Research is evolving rapidly on a transdisciplinary, global academic stage, and Virginia Tech’s research enterprise is transforming in tandem. The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI) is turning to the faculty to help navigate the blend of opportunities and challenges these changes present. 

That’s the idea behind the Faculty Fellows program, which positions exceptional faculty leaders at the forefront of developing strategies to help the university capitalize on its deeply established strengths and venture decisively into new territory. 

The program launched earlier this year with the appointment of Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, as the Faculty Fellow for Health Data Privacy.

Now the inaugural Faculty Fellows cohort is expanding by three, with a trio of Fellows taking on a powerful new initiative: University Shared Research Facilities. The idea is to create centralized facilities outfitted with advanced instrumentation and staffed by expert technicians, which will be broadly accessible to Virginia Tech faculty and external users.  

“Having access to state-of-the-art instruments opens up new opportunities for individual researchers and expands the potential of the entire research enterprise,” said Theresa Mayer, Virginia Tech’s vice president for research and innovation. “The experience and talent of the Faculty Fellows will guide the development of shared university research facilities that can accelerate discovery and spark collaboration. They will be a critical piece of bringing our bold vision for research at Virginia Tech to life.” 

The three new Fellows are Amanda Morris, an associate professor of chemistry, who will focus on facilities for materials characterization; Masoud Agah, the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who will take on micro- and nanofabrication; and Richard Helm, an associate professor of biochemistry, who will tackle the life sciences. 

“This initiative has tremendous potential to energize research in the life sciences and a wide range of other fields,” said Saied Mostaghimi, the H.E. and Elizabeth F. Alphin Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and the associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “And we’re thrilled to have such talented faculty voices leading the way; their firsthand perspective will be invaluable to the success of this initiative, and we’re looking forward to working closely with them as they help shape facilities that will be a vital asset to the university community.”  

Instrumentation is fundamental to research growth — it enables the acquisition of preliminary data to support proposals, persuades funding agencies that a university has the capacity for meaningful progress on critical questions, gives faculty the tools to expand their research in new directions, and serves as a center of gravity for new collaborations within the university and with external institutions and companies. 

However, the expense of purchasing and maintaining equipment can be insurmountable for individual investigators — especially ones exploring a new research area or technique.  

Establishing university facilities to house these critical resources broadens access to them, alleviates the burden on any single research group, and enhances the ability of the research community as a whole to respond quickly to new opportunities. The result is a research enterprise that’s both capable and nimble. 

And in research areas that are gathering momentum, advanced facilities like these can help make an already-active program even more competitive on the national stage. 

For example, when the Nanoscale Characterization and Fabrication Laboratory opened in the Corporate Research Center in 2007, under the auspices of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, Virginia Tech already had a critical mass of scientists conducting world-class nanoscience research. 

Access to millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated instrumentation accelerated that ongoing research and helped transform Virginia Tech into a national hub for nanoscience, eventually resulting in the university’s selection as a site in the National Science Foundation’s prestigious nanotechnology network. The Macromolecular Materials Discovery Center, an initiative of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute, is on its way to enabling a similar metamorphosis. 

Now, OVPRI is laying the groundwork to reproduce these successes on a university-wide scale, guided by the expertise of the Faculty Fellows. 

“Shared research facilities can be an exponential multiplier, putting new tools in the hands of individual researchers and creating new ways for groups to work together,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and the director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “It’s exciting to envision the impact that an initiative of this scale will have on campus, especially with the guidance of the Faculty Fellows — gifted researchers who can help us design and implement these ideas effectively.”

Over the next year, the Fellows will develop strategic plans for core facilities in each of the three categories. They’ll draw on their strong relationships in the research community as well as extensive knowledge of emerging trends in their fields, the needs of their colleagues, and the nuts and bolts of what it takes to run a successful research program on a daily basis. They’ll engage the colleges, departments, research institutes, and other stakeholders in thoughtful conversations about how to manage existing resources and respond to new opportunities.    

Their efforts will give Virginia Tech a sustainable strategy for supporting innovative collaborations by researchers and partners. 

Written by Eleanor Nelsen