Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment has built a reputation as a national and global leader in the sustainable use and stewardship of our natural resources. At the heart of the exceptional teaching, research, and outreach that drives the college forward are the faculty and staff, their breadth and depth of expertise, and their commitment to excellence.

Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college, recently shared with the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors how human, financial, and physical capital converge to impact the work that is happening in the college, creating an experience that sets the college apart within the university community and among institutional competitors.

“In any leadership role, you must be accountable for your people, finances, and infrastructure if you are to achieve organizational excellence,” Winistorfer said. “It is your primary responsibility to align these resources with an aspirational vision for your organization if you wish to distinguish yourself in all facets of the academic marketplace.”

The College of Natural Resources and Environment has been very successful in aligning its resources and vision. The college is research-intensive, student-centered, and a recognized leader and top-five producer of graduates nationally in all its disciplines. By providing numerous degree programs that are only offered at Virginia Tech within the commonwealth, student demand is at an all-time high.

“Students can choose among so many colleges and universities today, and providing them with the best faculty, staff, facilities, curriculum, and hands-on educational experience is what sets us apart,” Winistorfer said.

To keep pace with demand and maintain its standing in a competitive academic arena, the college has invested millions of dollars in noncapital renovations and research facilities such as the aviary and recently updated biomaterials lab. “We’ve taken responsibility to make our buildings, classrooms, labs, meeting spaces, offices, and student lounge attractive, functional spaces we can be proud of,” said Winistorfer.

To champion this forward trajectory, Winistorfer shared with the board the college’s top two priorities in relation to updating and enlarging the infrastructure at the Center Woods Wild Animal Research Center and the Thomas M. Brooks Forest Products Center.

Envisioning a new, multi-use facility at Center Woods

Center Woods is a 39-acre forest and building complex adjacent to Route 460 that includes the behind-the-scenes resources and structures needed to manage college research activities, specifically those of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

The department is one of the top 10 academic departments at Virginia Tech, as measured by research expenditures, and is nearing $8 million in annual research expenditures. Fish and wildlife conservation researchers secure support from local, regional, and national agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Faculty also work closely with the Virginia Division of Wildlife Resources.

As a home for many research projects, Center Woods features a mussel propagation lab, conservation aquaculture center, greenhouse, and 16-bay aviary that is one of the finest facilities of its kind in the eastern U.S. The complex also provides storage space for boats, vehicles, and field equipment and serves as a staging area for undergraduate courses and labs.

A woman looks into a metal vat covered with a framework of plastic tubing and filled with water and growing sea grass.
Research scientist Sara Sweeten (at right) of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation tends to native freshwater grasses as part of an ongoing research project utilizing the conservation aquaculture center at Center Woods. Photo by Sam Dean for Virginia Tech.

The College of Natural Resources and Environment has been working closely with the university to further the capital project request with the Commonwealth of Virginia for future authorization and funding to design and construct a 28,000-square-foot, two-story facility that will house research labs, meeting rooms, graduate student space, and secure storage areas. The new building would also allow the Conservation Management Institute, an applied research center in the college, to relocate from leased space in Blacksburg.

The new facility will allow the department and college to better align infrastructure, human resources, and research happening at Center Woods. “We are very fortunate to have our Center Woods facility adjacent to campus so we have ready access to labs and equipment, and it is central to our vision for the future for the college,” Winistorfer said.

Expanding and improving facilities at the Brooks Center

The Brooks Center, located near the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, is home to the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design (CPULD). The facility also includes two high-bay engineering labs, the composites lab, and machine and wood shops as well as classrooms, a computer lab, and faculty and staff offices.

The packaging systems and design degree program has experienced tremendous growth and provides an exceptional hands-on learning environment for students. Students gain real-world experience by utilizing the innovation lab’s state-of-the-art equipment and by testing and evaluating products and shipping materials at the CPULD, a leader in pallet, corrugated, and unit load design, testing, and evaluation.

In relation to forest products, the Brooks Center houses full scale, large test frames and provides space for testing and evaluating wood materials such as glue-laminated timbers, solid wood products, and composite materials. Recent research has focused on increased utilization of Appalachian hardwoods for the manufacture of cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is revolutionizing the building industry. The college’s research in CLT is at the foundation of efforts to gain building code approval for these materials and has the potential to impact the commercial construction industry on a national scale.

A male professor and female student study and touch the ends of stack of boards that are being held in a vice.
Daniel Hindman, associate professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, conducts strength testing of cross-laminated timber beams with graduate student Houri Sharifniay Dizboni at the Brooks Center. Photo by Jim Stroup for Virginia Tech.

The existing facility is aging and at capacity, and Winistorfer is seeking building upgrades and more lab and classroom space. “We need to double or triple the size of the CPULD to meet current demand and remain a world leader in this sector,” Winistorfer said. “We are one of only a few Amazon-certified test labs and the only IKEA-certified facility in North America.” 

What is happening at the Brooks Center is illustrative of the college’s current challenges in terms of facilities and infrastructure — and how these challenges will affect the college's future. Initial improvements to student access to the Brooks Center are underway. A new sidewalk will be installed later this year and additional opportunities for further improvements are being explored to include possible additional parking and a covered bus stop. 

“The Brooks Center, named in honor of the first endowed professorship at Virginia Tech, has served us well over many decades, but the success and growth of our programs puts us at capacity and in real need of a major renovation and addition,” said Winistorfer. “We have unlimited demand for research and outreach opportunities in wood and packaging materials. Graduates of the department’s degree programs are in high demand, and improvements to the Brooks Center are paramount to our future success.”

“Nothing is more important than people, and we have great people in our students, faculty, and staff.” Winistorfer continued. “But to attract good people, you need good physical facilities for research, teaching, and outreach. Our focus on experiential learning requires well-maintained equipment and modern labs. That’s how we make sure our college and Virginia Tech remain competitive with the very best in the world.”

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