If a person can embody the mission of an institute, then Kiyah Duffey is the human exemplar of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.  

The institute defines itself as an instrument of strategic university investment committed to enhancing the quality, quantity, and competitiveness of innovative environmental and life sciences research, education, and outreach across Virginia Tech. Duffey’s home life could easily be described in a similar manner.

Married to Tim Baird, the faculty principal of the Creativity and Innovation District (CID), a mix of three living-learning communities that follows residential college practices with 600 residents, Duffey voluntarily mentors and invests in the students.

She is an integral part of enhancing the quality, quantity, and competitiveness of their innovative environment. 

“Kiyah is definitely a great mentor and was avidly willing to dedicate time to the Innovate students, especially during the first year of the Creativity and Innovation District,” said Lane Robertson, a junior and chief community officer of Innovate for the 2022-23 academic year. 

“In my experience, she has been extremely comforting, inspiring, and encouraging to be around in the community,” Robertson said. “She has a great sense of humor and is very creative, so I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her.”


Kiyah Duffey, director of strategic innovations at Fralin Life Sciences Institute, has been honored with the title of associate faculty principal in appreciation of her mentoring contributions to the Innovate living-learning community in the Creativity and Innovation District. Photo by Kristina Rose for Virginia Tech.

As the director of strategic initiatives for the institute, Duffey knows how to cultivate creativity, nurture growth, and implement innovative ideas. And the students in the CID have been benefiting from her guidance for two years.  

“Kiyah’s contributions to the Virginia Tech community beyond those linked to the institute are stellar and represent some of the best characteristics of the Ut Prosim motto,” said Robin McCarley, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “It warms my heart to see such drive and commitment to helping the university succeed, especially with the many facets of student development, which is key to the future of the commonwealth and our society.”

Duffey’s voluntary engagement with students has not gone unnoticed. 

Jamie Penven, director of living-learning programs, recommended Duffey be honored with the title of associate faculty principal to recognize her contributions. In a letter to Duffey, Frances Keene, vice president for Student Affairs, said title was to “formally acknowledge the substantial teaching, mentorship, and engagement you are demonstrating within this living-learning program.”

“Frankly, I feel a little awkward having that title because I feel that this is stuff that I would do anyway,” Duffey said. “If I am asked by students to participate in something that’s meaningful, I try to say yes to that. If there is any little bit of learning I have gained from going through the various experiences I have had and I can share that with them, I am glad to help. It doesn’t feel like an obligation.”

Duffey is not the only faculty principal spouse given the title of associate faculty principal. Donna Westfall-Rudd, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in agricultural, leadership, and community education, also received the title for her voluntary work with the Leadership and Social Change Residential College, along with her husband and faculty principal, Rick Rudd. 

Making connections is something Duffey has always done well. 

Shortly after arriving at Virginia Tech with a Ph.D. in nutritional epidemiology, she left her research faculty position to join a consulting firm run by a former professor. The two also shared an interest in product design when Duffey, drawing on her nutrition research and role as a new mother, explained her idea for a children’s feeding spoon. 

The final concept of the spoon became the flagship product of Kizingo, now a six-figure business that creates children’s mealtime products designed to support life-long healthy relationships with food. Duffey ran the company until the needs of the business outpaced her ability to facilitate growth. 

Fortunately she connected with Matt Hulver, the first executive director of the newly restructured Fralin Life Sciences Institute, who was interested in Duffey’s diverse skills and hired her as the director of strategic initiatives.

“One of the things I have discovered is I really like the business side of the university rather than being in the faculty/academic side,” Duffey said. “I did not want a traditional academic appointment, I always knew that, but I hadn’t ever considered alternatives to a traditional academic path.”

When the opportunity for a new faculty principal came up through the CID, Duffey and Baird, associate professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, wrote the application together, although Duffey, who is not full-time tenured faculty, was not eligible for the position — only Baird was. 

Duffey and Baird are keenly aware they are raising their three children in the middle of a student housing complex. 

“I think it’s really good for our kids. They see all of the different ways you could approach a college education and it gets them outside of their comfort zone a bit,” Duffey said. “They have made connections, all three of them, and I think that is really valuable for them.”

Their youngest daughter, Alice, learned to crochet from one of the student residents, and their son, Oliver, worked with another student resident to create a stop-motion video, which Duffey and Baird featured during one of the weekly Friday evening talks at the CID.

For the last year of the three-year contract, Duffey plans to continue engaging with the students on fronts that draw upon her extensive expertise in leadership, epidemiology and nutrition, research strategy, and mentoring.

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