Six interdisciplinary research teams were recently awarded funding through the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment’s (ISCE) signature program, the ISCE Scholars Program, to address a broad range of pressing contemporary social issues.

The goal of these awards of up to $30,000 is to prepare the faculty to compete for external funding from such agencies as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other private and public sources. This new cohort of scholars comes from five colleges, three schools, and eight departments.

Alec Smith, an assistant professor of economics in the College of Science, is the lead investigator on a project studying the effect of noninvasive high-definition transcranial direct current stimulation on social and economic decision-making in healthy older adults.

According to Smith, altruistic behavior such as volunteering or making donations to charity often increases in later life and can result in feelings of satisfaction and wellbeing.

“Neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, however, have a negative impact on cognitive function,” Smith explained. “These diseases can cause brain atrophy resulting in changes in how the brain processes rewards or in social cognition, short-term memory, and empathy.”

Smith and colleagues Sheryl Ball, professor of economics, and Brooks King-Casas, professor of psychology, both in the College of Science; and Ben Katz, assistant professor of human development and family science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, believe that transcranial direct current stimulation may be a viable tool to counteract cognitive deficits related to aging.

The Virginia Tech Economics Laboratory, directed by Smith and Ball, is among a small number of labs world-wide equipped to study decision-making in conjunction with high definition transcranial direct current stimulation. The research team will recruit 150 study participants from an Older Adult Research Registry through the Center for Gerontology, where Katz is an affiliate, as well as from the community for their study.

“We will have the study participants engage in tasks in our lab similar to those often used to study altruism or decision-making under risk. While they are completing the task, they will receive either positive, negative, or placebo high-definition transcranial direct current stimulation in their brain’s temporoparietal junction,” Smith explained.

Based on results from studies with younger populations, Smith, Ball, and Katz hypothesize that older adults receiving the positive stimulation will engage in more fair-minded and rational decision-making.

“This project will help us establish the impact of high definition transcranial direct current stimulation on decision-making in older adults and generate pilot data for a larger funded study. Ultimately, we’d like to study the use of this procedure as an intervention to reduce the negative effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s on decision making,” Smith said.

Another project, led by Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science, technology, and society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, with colleagues from engineering education, will examine the occupational roles of engineers to help inform future curriculum and national policy decisions. 

“Influential governmental and industry reports have advocated for reforming STEM education around innovation and entrepreneurship. Yet, historical research suggests that most engineering graduates work in operations, maintenance, and other areas not focused on invention and innovation. In other words, most engineers are ‘maintainers’ – individuals who keep our technological world going – and not ‘innovators’ – individuals focused on developing new things,” Vinsel explained.

“We argue that while innovation has become a trendy curricular driver, innovation alone is not sufficient to create the engineering workforce the nation needs.”

Vinsel, along with colleagues Jennifer Case and Marie Paretti, both from the College of Engineering, will conduct an exploratory study at Virginia Tech which will lay the foundation for a larger, national grant that they will submit to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Their exploratory study will include a review of empirical studies of engineering occupations, outreach to engineering societies and organizations and a qualitative, secondary analysis of data from a related project run by Paretti.

“Our previous project, funded by NSF, has been following more than 100 students from four universities as they transition from college into their first year of engineering work. We have collected hundreds of hours of interview data that includes their impressions of how engineering school and work differ,” said Paretti.

The research team will examine data from about 40 participants from this study to look specifically at the concepts of maintainers versus innovators.

The team will also perform qualitative content analysis of LinkedIn profiles for engineering graduates. This part of the project will enable them to look for the presence of maintainers versus innovators and at demographic characteristics of participants who use LinkedIn.

“A renewed attention to engineers as maintainers can help us better educate students to sustain and enhance critical national infrastructures while at the same time help us create curricular programs that are more inclusive and welcoming to students who may be less attracted to the current concept of engineers-as-hero inventors and more attracted to a concept of engineering rooted in an ethics of care,” Vinsel said. 

“ISCE received a record number of applications for the ISCE Scholars Program this year,” said Karen Roberto, ISCE director.  “After a very competitive selection process, we are excited to fund six projects that represent a broad range of interests and issues of concern. Each of the projects shows great promise, and we are delighted to support these interdisciplinary faculty groups as they continue their efforts to secure external funding.”

Other 2019-20 ISCE Scholars and their projects are:

  • Kevin Davy and Brenda Davy, both professors of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Ben Katz, assistant professor, and Jyoti Savla, professor, both of human development and family science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who are conducting a proof-of-concept study related to ketones supplementation for vascular and cognitive health in middle-aged adults.
  • Matthew Fullen, assistant professor, and Gerard Lawson, professor, both of the School of Education, Nancy Brossoie, senior research associate of the Center for Gerontology, and Megan Dolbin-MacNab, associate professor in human development and family science, all from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who are using a mixed-methods approach to examine the impact of Medicare mental health policy on rural communities. 
  • Chad Levinson, assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies; Tanushree Mitra, assistant professor of computer science in the College of Engineering; Brian Goode, systems and data engineer; Ian Crandell, postdoctoral fellow; and Bianica Pires, research assistant professor, all of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, who are investigating source-frame congruence in U.S. national security public information campaigns.
  • Ford Ramsey, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics, Carl Griffey, W.G. Wysor Professor of Crop Genetics and Breeding; Maria Balota, associate professor; and Wade Thomason, professor, all of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who are conducting a study looking at the impact of weather on crop quality and the economics of the food system.

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

-Written by Yancey Crawford