Two research teams have been awarded the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s first center planning grants.

The inaugural effort will provide a significant investment over three years in support of affiliated faculty’s quest to pursue federally funded, prestigious multi-million dollar center or program project grants. Each year, funding will go to the two teams and a full-time staff member to assist them during their planning period and with proposal development. 

“The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is seeking to strategically support teams to pursue large center-level grants, which takes time and resources to do successfully,” said William Hopkins, associate executive director of institute, who, along with X.J. Meng, former interim executive director, initiated the program. “Because we know faculty need multiple years to plan for these ambitious endeavors, we sought to provide them with a multi-year runway to position themselves for success.” 

Robin McCarley, executive director of the institute, said the incentive was motivated by two main purposes: alignment with Virginia Tech’s priority of catalyzing its research agenda and demonstrating a commitment to the university's Beyond Boundaries approach.

"In light of the Beyond Boundaries philosophy, it is incumbent on us to make investments in terms of people working across the interfaces of disciplines,” McCarley said.

Selected teams also receive discounted use of the institute’s core service centers, which includes the services of Virginia Tech Faculty Activity Support Team: graphic design, formatting, editing, and a “red team” critical review of the final extramural proposal several months prior to the planned submission date.

“To be nationally competitive, it takes long-term support, and that means personnel to help guide the activities,” said McCarley, who worked at the National Science Foundation (NSF) for four years as a rotating program director. “At NSF, I saw what made teams distinctive during center competitions: They had long-term support from their universities.”

Applying teams were required to include multiple institute–affiliated faculty, an interdisciplinary group, external collaborators, and a developed proof-of-concept. Teams also needed to demonstrate their collaboration, cohesion, and existing momentum. 

Another criteria for selection was the merit of the lead principal investigator, who must have a track record of leadership, interdisciplinary collaboration, national/international recognition, and an exemplary publication and extramural funding record as a principal investigator. 

The following projects were selected for funding:

“Technology-enabled water surveillance and control,” is led by Peter J. Vikesland, the Nick Prillaman Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Our Technology-Enabled Water Surveillance and Control Center is focused around the development, implementation, equitable access, and societal implications of wireless sensor networks for detection and control of waterborne microbial threats to 'one water' systems,” said Vikesland. “The ‘one water’ concept recognizes that finite water resources are intertwined and as such require integrated planning and policy implementation approaches to achieve long-term resilience, reliability, and societal equity.” 

The long-term commitment of the funding grant will enable Vikesland to tap into resources and strengthen the project.

“This is an opportunity to bring two different efforts together, expand, and bring in cutting-edge technology,” Vikesland said. “Part of what we have been doing is building connections.”

Another awarded project is led by Michelle Theus, professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Our team is uniquely positioned to create a neuro-immunologic common data set that can be used to help better understand the neuroinflammatory endophenotype [hereditary characteristic] of traumatic brain injury and to identify predictive signatures or multi-modal biomarkers that could help to stratify individuals that go on to develop post-traumatic epilepsy,” said Theus.

Theus, who also serves as the co-director of the translational, biology, medicine, and health graduate program, said the grants represent a major investment by the university. 

“The most significant influence this grant will have internally will be its effects on promoting synergy across multiple Virginia Tech labs focused on understanding the detrimental effects of brain injury,” Theus said.

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