In the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 first blustered onto the national scene, Linsey Marr was troubled by one word she wasn’t hearing from public health officials: “airborne.”  

Although U.S. and global agencies initially avoided the word — or outright discounted it — when describing the latest coronavirus, Marr knew the science said otherwise. The Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering has been pioneering transdisciplinary work on viruses in the air since 2009. Her research showed that viruses can be transported in respiratory aerosol particles similar to the way cigarette smoke behaves, and the evidence tipped the scales in favor of wearing masks over repeatedly disinfecting surfaces. 

Over a course of seven months, Marr helped lead the charge to correct misinformation about COVID-19 transmission that threatened to create a larger public health problem through dogged persistence with policymaking agencies and in a grassroots effort to the 66,000 followers of her Twitter account.

Today, she is considered one of the world’s leading experts on airborne transmission of viruses.

Now, Marr is one of two College of Engineering faculty members elevated to the rank of University Distinguished Professor by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. Receiving the honor alongside Marr is Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences. They join 17 active University Distinguished Professors across Virginia Tech whose scholarly work has earned significant national or international recognition. 

For more than a decade, Marr has studied the transport, removal, and mitigation of airborne pathogenic viruses in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her curiosity sprang from her son’s experience in daycare — specifically from a question as familiar to parents as the common cold: Why do children and their classmates get sick so frequently? Marr’s resulting research into how pathogens move from person to person blended environmental engineering, medicine, aerosol science, and virology, making it difficult for Marr to gain footing in the sometimes siloed world of academic publishing.

But the COVID-19 pandemic brought Marr’s research to the forefront of public conversation. She shared her expertise on airborne pathogenic viruses with numerous media outlets, reaching millions of people in about 90 countries. A 2020 New York Times profile called Marr the general public’s “tour guide to the invisible world of airborne particles.” That year alone, her name appeared about 8,000 times in media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Scientific American, and CNN.  

“Linsey exemplifies both the College of Engineering’s focus on innovating solutions and the Ut Prosim spirit,” said Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “She recognized a problem, understood the value of her perspective, and stepped up to make her voice heard. Her messages resonated with a broad audience because of her ability to convey scientific evidence in a direct, approachable way.”

lindsey Marr
May 1, 2020 - Linsey Marr works in a lab in Kelly Hall where her and her team work on researching how COVID-19 is spread. (Ryan Young / Virginia Tech)

In addition to helping the public understand how to keep safe during the pandemic, Marr worked to align the efforts of COVID-19 policymakers and the scientific community. She and a group of allies provided evidence-based recommendations to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eventually persuading the agencies to recognize airborne transmission of COVID-19 and improve national and global policies for respiratory infections.

“Dr. Marr’s work, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrates Virginia Tech’s leadership in addressing the world’s most pressing issues,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “She has fundamentally changed how global and national policymakers interact with scientists and brought visibility to the university’s transformative research.”

This October, Marr will be formally inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional distinctions available to engineers. She is a fellow of the American Association for Aerosol Research, the American Geophysical Union, and the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate. In 2022, Marr received an Outstanding Faculty Award, the commonwealth’s highest faculty honor, from the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia. 

Marr continues to advocate for better, more productive, collaboration between policymakers and the scientific community. She currently is working with the World Health Organization and has served on several committees for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. She has written op-eds for major media outlets about vaccines, masking, overcleaning, and the pitfalls stemming from public health officials’ avoidance of the word “airborne.”

“I’m honored to join the ranks of Virginia Tech’s University Distinguished Professors,” Marr said. “I hope to use the freedom afforded by the position to continue to pursue innovative research with my outstanding multidisciplinary collaborators. I also hope to develop a course on climate change engineering, to meet the interest and demand from students. I’m happy that this position gives me greater visibility to be a role model for young women who are interested in science and engineering.” 

Marr earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering science from Harvard University in 1996 and a doctorate in environmental engineering from University of California, Berkeley, in 2002. Before joining Virginia Tech, she was a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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