensor-based assets and computational-based assets at Virginia Tech. The students’ work helped them to gain a better understanding of how to best apply their technical skillsets toward addressing complex data science challenges. As a result, students were able to broaden their perspective of possible graduate studies, research opportunities, and career paths post-graduation,” said Eddie C. Red, Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Physics & Dual-Degree Engineering Program, Morehouse College.

Visiting student with a drone
Visiting student Milan Tisdale conducted field research with drones at the local quarry pond in Blacksburg, Virginia. Photo credit: Peter Means

On the second day of the research campaign, the students conducted field research in a local quarry pond in Blacksburg, Virginia. They used a kayak, drones, underwater robots, and a series of floating objects to track a fluorescent dye in the water. Data from this experiment will help make decisions about the transport and mitigation of hazardous agents in the water, such as chemical/oil spills or harmful algal blooms.

The goal of the experiment was to understand how a potential hazardous agent was affected by wind and currents. The students and researchers set up a manikin to help simulate rescue scenarios and used a harmless, fluorescent dye and floating assets to accurately record how the dye plume spread. A drone and underwater robot were used to capture data about the spreading dye in near real-time.

“I greatly enjoyed visiting the quarry pond and being able to experience using different tools and techniques to gather data. The research that took place was fascinating, but it was also incredibly gratifying to be in such a beautiful environment with like-minded individuals who shared the same appreciation for research and the environment,” said Shynett, a visiting student from Bennett College. 

Ross observed that by the second day, “the students felt much more comfortable with each other and with us. They really came together and worked as a team to do a lot of the hands-on experiments themselves. This campaign gave students who are interested in field work the opportunity to see if this is something they would like to pursue in the future; it provided an example of what graduate field research looks like.”

On the third day of the campaign, Schmale took the students on a hike to the Cascade Falls in Pembroke, Virginia.

“We took a 3.5-mile hike into the pristine Virginia Appalachian forest. On this hike, I was able to speak with Dr. Schmale about his journey through college and how he came to find a field of research he was excited about. Honestly, his story was very motivating because I could relate to his struggles as a college student. It is not very often an inner-city kid like myself is able to connect with a Cornell Ph.D. on a scientific and personal level,” said Bloomfield, a senior physics major at Morehouse College interested in autonomous design and artificial intelligence.

In the afternoon, Ross and González-Rocha worked with the students to analyze data from the campaign back at Virginia Tech in the afternoon. The students uploaded software to their computers and began to interpret their results.

“The students were able to appreciate the huge volume of data that we gathered with all of these different assets. It will take us weeks to analyze all of the data from these field experiments, which will serve as the basis of new peer-reviewed manuscripts and grant proposals,” said Schmale.

On the final day of the campaign, the visiting students participated in a recruiting event run by the BIOTRANS Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP).

BIOTRANS director, Jake Socha, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, introduced the students to the BIOTRANS graduate program, which offers students education and research opportunities at the interface of biology and engineering. BIOTRANS graduate students investigate dynamic transport processes in multiscale biological systems.

A first-year BIOTRANS Ph.D. student, Jin Pan, and a more senior BIOTRANS Ph.D. student, Talia Weiss, presented their research to the visiting undergraduate students. Pan talked about the spread and biological transport of aerosolized pathogens and Weiss presented her research on the aerodynamics of how frogs leap and skitter over water.

The day concluded with lab tours and meeting other researchers involved in the BIOTRANS program.

Funding for the campaign was provided by the Fralin Life Science Institute, the BIOTRANS graduate program, a diversity and inclusion grant from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), and grants from the National Science Foundation (AGS-1520825, DMS-1821145, and IIS-1637915).

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Affiliated faculty from the contributing institutions were Eddie Red from Morehouse College, Kelly Mallari from Bennett College, and Michael Wolyniak from Hampden Sydney College.

“We are optimistic that our pending grant proposals will be funded, so we can expose some of the best and brightest students from our partner institutions to data and decisions research at the engineering/biology interface,” said Ross.