What do bricks made from mushrooms, an air filter created by a wall of household plants, a system to turn household food waste into cooking fuel, and a larger-than-life animated interpretation of a student’s life experiences all have in common? Each is the product of innovative student researchers, and each was made possible through the first Student Initiated Research Grant (SIRG) program.

The SIRG program is designed to support research experiences for students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS). This year, the range of the 10 winning projects is extensive and spans design, visual arts, and policy development. Project focuses include smart construction, green and eco-friendly design solutions, computer-aided visual arts, air pollution, COVID’s impact on the future of work, and American politics in the new millennium.

Yang Zhang, associate dean for research in CAUS, highlighted the value of the SIRG program. “It provides students with a high-quality experience that connects education to the broad continuum of faculty scholarship, where students are not passive recipients but active participants in scholarly discovery, application of knowledge, and community service,” he said.

Undergraduate and graduate students drafted proposals for funds, each with a cap of $750 per project. The funding is an investment for future work as the reusable supplies that students buy are returned to CAUS. Additionally, the research they conduct advances theory and provides tangible products for future scholars. For example, Avery Gendell and Henry Wallace, students in the School of Architecture and Design, used their grant for a project called “Seeding Student BioDesign Research: Establishing a Peer-Operated Mycelium Spawn Bank.” Their focus was to create, from mushrooms, sustainable materials with a variety of uses — bricks, planters, and even acoustic panels. Through their innovation, future researchers now have access to a mycelium bank to support related research.

Henry Wallace and Avery Gendell stand on either side of their research poster and plaster models.
Henry Wallace (at left) and Avery Gendell worked on a project to establish a peer-operated mycelium spawn bank. Photo by Phil Miskovic for Virginia Tech.

Some student groups used their SIRG grant to inject necessary funding into research already underway and leveraged it against other resources.

Zachary Gould, a student in the Myers Lawson School of Construction, was the lead student researcher for the project, “Initial Testing of Phytoremediative Greenwall for Improved Indoor Air Quality.” The “greenwall” is a wall of household plants that was donated and installed by AgroSci. By pulling air through the system and forcing it out through the soil and roots, the greenwall was able to filter some potentially harmful particles out of the indoor air supply.

Gould points to the guitar-shaped Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, as an example of a commercial space utilizing green walls. He hopes more architects incorporate this concept into future design. “If you're going to try to decorate a space, why not use a living system that contributes to the air quality in that space? People feel more comfortable, relaxed, and less stressed when surrounded by living material, especially plants.”

Zachary Dowell, a Ph.D. student, and Kristina Landis, an undergraduate, both in the Myers Lawson School of Construction, used the grant funding to build and test the efficiency of a novel household anaerobic digester design. The digester design had already received a provisional patent through assistance from Virginia Tech, and the SIRG grant provided the opportunity for construction of the system and proof-of-concept testing.

Titled “Novel Design for Reducing Accumulated Solids in a Household Anaerobic Digester,” the design is based upon remedying issues of digester pipe clogging that is known to plague household digester designs currently implemented in the developing world.

Dowell said about “40 million household digesters are in use in China, but accumulation of solids and pipe clogging create high maintenance for the end user. With the growing number of responsible food waste mandates in the United States, this two-stage system is designed to remedy maintenance issues to create the possibility of Americans successfully operating household digesters to turn their food waste into methane gas for cooking purposes.”

Tara Dietz standing in front of two screens with her artwork displayed.
Tara Dietz developed an installation, Introspectaular, for four two-sided screens. Photo by Victoria Boatwright for Virginia Tech.

Some students used SIRG funding for creative expression, as well. Tara Dietz, a graduating senior in the School of Visual Arts, used SIRG funding to support her senior thesis project, "Introspectacular." She described the art installation as “an animated self-portrait, a personal exploration of mastery. It’s a very distorted, fantastic version of my time growing up.”  

The project — which was on display in the Moss Arts Center — consists of four 7-foot, double-sided screens that can be rearranged to create a room within a room. “You can be in the middle of them, you can walk around them, or you can just be a part of the scenery, with ambient animation. I wanted the viewer to be surrounded by these screens. Not just a spectator, but a participant.”

While each of the student groups presented their SIRG projects publicly in the lobby of Cowgill Hall in late April, Dietz also presented her project and talked about the SIRG program process with alumni donors over lunch at the recent Ut Prosim weekend. There, she summed up what the funding meant to her and the other grant recipients. SIRG funding allowed for hands-on learning that “planted the seeds for my future development — seeds of intellectual curiosity and artistic expression,” she said.

Written by Phil Miskovic

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