­Five early-career faculty members have won seed funding for innovative new projects through an investment program from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS).

The Junior Faculty Awards support projects led by faculty building up new research programs. To apply for the awards, the lead researcher must team up with colleagues from different disciplines, typically including at least one more experienced faculty member with an established record of research and funding.

“We want to facilitate these transdisciplinary partnerships and help younger researchers build a strong foundation for recruiting larger awards from external agencies,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and director of ICTAS. “The power of interdisciplinary approaches to offer fresh solutions to intractable problems has been well documented, but getting these projects off the ground is still challenging: You need productive collaborations and enough data to validate a novel idea. Seed funding can bridge that gap.”

Fostering interdisciplinary collaborations is at the core of the institute’s mission, and targeted seed investments are one of its primary tools. ICTAS structures investment programs around university strategic priorities; in addition to the Junior Faculty Awards, other institute programs are aimed at building partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, supporting undergraduate research, and positioning established faculty teams to go after large external awards. A tie to one of Virginia Tech’s nine Destination Areas is a prerequisite for funding.

The Junior Faculty Awards are the institute’s longest-running seed funding program. The award funnels $40,000 a year for two years toward each project, with the idea that this early support can help generate the results and cement the partnerships that can anchor a competitive grant application. Faculty who received these awards in last year’s cycle collectively reported $13 million in external funding related to the work supported by these seed grants, and 58 refereed journal articles.

These five projects, representing collaborations across four colleges, won Junior Faculty Awards this year:

  • Multiscale structural determination of liquid metal soft matter composites. Michael Bartlett, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with Robert Moore, a professor of chemistry. Soft polymers with dispersed liquid metal droplets can form resilient electronic materials that remain functional when they’re stretched, bent, or even cut. This makes them versatile building blocks for wearable health monitors, soft robotics, and other emerging classes of products. This project will probe the relationship between the composition, structure, and properties of these soft matter composites, developing models that could ultimately facilitate the design of soft, self-healing electronics with tailored capabilities.
  • SARS-CoV-2 transmission in airborne particles. Nisha Duggal, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology, with Linsey Marr, Charles P. Lunsford Professor of civil and environmental engineering. SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted from one host to another in respiratory particles emitted by someone infected with the virus. Coughing, talking, and exhaling all produce these particles in various sizes that behave in different ways and may carry different amounts of infectious virus. This project will fill in missing information about the relationships between particle size, kinetics, and infectivity. Understanding those dynamics in more detail will help elucidate transmission mechanisms for the virus, insights that can inform the development of more effective mitigation strategies.
  • Treatment and mitigation of foodborne illness using a genetic-based anti-virulence strategy. Bryan Hsu, an assistant professor of biological sciences, with Monica Ponder, a professor of food science and technology. Engineered phages have the potential to reprogram pathogenic bacteria in the gut by neutralizing bacterial infectivity while minimizing the risk of cultivating resistance (a critical flaw of antibiotics), by disarming pathogens so they can be shed naturally without causing disease instead of killing them. Hsu and his colleagues will investigate whether this strategy can reduce the virulence of Salmonella, a major global cause of foodborne illness and death.
  • Air composition in a changing climate: data harvesting and decision making. Elena Spinei Lind, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with Anuj Karpatne, an assistant professor of computer science, and Julianne Chung, an associate professor of mathematics. Advanced spectroscopic methods can generate copious information about air quality, but challenges with processing and analyzing large volumes of complex data have so far limited the usefulness of these powerful techniques. Lind and her colleagues will use a novel instrument to collect data that can help validate models of radiative transfer. This information can be used to develop machine learning based algorithms that will facilitate the extraction of reliable, trustworthy data from spectroscopic measurements.
  • Playing the evolutionary arms race between plants and pathogens in fast-forward. Clay Wright, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering, with John McDowell, a professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. A crucial component of sustainably ramping up agricultural productivity is stemming crop losses from disease-causing microbes, which are refining their attack mechanisms as quickly as the plants can evolve new defenses against them. The research team will utilize a synthetic biology system that recreates these dynamic plant-pathogen interactions in yeast, focusing on a protein hub that’s critical to the plant immune system but can be attacked by microbes with devastating results. Iteratively manipulating individual plant genes in this automated experimental system will help pinpoint genes that can that form the basis of new resistance strategies and offer new insights into plant-pathogen interactions.
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