Peter Vikesland believes high-tech tools could help increase the flow of quality water in an equitable manner.

Atop a new wave of support from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, Vikesland, the Nick Prillaman Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading a research team in creating wireless sensor networks to survey microbial threats to water quality and to enable operational control and provide real-world feedback for public transparency. The project, Technology-enabled Water Surveillance and Control, reflects the “one water” concept that views water quality as important to our society, economy, and environment and requires an integrated approach to policy planning and implementation.

Data collected by Vikesland’s team also could lead to the development of a new research center at Virginia Tech.

“Multiple converging trends support the need for a center focused on distributed ‘one water’ sensing,” said Vikesland. “These include national tragedies, such as the lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan; increasing pathogen impairment of surface waters; and wastewater driven dissemination of antibiotic resistance.”

This is a face shot of Peter Vikesland.
Peter Vikesland is the Nick Prillaman Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Vikesland’s research team is one of two to receive the institute’s first program/center planning grant, which will provide three years of funding to help proposal developments for other prestigious, federally funded multimillion dollar grants. Michelle Theus, professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology, will lead the second group receiving funding on a neurotrauma research project. 

“I am enthused by the scientific diversity and potential for impact the two recently funded projects have to offer,” said Robin McCarley, executive director of the institute. “The myriad questions that may be answered by the team Vikesland leads are vital to the life sciences community, and the possible outcomes have huge societal ramifications.”

One recent example of successful water monitoring is wastewater-based surveillance. And though it has recently proven to be a useful tool to quantify the spread of viral pathogens, such as the COVID-19 virus, and antibiotic resistance within communities, its implementation hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“Wastewater-based surveillance, and other forms of ‘one water’ surveillance, allow for the nonintrusive collection of information at multiple scales (e.g., community manhole, individual buildings) to inform timely and efficient public health responses,” said Vikesland. “However, a looming challenge is these surveillance programs have arisen rapidly — often without full consideration of societal implications.”

Vikesland said previous studies have failed to consider the social, political, and economic criteria necessary for network deployment and decision-making and resulted in some public pushback

“We contend that surveillance programs, no matter their scale, must be developed within a framework that considers not only their scientific engineering and data analytic dimensions, but also policy drivers, equity, economics, ethics, and the potentially conflicting needs and perspectives of all potential stakeholders,” Vikesland said.

Because the team is cognizant that this project is multifaceted and will involve and affect many stakeholders, its members are bringing a transdisciplinary approach to the work. The team includes more than a dozen Virginia Tech faculty spanning multiple colleges and academic disciplines. 

“The old cliche that the social dimensions of complex socio-ecological challenges are an afterthought at best among engineers and physical scientists could not be further from the truth when it comes to this group,” said Todd Schenk, associate professor of public and international affairs. "I think that this initiative is all the stronger because there is a shared attentiveness to integrating human dimensions, the social sciences, and what it takes to conduct work that will have public policy and wider societal impacts."

Leigh-Anne Krometis (second from left) and Alasdair Cohen (far right) have collaborated on several water quality studies throughout the region. Photo courtesy of Leigh-Anne Krometis.

Other members of the faculty research team and their roles:

  • Alasdair Cohen, assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, will lead analyses and statistical modeling of water-related markers and health outcome data as well as support rural setting studies.

  • Marc Edwards, University Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will co-direct measurements of chemical parameters across “one water” systems.

  • Julia Gohlke, associate professor of environmental health in the population health sciences department, will lead studies examining health outcomes associated with flood events and provide methodological and data processing support for studies of human health outcomes.

  • Stanley Grant, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Lab, will coordinate research projects, as well as contribute to data collection and modeling studies and stakeholder interactions.

  • Lenwood Heath, professor of computer science, will develop algorithms for locating sensors and designing networks for optimal benefit.

  • Leigh-Anne Krometis, associate professor of biological systems engineering, will develop and lead projects examining implementation in rural and resource-limited settings.

  • Amy Pruden, University Distinguished Professor and W. Thomas Price Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is an expert in detecting, tracking, and mitigating antibiotic resistance in water and will co-direct microbiological analyses.

  • Megan Rippy, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering stationed at the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Lab, will assess social, ecological, and hydrological drivers of water security.

  • Todd Schenk, associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs and Global Change Center affiliate, will support stakeholder engagement and integration and consideration of public policies in water and related domains.

  • Liqing Zhang, professor of computer science, will develop bioinformatic tools for data processing and analysis as well as develop machine-learning models for prediction and anomaly detection.

  • Wei Zhou, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will develop and lead projects to advance field deployable sensor technologies for real-time multimodal monitoring of analyses.

Share this story