A seed-investment program will give five fledgling research projects a running start this year. 

The Junior Faculty Awards from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) support projects led by researchers at the beginning of their academic careers. The institute’s mission is to advance research at Virginia Tech by fostering interdisciplinary collaborations; some of their primary tools are targeted seed investments like the Junior Faculty Awards, the institute’s longest-running program in this category. 

The grants provide funding for partnerships between a junior faculty member and a more senior colleague, whose combined perspectives offer a fresh approach to a pressing research problem.

“We’ve structured these seed investments to facilitate collaborations between researchers with complementary areas of expertise,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS’ director. “That creates avenues for new faculty members, as well as more experienced ones, to grow their research programs and bring in external funding. That, in turn, increases Virginia Tech’s research capacity as a whole, especially around these high-impact societal challenges.”   

Each project selected for the program gets $40,000 in seed funding each year for two years. The funding allows the researchers to dedicate resources to nascent but promising projects, with the expectation that the early results this small cash injection enables will set them up to successfully recruit larger external grants. The program’s results illustrate the power of this approach: In last year’s cycle, faculty in their second year of funding collectively reported more than $5.3 million in external funding that could be traced back to these seed grants. Faculty in their first year of funding reported nearly $4 million. 

The Junior Faculty Awards are one way the institute directs resources toward Virginia Tech’s highest-impact research. Faculty applying for the awards must tie their proposed research to one of the university’s growing transdisciplinary academic networks — the Destination Areas that marshal the talents of researchers from across the university to tackle some of the most complex problems facing society, chipping away at them one new collaboration at a time.   

These five projects won Junior Faculty Awards this year:

  • Computationally guided design of metal-organic frameworks for efficient gas separation. Sanket A. Deshmukh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, with Amanda Morris, an associate professor of chemistry. Metal-organic frameworks — three-dimensional networks of metal atoms linked by organic molecules — can be used to separate carbon dioxide from other exhaust gases. Deshmukh will develop multiscale modeling methods and integrate them with machine-learning to accelerate the discovery of metal-organic frameworks to separate carbon dioxide from nitrogen; Morris will synthesize and characterize those that show the best performance in the computational study. Stephen Martin, an associate professor of chemical engineering, will perform gas separation experiments to validate the computational predictions.
  • Using lessons from nature to improve the damage tolerance of ceramics and glass. Ling Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with Patricia Dove, a University Distinguished Professor of geosciences and the C.P. Miles Professor of Science. Ceramic and glass materials are ubiquitous — their versatile properties make them useful for everything from everyday functional objects to high-tech applications. Man-made ceramics are notoriously brittle and energy-intensive to manufacture, but many living organisms produce remarkably strong, damage-resistant ceramic structures under mild conditions — think teeth, bones, and seashells. A better understanding of these biological processes could help us develop greener routes to high-performance materials. 
  • Acoustic power delivery for wireless charging of unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles. Shima Shahab, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with Shane Ross, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. Many unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles rely on batteries. But batteries have downsides: They’re typically heavy, expensive, and burdensome to recharge, which ultimately limits the vehicles’ utility and performance. Shahab and Ross will explore the potential of using through-wall ultrasound acoustic energy transfer to power unmanned vehicles remotely, without the need for wired charging or frequent battery changes. 
  • Multiscale modeling of grain growth in oxide ceramics. Xianming Bai, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, with Feng Lin, an assistant professor of chemistry. In many materials, the size of and boundaries between smaller structural units called grains can have a major effect on the material’s strength, performance, and durability, among other properties. Bai and Lin will use computational and experimental techniques to explore how these boundaries move in a model system that will be applicable to many types of materials, including alloys, ceramics, and 3D printed materials. 
  • Understanding effects of microplastics on fish health, growth and population ecology. Holly Kindsvater, an assistant professor of fish and wildlife ecology, and Reza Ovissipour, an assistant professor of food science and technology and Extension specialist, with Leandro Castello, an associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation. Microplastic waste has infiltrated aquatic environments; there’s evidence that these particulates can be dangerous for fish and other organisms that accidentally ingest them, with potential ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. But those effects, and their larger-scale impacts, aren’t well-understood. The team will use spectroscopic techniques to measure the presence of microplastics in rainbow trout, correlating those levels with changes in gut flora, evidence of physiological stress, and growth.