How does climate change affect the odds that a virus circulating in animals will make the leap to humans? Can a small fragment of DNA speed up chemical reactions? Could challenges with sensory perception, not just movement, be at the root of the disabilities that so often follow strokes?

These are just a few of the research questions on the agenda this year for a group of early-career faculty awarded seed grants from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS).

ICTAS is one of Virginia Tech’s four research investment institutes. These institutes advance university research using a variety of tools including targeted seed funding. The Junior Faculty Program supports interdisciplinary collaborations led by faculty just beginning to build their research programs. 

“We have incredibly talented, creative researchers launching their careers at Virginia Tech,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS’ director. “Seed funding can help lay the foundation for a thriving research program by giving faculty the latitude to pursue original ideas and forge new collaborations.” 

Each project selected for the program receives $40,000 each year for two years. Researchers can use these startup funds to support the collection of initial data that will become the basis of applications for larger external grants. 

To apply for the grant, the principal investigator must pair up with at least one researcher from a different discipline – making the seed funding program a mechanism for building a diverse collaborative network in addition to supporting individual projects. 

These six projects won funding through the program this year:

  • Green Energetic Materials. Greg Young, an associate professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, with Greg Liu, an associate professor of chemistry. Materials like propellants and explosives, which store large amounts of energy, have valuable applications but often rely on component materials that can be detrimental to the environment. Young and Liu will explore the use of ammonium nitrate as a greener alternative to ammonium perchlorate for the development of energetic materials with a smaller environmental footprint. 
  • Global Change and Wildlife Pathogen Spillover. Luis Escobar, an assistant professor of fish and wildlife conservation, with Ed Fox, a professor of computer science; Roger Ramirez-Barrios, a professor of parasitology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Andres Velasco-Villa of the Centers for Disease Control. To begin to tackle pressing questions about how global change will affect the transmission of zoonotic diseases, the team will study how rabies moves from vampire bats to other animals, investigating the role of climatic, landscape, and biodiversity gradients in geographic patterns of disease transmission. 
  • Physics-Based and Data-Driven Thermo-Mechanical Modeling of Additively Manufactured Metallic Alloys. Pinar Acar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with Rakesh Kapania, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. To improve the mechanical properties of useful aerospace-grade titanium-aluminum alloys, Acar and Kapania will use machine learning to explore how the microstructure of these materials and the parameters used to 3D-print them affect their performance. 
  • Accelerating Late-Stage Drug Functionalization for RNA Viruses. Anne Brown, an assistant professor in University Libraries and of biochemistry, with Sanket Deshmukh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering; Andrew Lowell, an assistant professor of chemistry; and James Weger, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology. RNA viruses — including SARS-CoV-2, dengue virus, and chikungunya virus — rank among the top threats to global health, and there are few effective antivirals to treat them. The team will use computational methods to identify molecules that could potentially be modified and repurposed to combat these diseases, and then synthesize and test them in the lab to determine which could lead to effective treatments.
  • Tactile Deficits in Individuals with Stroke. Netta Gurari, who will join the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in August, with Sharon Ramey, a research professor and distinguished research scholar at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC; Stephen LaConte, an associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC; and Colin Franz, a physician-scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and assistant professor at Northwestern University. The interdisciplinary team will investigate the critical but relatively unexplored role of inaccurate tactile perception on disability following stroke, specifically by studying how stroke affects the transmission of tactile sensory signals in the central and peripheral nervous systems.
  • DNA-scaffolded synthetic enzymes for tunable high performance catalysis: an integrated computational and experimental approach. Valerie Welborn, an assistant professor of chemistry, with Kylie Allen, an assistant professor of biochemistry. Welborn and Allen are tackling longstanding issues with the performance of synthetic enzymes by introducing DNA to act as a secondary scaffold. They propose that DNA in the enzyme environment will induce electrostatic interactions that can be tuned to stabilize the transition state, dramatically speeding up the reaction.

The program has a strong track record of helping set researchers up for bigger external grants. Faculty sharing information on external grants related to their seed-funded projects collectively report a total that, in a typical year, exceeds the original investment by more than a factor of 10.   

Shima Shahab, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, received seed funding through the program in 2021 to study how acoustic lenses could be used to facilitate treatment for neurological disorders; the research has since been funded by EAGER and CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation. Sanket Deshmukh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and a co-investigator on one of this year’s grants, credits his own 2020 award for strengthening his application for a CAREER award funding work on machine learning techniques for the development of high-performance materials. 

The lead researcher on eligible projects must be a pre-tenure professor on a tenure track or an AP or research faculty member hired after 2018; co-investigators should be from different disciplines. Partnering with a more senior faculty member is often helpful, but not required. 

The request for proposals is typically posted in December, with applications due in early February.

Questions about the program can be directed to Mary Kasarda, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and ICTAS' director of scholarship, who will administer the grants this year. Jon Greene, ICTAS' associate director for strategic development, who has managed the program for seven years, is taking a role outside the university.

"We're very grateful to Jon for building the Junior Faculty Program into a highly regarded mechanism for supporting new faculty and attracting external research funding," Duma said. "These seed grants have helped dozens of faculty members across the university establish research programs that are flourishing today, and we're excited to see what comes next." 

More details about the Junior Faculty Program and other ICTAS seed funding opportunities are available on this page.

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