The next Tech
Today, the Virginia Tech community is on pace to drive progress, lead research, and build futures.
Before Virginia Tech blew out the candles on the university’s Sesquicentennial celebration last year, efforts were already underway to create, implement, and execute bold plans for the university’s next 150 years.
In January, President Tim Sands unveiled two emerging aspirations during the State of the University address:
- Become a top-100 global research university
- Make a Virginia Tech education accessible and affordable for all students without sacrificing meaningful experiences, particularly for students in Virginia
“When I came here eight years ago, we made a commitment to pursue a 21st century land-grant mission for the commonwealth,” Sands said. “We resolved to remain true to our agricultural, mechanical, and military heritage while also exploring new frontiers in science, technology, health, the humanities, the arts, and the human impact of a diverse and inclusive education.”
Virginia Tech accomplished that and even more.
The university is preparing to make an even bigger impact on the greater Washington, D.C., metro area with the official opening of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in 2024. And today, the Virginia Tech community is on pace to drive progress, lead research, and build futures — taking tremendous steps toward the next Tech.
Raymond Triggs’ favorite movie is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Born on April 8, 2007, the 15-year-old lives with his mother, who is originally from Kansas City, Kansas, at 5839 Parkside St. in Detroit, Michigan.
Like a lot of people, Raymond is no stranger to signing up for all kinds of stuff on the internet, which often requires sharing his personal information. That information then has the potential to be used in all kinds of nefarious ways, which could cause real problems for Raymond.
That is, if Raymond was real.
Raymond Triggs is one of 100,000 fake identities Virginia Tech faculty and students are creating as a part of the Use and Abuse of Personal Information research project in the Virginia Tech National Security Institute. The project, which is also supported by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), uses these identities to perform one-time online interactions and to study how the information provided is being used across email, SMS text, and voicemail modalities. The end goal is to create a real-time, public-facing dashboard that tracks the shared information.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re going to have a large real-world, open-source intelligence collection engine,” said Alan Michaels, principal investigator and professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We’ll have real data to answer some of the political science or economic questions more confidently.”
The engine driving much of this work is a group of 38 paid undergraduate students who span nearly a dozen majors across the university. As one of the National Security Institute’s Vertically Integrated Projects, the multiyear project also brings together students from varying class years.
“One of the big takeaways from the Vertically Integrated Projects is that undergraduates are extraordinarily capable, and they can bring a lot of value that supports the faculty member and the research,” said Michaels, who has led 138 research projects worth more than $170 million during his career. “The students are exceedingly sharp. When you point them in a direction and give them a charter, even if it’s something you don’t know how to complete, they’re quite good at figuring it out.”
The Use and Abuse of Personal Information project is an example of work taking place at the intersection of two emerging aspirations for Virginia Tech: becoming a top-100 global research university and increasing accessibility and affordability for students.
President Tim Sands addressed the goals during his State of the University address in January, noting that paid research experiences support both. He also shared that a university survey reported undergraduate students who work as paid researchers are 40 percent more likely than their peers to successfully find a first destination — employment, admission to graduate school, or military commissioning, for example — within six months of graduating.
In fall 2022, the Use and Abuse of Personal Information project was one of more than 400 sponsored projects at Virginia Tech that paid undergraduates to work. It serves as both an example of undergraduates engaging in potentially world-changing research and an illustration of research and work-based learning’s role as a pillar of the university experience.
“Virginia Tech research has a strong foundation of researchers who thrive in a culture of collaboration, and that includes working with students,” said Dan Sui, Virginia Tech’s senior vice president for research and innovation. “As we strive toward new heights — from national excellence to global eminence — we realize the critical role their inclusion plays in our success today and preparing them for the world tomorrow.”
Launched in September 2021, the National Security Institute is helping to work toward both university aspirations while also addressing critical workforce needs by prioritizing paid research experiences for undergraduate students.
“What we’re doing that I think is so unique is we are truly bringing undergraduate students into the research experience,” said Eric Paterson, executive director of the National Security Institute. “We’re bringing them in with a real focus on developing the workforce for the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and all of the government contractors they work with. That’s a huge ecosystem.”
The institute is one of the many Virginia Tech vessels that helps prepare students for future careers in the intelligence and defense communities. It works in collaboration with CCI, the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation, and many other departments and units across the university.
Building on the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology’s emphasis on workforce development, Paterson said about 800 undergraduate students are currently involved with the institute. Many of those are not only being paid for their work, but also are able to become employees of companies, begin obtaining government clearances, and even earn credit toward retirement.
“There’s such a critical shortage of talent that companies are investing significant amounts of money so that we can pay students to work on these projects,” said Paterson, who is the Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor of Marine Propulsion. “We know students having opportunities for work-based learning experiences in their field has a real impact on their career opportunities, and a lot of our work is contract-based, so they’re working with real deliverables.”
Such funding helped the institute achieve $25 million in research expenditures in 2022, a 40 percent increase from the previous year, and has helped put it on pace for another major increase this year.
Laura Freeman, deputy director of the National Security Institute, said getting students involved in such important research is not only critical to increasing their future opportunities, but also to showing them first-hand the possibilities that exist in the national security field.
“We have a lot of really interesting and hard problems to solve, and I’m a firm believer that if you expose students to those problems, they’re going to want a career in national security. They’re going to see they have the potential to have so much impact,” said Freeman, who also is the assistant dean of research for the College of Science in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area and a faculty member with CCI. “These are really hard challenges you aren’t going to get in your typical sophomore-level computer science classes, and we have real sponsors looking for answers. It’s a very fun area to work in.”
Some of that work includes figuring out how to best test and evaluate such high-tech, high-dollar government tools as drones, stealth fighters, submarines, and satellites, which can include aspects of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Adding real-world problems to the students’ classroom experience helps elevate their educational experience, Freeman said.
“When you show them real data and ask them a question a senior leader needs answered from it, there’s this ah-ha moment of, ‘Oh, I have to do a lot more. I have to think about the credibility of the data. Does it need to be cleaned? Are there typos?’” Freeman said. “That process of putting together what they’re learning in class to actually solve a problem they’ve never been exposed to in traditional curriculum is my absolute favorite part of working with undergrads.”
Virginia Tech research projects helping bring to life classroom studies is something Keri Swaby is accustomed to witnessing. The director of undergraduate research, Swaby said students having opportunities to apply what they have learned in class to real-world problems is often an eye-opening and profound experience.
“I’ve worked with students who were not doing the best based on their GPA or were not connecting to the material, and when they got involved in research, it was like a light bulb went off,” Swaby said. “It was like, ‘Now I can see where this degree might take me.’ To me, I think that’s one of the most impactful things we can offer to undergrads.”
The Office of Undergraduate Research connects and supports both students and faculty. The office manages a small number of competitive scholarships and fellowship programs and provides students guidance with the presentation of their work following a research project. The office recorded about 3,500 interactions with students during the 2021-22 academic year.
Swaby said she’s seen a rise in undergraduate students taking part in research, which she attributes to both a cultural shift at Virginia Tech and students sharing their experiences with others. She hopes the increase will continue as more students realize that any Hokie can find a place in the university’s research community.
“Anybody can do it and benefit from it,” Swaby said. “Students often remove themselves from the equation. They think, ‘Oh research is not for me. I don’t have the skills or experience or grades.’ But a lot of faculty who want to work with students aren’t looking for the 4.0s [GPA]. They want people who are resilient and won’t get scared if something doesn’t work because research typically doesn’t work at first.”
By the numbers
Although fragments of data can’t illustrate the full scope, statistics do offer a snapshot of the effects of the studies conducted by the nine colleges, seven research institutes, and hundreds of centers and laboratories that contribute to Virginia Tech's research enterprise.
- 2,097 new awards in FY 2022
- Ranked No. 54 National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey
- Top 6 percent in the nation, research expenditures
- Nearly $600 million in research expenditures in fiscal year 2022
- Approximately 200 postdoctoral scholars
- 4,000-plus faculty researchers
Learn more about research at Virginia Tech by visiting research.vt.edu.
Eli Levi didn’t see himself being involved in research when he began as an undergraduate student, but these days, it’s hard to imagine his Virginia Tech experience without it.
After attending the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology’s open house in fall 2021, Levi applied to join the Use and Abuse of Personal Information project. It’s been a part of his life ever since.
“I was a little skeptical at first because I wasn’t too interested in cybersecurity, but the project sounded really interesting,” said Levi, a junior studying computer engineering. “I’ve really enjoyed the project since then. And the skills I’ve learned, the communication skills, the presentation skills, I think will be carried through to any future job.”
Similarly, Mary Nerayo said taking part in undergraduate research wasn’t on her radar until this project was suggested to her by Michaels, for whom she was working as a student assistant.
“I never ever thought I would be in research, but I’m so glad I am now,” said Nerayo, a junior studying business information technology. “It’s allowed me to explore my creativity and bounce ideas off others. This experience has given me a lot of space to have the confidence to just throw ideas out there.”
When Levi and Nerayo began working with the Use and Abuse of Personal Information project, it consisted of about 15 people figuring out the first basic concepts to explore. Today, the project is attracting new team members and generating new ideas at an almost overwhelming pace.
“It keeps growing by the week, honestly,” Nerayo said. “We have weekly meetings, and every time there’s at least one undergrad who comes up with a new way to take the role they have and make it even more exciting.”
Michaels credits the project’s positive environment to its purposeful inclusion of students from both STEM and non-STEM programs. He said by combining different majors, students are able to capitalize on their varying interests and skill sets in ways that multiply their impact.
The costs and benefits of higher education
Each spring anxious high school seniors across the commonwealth and nation eagerly check and double-check their computers and mailboxes in anticipation of acceptance letters from their colleges of choice. Soon, thoughts of “Did I get in?” and “Where will I go?” will be replaced by queries into financial aid packages and calculations that predict actual cost of attendance.
Between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree increased 169 percent, according to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And U.S. News and World Report notes that the average debt incurred as a student pursues an undergraduate degree remains at about $30,000.
When Laryssa Arms’ financial aid package arrived in 2017, it warranted both a second and third opinion.
“I read it and I read it and I read it, and I thought, I don’t think my 17-year-old brain is comprehending this correctly,” said Arms, who earned a degree in psychology in 2021. “I asked my mom to read it, and she was like, ‘No, you’re right Laryssa,’ and I didn’t believe her. So I took it to my high school guidance counselor, who said, ‘No, you’re right. That’s a big scholarship.’”
That fall, Arms was one of 85 Hokies selected for the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, a four-year, full scholarship program designed to recognize and reward academically talented and dedicated Virginians with significant financial need.
Today, Arms is a Virginia Tech financial aid advisor, and, as of summer 2022, the scholarship that helped her get there has been expanded to 95 students per cohort, bringing the total number of Hokies enrolled in the program to 340 undergraduates.
The Presidential Scholarship Initiative is just one example of the university’s efforts to remove many of the traditional barriers to higher education.
In October 2022, Sands launched an initiative to dramatically improve the university’s access and affordability for Virginia students.
“A Virginia Tech education can be life-changing for graduates and their families and have a positive impact on their communities and the commonwealth,” Sands said. “Making this experience more accessible and affordable, especially for those who are underrepresented and underserved, is a foundational part of our land-grant mission to provide a quality educational experience that prepares graduates for service and success.”
“We saw the impact of financial fragility during the pandemic — a small unexpected expense is enough to make a student interrupt their education or leave the university entirely,” Sands said during his State of the University address in January. “Some are not able to participate in paid internships or study abroad because of opportunity costs associated with relocating. They often have not established the networks that wealthier students take for granted. Some take on too much debt and are then limited in choices when they graduate.”
The new access and affordability initiative seeks to ensure that the Virginia Tech experience is financially within reach for everyone, regardless of income.
“In order for Virginia Tech to continue to be a destination for talent, we have to offer competitive financial aid packages, particularly for our most financially vulnerable families,” said Pratt. “Our support should not be limited to scholarships that cover tuition and fees. We should also provide support to cover transformational experiences during the course of their time at Virginia Tech.”
In the fall 2022 semester, the university reached a signature milestone in the president’s Beyond Boundaries vision for a diverse and inclusive environment. Underrepresented and underserved students made up 40 percent of the incoming class. Yet, the 40 percent milestone also offers the university a competitive challenge in “yielding” prospective students, or moving them from acceptance to enrollment. Reducing unmet financial needs will help Virginia Tech retain accepted Virginia students who receive competitive financial aid and scholarship offers from other schools.
“Land-grant universities such as Virginia Tech were designed to provide educational opportunities to all members of the communities that we serve, including those prospective students who are financially challenged,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, who co-sponsors the initiative with Sands. “By providing financial aid to students in need, we enhance the diversity of the student population, thereby enabling delivery of an enriching learning experience for all students. This allows us to also recruit, develop, and deploy the breadth of talent necessary to advance the economic development of the commonwealth and the nation.”
Currently, Virginia Tech supports a variety of ongoing programs to offset the cost of attendance. In June 2022, for example, the Board of Visitors allocated an additional $5.1 million to undergraduate financial aid programs, raising total institutional support for students to more than $39.4 million for this academic year.
The increase benefits programs such as Funds for the Future, which provides 100 percent protection from tuition and fee increases for returning students with a family income of up to $100,000. In fall 2021, 90 percent of Virginia’s counties and municipalities were represented by students in the Funds for the Future program.
The Presidential Scholarship Initiative also benefits from the additional funding, which will help provide even more high-achieving Hokies from Virginia with transformational scholarship aid.
“I didn’t even know about it [the scholarship] until I was chosen for it,” said Levi Shoates, a sophomore studying creative technologies and a Presidential Scholar. “It was definitely a big part of my decision to come to Tech. I applied to like 20 schools, so it was really hard, but choosing Tech is probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Coming to Virginia Tech helped Shoates expand his studies to include not only a major in art, but also a minor in human-computer interaction. Being a part of the Presidential Scholars Initiative enabled Shoates to expand his college experience and step out of his comfort zone.
“I’ve enjoyed the fact that we have to go on campus for events because it encouraged me to go out and do things I normally wouldn’t do,” Shoates said. “I went to some events that were focused on careers and one on budgeting, which was really helpful.”
"I didn’t even know about it [the scholarship] until I was chosen for it. It was definitely a big part of my decision to come to Tech. I applied to like 20 schools, so it was really hard, but choosing Tech is probably the best decision I’ve ever made.” Levi Shoates, a sophomore studying creative technologies and a presidential scholar
Likewise, five years after learning she had been awarded a spot in the program, Arms said the enrichment activities and guidance she received were critical to her success in college and beyond.
“It really helped round me out beyond the scholarship dollars,” said Arms. “The support and community Presidential Scholars Initiative has built, that was very encouraging during times I really needed it.”
The infrastructure for the access and affordability initiative, which is scoped to be a three year effort, already is taking shape.
Pratt and Holt are guiding a process to set goals for the initiative and to engage stakeholders from across the university, including such areas as academic affairs, enrollment management, financial aid, government and corporate relations, communications and marketing, finance and budget, and advancement.
To date, university leaders have established a steering committee, a financial feasibility working group, and a student experience working group. These groups will generate ideas for projects, programming, and other actions to support student success in areas that range from student retention and graduation rates to closing the financial gap.
In recent years the university has made strides to enhance its ability to meet the financial needs of students and to implement strategies to improve the student experience through measures such as time-to-degree and retention. Still, Pratt and Holt said that university leaders are eager to develop new and robust strategies that meet the needs and aspirations of every student … one by one.
“This initiative is a tremendous opportunity to shape and fulfill our approach to meeting this key facet of our land-grant aspirations,” said Holt. “We look forward to the universitywide collaborations — and to enhance access and affordability for all Virginia students and their families.”
A conversation about access and affordability
During his Jan. 18 State of the University address, President Tim Sands talked with two Virginia Tech students about access and affordability:
Amanda Leckner, a junior majoring in national security and foreign affairs, noted that as she was preparing to enroll, “I saw that there were Hokies First peer mentors. And I said, ‘I definitely need a first-generation sister or brother. And then I met my Hokies First mentor, and she changed my college experience completely. And so after that, I decided to become a Hokies First peer mentor. There's something we say in first-generation student support. We say,'Embrace your first-generation superpower.' I couldn't [do that] without the funding and the support that I received through the Presidential Scholarship Initiative.”
O'Brian Martin, a first-year student who serves in the Undergraduate Student Senate as vice president for equity and inclusion, reflected on what drew him to Virginia Tech.
“The vision, the thought, and the idea that I can come to Blacksburg and receive a world-class education and still be called to answer that higher calling of service to others was fascinating to me and something I could not find anywhere else.And today, in my particular role in the realm of equity and inclusion, I have the important task of ensuring that each student feels like they belong on this amazing campus.Nothing is more important than a strong sense of belonging and to feel like you have the tools, the resources, and the support you need to create and to be the best version of yourself.”
Solving challenges emerging in a rapidly changing world
Virginia Tech invests in major research initiatives that bring together expertise that crosses traditional discipline boundaries. In partnership with industry, government, and foundations, the university targets four focus areas to help create a better world for all.
These strategically focused areas are Virginia Tech Research Frontiers.
The Artificial Intelligence Frontier builds on expertise in AI and data science, systems engineering, neuroscience, human factors, immersive visualization, and education, among others, to accelerate human-technology partnerships, ethically and sustainably.
The Health Frontier shifts the focus from disease and symptoms to one of whole health, integrating intersections of animal, environment, and human health in building communities and systems to empower well-being.
The Security Frontier helps to ensure that communities are prepared to face global threats, from climate change to cybersecurity to national defense, through advances in preparation defense, mitigation, and recovery.
The Quantum Frontier works to accelerate the integration of quantum technologies across society, realizing unprecedented computing and communication capabilities and restructuring our social framework.
To learn more about the frontiers, visit research.vt.edu.