Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been recognized with the Ut Prosim Scholar Award – the university’s top honor for faculty – for her research and efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and effectively educate the public on safety protocols during the pandemic.

The university’s Board of Visitors established the Ut Prosim Scholar Award in 2016 to recognize singular instances of the application of scholarship in truly extraordinary service to humanity.

“As a leading scientist and talented communicator, Dr. Marr has been instrumental in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in communities across the globe and here at home,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Her commitment to knowledge, discovery, and creativity exemplifies Virginia Tech’s mission to improve the quality of life in the commonwealth and throughout the world.”

Marr, one of fewer than 12 experts worldwide on the aerosol transmission of viruses, has published more than 100 journal articles and completed more than 35 sponsored research projects as part of her interdisciplinary approach to science, according to the resolution honoring her that was approved at the BOV’s March meeting.

“Based on her previous research on the transmission of the flu and other airborne diseases, Dr. Marr hypothesized that the novel coronavirus was an aerosol virus while scientists around the world were still debating the nature of its spread,” the resolution stated. “Taking it upon herself to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by communicating directly with the public about the myths of airborne illnesses initially via Twitter in March of 2020, she has consequently given over 300 interviews and been quoted more than 4,000 times worldwide due to her ability to communicate simply and effectively and has provided high-level reviews to the World Health Organization, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and staff members of the U.S. Congress.”

As part of the award, Marr and her team will receive $250,000 in funding over five years for operational support of her research at Virginia Tech in the College of Engineering.

Marr holds a B.S. in engineering science from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. At Virginia Tech, she leads the Applied Interdisciplinary Research in Air (AIR2) laboratory and teaches courses on air pollution and environmental engineering. 

As COVID-19 spread around the world, scientists debated how the virus was transmitted. Given her previous research on the spread of the flu and other diseases, as well as evidence that previous coronaviruses such as SARS spread through aerosols, Marr felt that COVID-19 would spread through aerosols as well.

In early March 2020, Marr posted a thread on Twitter that began, “Let's talk about #airborne transmission of #SARSCOV2 and other viruses. A discussion is needed to improve accuracy and reduce fear associated with the term.”

The thread showcased Marr’s ability to communicate simply and effectively, and soon journalists began reaching out to amplify her expertise. Marr’s research has been cited in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, The Today Show, and hundreds of other media outlets worldwide.

“Most of us had never heard of aerosol science before the pandemic,” began a New York Times profile headlined, “The Scientist, the Air and the Virus." “Then Virginia Tech’s Linsey Marr showed up and became our tour guide to the invisible world of airborne particles.”

Marr and her team have also researched the efficacy of common face coverings in experiments modeling real-life experiences to identify those face coverings that are most effective in minimizing the spread of COVID-19.

Marr was one of two Virginia Tech researchers honored with the Ut Prosim Scholar Award this spring. Carla Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences and award-winning cancer researcher, was recognized for her work to improve COVID-19 testing efficiency and effectiveness.

The inaugural Ut Prosim Scholar Award in 2016 was conferred to Professor Marc Edwards and Mona Hanna-Attisha, two of the key individuals who exposed widespread lead-in-water contamination in Flint, Michigan.