As the pandemic continues to send ripples throughout the world, it has become abundantly clear that there is no one protocol or discipline that can solve all the medical, economic, psychological, and social issues that have been spurred by COVID-19. To effectively address these issues, the world needs greater scientific collaboration and ingenuity. 

The Infectious Disease Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (ID IGEP) offers graduate students the opportunity to get involved in remarkably diverse research approaches and topics, such as SARS-COV-2 vaccines, antiviral therapies, and tick-borne diseases. 

The new ID IGEP, based in the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens (CeZAP), will welcome its first cohort this fall, which is composed of eight impressive students from diverse backgrounds and with extensive research experience. The cohort will be working within a cohesive, vibrant learning environment that values multiple viewpoints, exposes them to cutting-edge transdisciplinary research, and realizes the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in the form of service to society through focus on real-world infectious disease problems.

“The idea is that these students are going to have a very broad exposure to the field of infectious disease from multiple perspectives, including not just the traditional sciences but the humanities perspectives as well,” said Ann Stevens, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and the co-director of the ID IGEP. 

Toward that end, each student will receive initial rotation training in multiple research groups to better help them prepare for their graduate research, participate in an interdisciplinary introductory course and symposium series, and form an interdisciplinary graduate committee.

The first cohort for the Infectious Disease Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program includes:

  • Caitlin Armstrong (Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine)

  • Nick Grilli (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

  • Abdullahi Jamiu (Exploratory cross-college rotations)

  • Jason Pough II (Exploratory cross-college rotations)

  • Marcel Shams Eddin (College of Science)

  • Mychala Snead (College of Science)

  • Poonam Tajanpure (College of Engineering)

  • Morgen VanderGiessen (Exploratory cross-college rotations)

The program took root just before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. In spite of pandemic restrictions, the co-directors of the ID IGEP and the steering committee managed to build the entire program in record time - and over Zoom.

Even under these constraints, the program was able to recruit a very strong cohort - one that is as accomplished as it is diverse. Not only have multiple students already earned master’s degrees, but all of them have a fair share of undergraduate research experience under their belts.

“To get the number and quality of applicants that we did, it’s pretty remarkable,” said Kevin Edgar, a professor of sustainable biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and the co-director of the ID IGEP. “We are looking forward to seeing what they accomplish, and to how the program will grow and excel with their help.”

They also found that they could use the pandemic as the perfect experiential teaching tool. The first semester course, “Topics in Infectious Disease” is going to center around COVID-19 and its impacts.

During the first semester, graduate students will have the opportunity to participate in rotations through affiliated research groups to ensure they are a good fit with their research area — and their mentors. The Infectious Disease IGEP is not a degree-granting program; degrees are awarded through the department and college of the student’s research mentor. 

All ID IGEP students will also participate in the Center’s Distinguished Speaker Seminar Series in Infectious Diseases, a universitywide seminar series that invites researchers to give presentations to CeZAP and the broader university community. The seminars cover a wide variety of topics that fit within the broad area of infectious diseases.

Both Edgar and Stevens maintain that the new cohort is going to change the entire dynamics of the program. With more than 100 faculty from six colleges and over 25 departments in CeZAP, the new cohort will be integral in uniting researchers and spurring one-of-a-kind research projects.

The future is certainly something to be excited about, because beyond these eight students, about 60 students have voluntarily asked to be affiliated with this IGEP.

“We envision that these students are going to be the glue that builds the relationships between the faculty,” said Stevens. “When these students come to campus, they are going to create incentives for new research projects and collaborations, while creating a vibrancy and a life to the program that is going to be attractive to other students.”

The ID IGEP is one of 15 Virginia Tech IGEPS that aim to address a variety of complex societal issues requiring interdisciplinary teams of scholars. But what makes this program unique is that it drew funding and logistical support from a multitude of colleges and units on campus, including the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the College of Science, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the Virginia Tech Graduate School, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

- Written by Kendall Daniels

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