Faculty Highlights

The Institute for Society, Culture and Environment provides monetary and technical assistance to faculty research endeavors. We are proud of our past awardees and how our assistance has contributed to their research agendas and discoveries. 

Each quarter we highlight work of faculty we have supported. This quarter, we are highlighting the work of Ashley Dayer. For past faculty highlights, scroll to the end of the story for additional links.

Ashley Dayer: Bringing the Human Dimension to Bird Conservation

People often assume that Ashley Dayer is an ornithologist when first learning of her research program’s emphasis on bird conservation, bird watching, and bird feeding. Dayer, an assistant professor in the department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and director of the Dayer Human Dimensions Lab, however, considers herself to be primarily a social scientist. She believes that understanding the human dimensions of wildlife conservation is a key element to addressing conservation challenges, and that using social science methods and perspectives are necessary tools to advance this understanding.

Ashley Dayer
Dr. Ashley Dayer is a conservation social scientist. Much of her work focuses on addressing the challenges in bird conservation. In her free time, she occasionally goes birding herself.

According to Dayer, the social sciences, which include disciplines such as social psychology, political science, sociology, geography, policy and communications, can contribute important theoretical concepts and methodological strategies to better understand how humans impact the natural world and in turn, how nature effects people.

Dayer often uses mixed methods to conduct her research, including surveys, conducted online, in person and over the phone, along with focus groups, facilitated workshops, observational studies and website reviews. These types of methods are important tools to ferreting out human attitudes and beliefs about wildlife as well as their motivations in supporting or hindering conservation efforts.

“I am also interested in the impact of bird feeding on human wellbeing. For example, do people find bird song soothing or interactions with the pesky squirrel a source of stress?” Dayer said. She noted that bird feeding may be one of the few ways many people interact with wildlife in today’s modernized society. Better understanding of human interactions with wildlife can lead to improved conservation strategies as well as understanding how wildlife can impact wellbeing and a sense of connection to nature.

Dayer’s recent study of people who feed birds, which she conducted with Dana Hawley, associate professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, was jointly funded by the Global Change Center (GCC), where both are affiliates, and the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE).  

“This funding was important in providing the means to collect preliminary data on how humans respond to bird diversity, bird predation, and disease at their bird feeders,” said Dayer. This data collection led to their first journal article together, studying participants in Project FeederWatch, a program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that includes over 10,000 participants who count birds who visit their backyard feeders.

Building on this study, Dayer and Hawley and colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia recently submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to a program focused on the integration of socio-environmental systems. This proposal would take their research to the next level, transforming Project FeederWatch into a socio-environmental research project.

Dayer said the GCC-ISCE funding also was instrumental in jumpstarting her collaboration with colleagues. “ISCE has also been very supportive of my work in other ways, too. Karen Roberto [ISCE director] served as my mentor in the [Virginia Tech] Proposal Development Institute, which helped me learn how to pitch my proposal, so that it resonates better with non-social scientists. ISCE also provided funding for two external reviewers to give feedback on my NSF proposal before I submitted it,” Dayer explained. She hopes this feedback will strengthen their proposal, so that it is more competitive and ultimately result in funding.  

In addition to her research, Dayer is actively involved in conservation efforts. She serves on several subcommittees for the North American Bird Conservation Initiative and also supervises the National Bird Conservation Social Science Coordinator in her lab.

“I advocated for this high-profile position, gained national buy-in for it and worked with colleagues to secure funding for it. This coordinator aims to help the bird conservation community more meaningfully integrate social science,” Dayer explained. The position develops resources, provides training materials and consults with organizations on ways to integrate social science into their work.

Dayer is also a leader in “conservation social science” which integrates social science theories and methods into conservation activities and research. She served as president of the Board of Directors of the Society for Conservation Biology Social Science Working Group in 2018-19 and remains an active board member. She is also on the editorial boards for two journals, Human Dimensions of Wildlife and Society and Natural Resources. Dayer often provides expertise on human dimensions to inform policies and programs including as an invited participant on two National Park Service Science Advisory panels.

“My work, in collaboration with the graduate students in my lab, is guiding National Wildlife Refuge management, shaping the design of the Farm Bill conservation program, and informing outreach program priorities for national conservation organizations and bird conservation networks,” Dayer said.

Ashley Dayer 2
Ashley Dayer (right) studies wildlife recreationists, at times conducting surveys in the field.

Her role on a National Park Service science panel, focused on the threat to national parks by invasive animal species, led to the publication of a journal article in Biological Invasions, which received recent media coverage by the BBC, CNN, Newsweek and other national news outlets.

Her hope is that her work will inspire conservation biologists and policy and decision makers to more frequently integrate social science into their research; she offers formal training in social science techniques and promotes conservation social science in her writing and on the web.

 “My goal is that my students in Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and others that I train, will see the value of social science to conservation efforts, so they will be the ones to collaborate with social scientists, raise their hands and ask why social scientists aren’t at the table, and apply social science findings to improve conservation.”

To learn more about Ashley Dayer and her lab, visit https://dayer.fishwild.vt.edu/ or follow her on Twitter @DayerLab.

Click on the names below to view past Faculty Highlights:     

Empowering Communities through Citizen Science

Barbara Allen, professor of science, technology and society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, has always cared deeply about the impact of the environment on people and communities. Her work, which spans both the United States and Europe, examines the intersection between environmental justice, citizen science and policy and regulation.

Allen Photo
Houses, industry, and poor air quality in the town of Fos-sur-mer. Photo by B. Allen

Allen’s most recent work, focused primarily in France, has been the impetus to empower local citizens in two French communities to advocate for critical policy change and has led to the training of key public health officials and scholars in the French Health Service.

This research grew out of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in which Allen was conducting a comparative analysis of the ways citizens shape environmental policy in different countries. For this project, she interviewed French citizens and agency officials in a large industrial area of France, called Etang de Berre, that has been heavily impacted by pollution. Many of the French participants repeatedly voiced health concerns that they believed were largely due to living near the industrial zone.

Even though the French Health Service had conducted numerous health studies in the region, the results were either inconclusive or showed no harmful effects. “This seemed counterintuitive to what the residents and physicians in the communities were seeing and experiencing,” Allen explained.

When Allen mentioned to citizens, that in situations like this one in the U.S., local citizens with the help of public health experts often use a community-based participatory research approach to investigate concerns, they were enthusiastic to give it a try.

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) engages community members in all phases of the research process from identifying issues of concern, to developing research questions and instruments to data analysis and recommendations for change. It uses rigorous, evidence-based research methods to help residents identify problems and solutions within their own communities.

“Although I had studied environmental justice movements and how citizens interact with science in environmentally devastated areas, I had always done so from ‘above,” as a sociologist. I knew you could conduct research in communities, but I had never done it before,” said Allen.

She sought the advice of some experts in the U.S. and then secured about $250,000 in funding from ANSES, a new French agency for environmental and occupational health that was focused on increasing transparency and citizen involvement in environmental issues.

She hired two local medical anthropologists one of whom was from the region. Together, they collaborated with two communities, Fos-sur-Mer and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, to develop and implement a 42-page survey to assess the residents’ health.

Given their CBPR approach, they integrated validated survey questions and measures, used to increase the survey’s credibility, with resident input on the health topics of greatest concern. 

“We interviewed more resident informants and local doctors until we were sure we had a list of the relevant health concerns. We then designed a survey tool to address these concerns that mattered to the public.”

They also held public meetings and put ads in local newspapers and on listservs to get the word out about the study.

Over the next six months, they went door-to-door and interviewed citizens in their homes. Because the research team involved the community in their survey design and made them aware of the process throughout, their efforts resulted in an astounding 45% response rate to the survey.

“This response represented over 800 households and nearly 10% of the population,” said Allen. She believes this may be the largest CBPR study ever conducted. Although this method has been used in various forms since the 1940s in the U.S., it is not commonly used in Europe.

“Preliminary results from the survey revealed increased prevalence when compared to the French population for a number of health conditions such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases,” Allen noted.

But the survey was only the first phase of the study. What followed was a process of engaging the community with the data to get their help in further analyzing it and providing context for the results. Allen’s team conducted over 30 focus groups with the community members, sharing the data and listening to their stories, reactions and questions.  

“This is really the most innovative and exciting thing about the study. This collaborative analysis was a unique and valuable way to gain their trust and input about the study’s findings. Integrating their lived experiences with the survey data made the statistics more understandable and real,” Allen explained. “By the end, the citizens ‘owned’ the data and could speak about it authoritatively.”

Allen believes this validation of study findings through involvement of the citizens is one of the key elements of effective citizen science.

“We did not want to just produce numbers. A mistake that is commonly made with citizen science is to produce data and then just hand it to people. The data is just the tip of the iceberg. As community members make sense of it, they suggest new avenues of knowledge and the process makes the data more robust.”

Allen’s study helped empower the residents in these two French communities to take further action, with focus group members coming up with over 40 recommendations for ways to improve their local environment and health.

For example, according to Allen, “they have challenged industry re-permitting and expansion and have advocated for including cumulative environmental exposures in these decisions.”

The citizens have also lobbied for expanded health clinics and access to medical specialists as well as comprehensive patient exams given the cluster of symptoms and associated illnesses found through the survey. In addition to health-related actions, they have advocated for policy changes related to air quality.

Allen’s study received widespread media coverage in France – more than 160 news articles and radio and TV stories – leading to other cities and even scholars in other countries approaching her to conduct similar studies. Given this great interest in her work, she was able to secure another ANSES grant to lead a 4-day workshop in Marseille, France in the summer of 2018. She trained 25 public health officials in the community-based participatory research approach, with plans for her and her team to train additional public health scholars at the Sorbonne in Paris in November 2019. The environmental epidemiology branch of the French Health Service has also contacted her and they are tentatively developing plans for a similar training for their staff.  Allen was also recently invited as visiting faculty to the University of Padova Medical School’s innovative program on “Epidemiology and Local Knowledge” where she taught a day-long module to medical doctors and public health officials.

“This project may very well change the way the French Health Service conducts health studies, especially in contested regions where citizen trust in state data is minimal,” Allen said.

She also hopes to promote her experience in using human epidemiology data as an effective way to conduct citizen science. Since epidemiological data is often considered the gold standard in guiding environmental health policy, she believes being able to produce epidemiological data with citizen input is the best way to have an impact and guide actual policy change.

Closer to home, Allen now regularly teaches a graduate course called Science, Technology and Social Justice so that students can learn about these research methods and her experiences.

She noted, “Support from ISCE has provided me the time to write the grants I submitted to and ultimately received from ANSES. It may take time for projects like this to evolve, but in the end, it can be very fruitful.”

The Consummate Social Sciences Collaborator

Whether leading his own research or partnering with others, Shyam Ranganathan, assistant professor of statistics in the Virginia Tech College of Science, is the ultimate collaborator.

“I believe that the most fun aspect of working in Statistics today, is that there is an intellectual vibrancy that allows us to collaborate on interesting problems going beyond narrow ‘silo-based’ definitions of what a scientific field should be. At Virginia Tech, it is especially encouraging that institutes like ISCE support exactly this kind of broad collaboration to solving complex problems,” Ranganathan said.
 
With degrees in mathematics and engineering as well as one in journalism, Ranganathan has the perfect skill set to provide expertise in mathematical and statistical modeling on a wide range of topics.

During his three years at Virginia Tech, Ranganathan has worked with faculty from multiple disciplines, including engineering, economics, public health and sociology, to name just a few, making innovative and important methodological contributions to their projects. Several of these initial projects have been supported by ISCE funding, either through the Scholars Program or other mechanisms.

Upon arrival at Virginia Tech, and growing out of work from his dissertation on sustainable development paradigms, Ranganathan collaborated with colleagues in Sweden, examining sustainable development goals in various countries.

“We found that as countries became richer, based on the statistics of historical development, they often became less environmentally friendly. In fact, many times the environmental and economic goals they set for themselves were mutually contradictory. We are analyzing how the sustainable development goals are interlinked, so as to ensure global programs have maximum impact,” Ranganathan explained.

This strand of research led to partnering with Ralph Hall, associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs, who is also interested in sustainability, participatory economics and inclusive capitalism. Ranganathan and Hall are collaborating on a project that studies multi-use water systems in Nepal with doctoral student, Raj Kumar, who collected data onsite for the study for over six months; they are currently analyzing that data.

Earlier in 2019, Ranganathan and Hall were key participants at the first Conference on Endogenous Growth, Participatory Economics, and Capitalism organized at Oxford University. They are now putting together a team to submit a research proposal to the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies for later this year.

Methodologically, Ranganathan is interested in modeling complex, highly-structured data, such as time series data, spatio-temporal data and network data; thus, he gets excited by a broad range of topics and societal problems that these techniques can be applied to.

He has partnered with Julia Gohlke, associate professor of population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine on two projects, both focused on birth outcomes. Their first project, funded by the Global Change Center and ISCE, examined heat exposure and its relationship to pre-term birth and low birth weight using spatio-temporal modeling.

“If you look at the state of Virginia as a whole, you can see a small, overall effect due to confounding with various socio-economic and county-level factors; but if you zero in on certain areas, these effects become clearer. We use hierarchical models to disentangle these factors and obtain an efficient model,” Ranganathan said.

This research is related to the second project with Gohlke, a current National Institutes of Health study that is exploring adverse birth outcomes in Central Appalachia and their possible relationship to surface mining. Colleagues Leigh-Anne Krometis from Biological Systems Engineering, Korine Kolivras from Geography and Linsey Marr from Civil and Environmental Engineering are also co-investigators.

In addition to these projects, Ranganathan has collaborated with James Hawdon, a professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who studies the proliferation of online extremism, both in the U.S. and internationally. Their partnership has led to a 2018 National Science Foundation grant with Ranganathan serving as the principal investigator and Hawdon, Scotland Leman from Statistics and Peter Hauck from Computer Science as co-investigators.

In this project, Ranganathan is using spatio-temporal topic flows to forecast threats due to “information warfare” that lead to polarization of American citizens. According to Ranganathan, information warfare refers to the “manipulation of information consumed by Americans with the goal of influencing their opinions.”

As Ranganathan explained, “these attacks are aimed at increasing the threat of social destabilization, civil unrest and physical violence. Information diffused on social media is an important means by which this polarization increases and spreads through society.”

Ranganathan plans to build algorithms to develop threat forecasting models by looking at information diffusion patterns from Twitter data. The goal, Ranganathan said, “is to learn more about how to measure, predict and mitigate the threats resulting from extreme polarization.”

These projects are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many others that Ranganathan has been a part of including one focused on self-injurious behavior among autistic children, food equity and access in college campuses, and modeling the interlinkages between global trade and finance networks. These projects further illustrate how Ranganathan’s collaborative temperament, broad interests, statistical expertise, and intellectual curiosity make him the consummate collaborator.

A Fresh Approach to Addressing the Challenges of Aging and Caregiving

The number of older adults in the U.S. will dramatically increase in the coming decades as baby boomers age and medical advances make it possible for people to live longer than ever. According to Tina Savla, professor of human development and research methodologist at the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology, this unparalleled demographic shift will have significant impacts on American society and family life as more spouses, adult children and other relatives spend a significant portion of their time, emotional energy and financial resources in providing care for their loved ones.

Savla, who cares passionately about older adults and the men and women who support them, has spent her career focusing on the challenges older adults and their caregivers face as well as ways to improve their quality of life and well-being. 

“Over 60 million Americans are caregivers, providing support and assistance with activities of daily living for loved ones each day. I want to understand their challenges and daily experience, especially caregivers of individuals with dementia,” Savla explained. With a predicted 14% increase in the number of persons living with dementia over the next decade alone, the effect on families, especially those caring for their aging relatives, will continue to be substantial.

“Previous research has shown the act of caregiving is associated with negative changes in the health and wellbeing of the caregivers themselves,” Savla said.  “In some of my past research, I have combined a daily diary interview approach with biological indicators of stress to explore how everyday life stress and daily hassles impact emotional and physical health of caregivers.” Savla found that both care and non-care related stressors contributed to increased activity in stress-sensitive biological systems, which in turn can contribute to a variety of health conditions.  

Savla and colleagues Karen Roberto, University Distinguished Professor, and Rosemary Blieszner, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, both also fellows at the Center for Gerontology, and Aubrey L. Knight, Professor of Internal Medicine and Family and Community Medicine, and Program Director of the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, are now conducting a study funded by the National Institutes of Aging called Families in Appalachia Caring for Elders with Alzheimer’s Diseases, or FACES-AD.

“The aims of the study are to understand how families cope with and manage the daily demands of caregiving as well as their current and future formal service use,” Savla said. The personal, social and economic costs of caregiving are compounded for rural, underserved communities, such as Appalachia, where caregivers face even greater challenges due to lack of resources and access to healthcare as well as socioeconomic barriers.

Savla and her team are using several methods to uncover individual and family characteristics, circumstances and cultural beliefs that influence family care roles, responsibilities and formal care usage among Appalachian families who have loved ones with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

“A team of trained undergraduate and graduate students in human development and public health conduct hour-long telephone interviews with caregivers to learn about their family situation, the extent of the family member’s dementia and overall demands on the family,” Savla explained.

This initial interview is followed by a 7-day diary interview that documents the day-to-day experience of the caregivers and their loved ones. Interviewers ask questions about care provided that day, whether the caregiver was able to leave the house to work, run errands or take time for themselves, or if they have a home health worker who provides assistance on a regular basis. They also ask about other topics such as the caregivers’ general health and mood as well as interactions with other family members and relationship stressors.

The project team plans to enroll 120 families into the study. Once this phase of the study is completed, “We will conduct in-depth, face-to-face interviews with a subset of 25 families to further explore the different characteristics and needs of the families,” said Savla.  

The FACES-AD project builds on the results of an analysis of interviews with older adults conducted by Savla and colleagues that was recently published in the Journal of Aging and Healthcare that posits “where you age matters.”  In this earlier study, which also took place in rural Appalachia, they found that individuals living in communities characterized by strong family beliefs and less positive attitudes towards community services preferred informal help over formal care services.

“People who lived in counties where more formal services were available, however, were more likely to use these services, regardless of their beliefs,” Savla said. She and colleagues also found that significant health disparities existed within the counties studied depending on demographic, economic and personal factors.  For example, according to Savla, “women who lived in counties with a higher percentage of older adults below the poverty line were more likely to receive no help than men.”

Savla expects the FACES-AD study will shed additional light on these factors and expand understanding of when and why families do and do not access services, even when available. “Often families wait until there is a crisis before they seek services. Yet, research shows if they access services earlier, they and their loved ones have better outcomes,” said Savla.

If families do not obtain resources and services, either by choice or lack of availability, their loved one may be more likely to go into a nursing home more quickly – often a greater personal, economic and societal cost.

Savla anticipates the results of the FACES-AD study will enable the team to identify ways to destigmatize services in rural communities that often rely on informal support networks and develop more effective and targeted strategies to connect families with services, particularly in regions such as Appalachia and other similarly underserved areas.

She also hopes the study will reveal ways to better address caregiver needs since many caregivers feel overwhelmed with responsibility and constrained in pursuing their own life opportunities. This aspect of the study ties into another area of research that interests Savla – translating research findings into prevention strategies and intervention programs that help to reduce stress, anxiety and depression in caregivers.

“I am running another study with Dr. Mamta Sapra at the Salem Veteran’s Affairs that is testing the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in reducing negative and intrusive thoughts among caregivers of veterans with dementia and traumatic brain injury,” Savla explained. “If this intervention is successful, the mindfulness components will be added to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ caregiver support and skill building program used by Veteran families across the nation.”

Savla hopes the findings from the FACES-AD study will likewise result in intervention strategies for older adults and their caregivers that can have a regional reach in Appalachia but also in other underserved areas of the U.S.

For more information about Tina Savla and her research, including the FACES-AD study, visit her web page at https://sites.google.com/site/tinasavla/home.

Online Extremism in a Global Society

Extremism is always evolving, and so is the research of Jim Hawdon, Professor of Sociology and Director, Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.  When he started his work, he was interested in the influence of communities on crimes and community responses to crime. For example, the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks all lived in communities in which it was easy to hide and go unnoticed. With the world rapidly embracing the internet and social media, Hawdon has adapted his definition of community to keep abreast.

“The virtual world is a community,” he explains, “and social media is the perfect environment in which to hide. You can create a whole new identity. And I’m afraid of—and there’s evidence of this—that it has socially shrunk us.”

The phenomenon is called the echo-chamber: Facebook and other social media automatically filter information, posts, and advertisements to align with each user’s views. This constant loop of like-mindedness helps people become entrenched in their opinions.

“People like to be around people who think like themselves. We’ve always done that. The problem with the internet is its efficient at it and people don’t realize it is happening.”

This environment in turn ushers in a new era of hate speech and online extremism.

“The pathway from confident in views to dogmatic to becoming extreme is a relatively easy path to go down,” warns Hawdon.  “I’ve become fascinated by what social media has done to civil society.”

Hawdon, the recipient of several ISCE awards and most recently a 17-18 ISCE Scholar award, works with international collaborators across the globe to study online extremism. In 2014, he partnered with colleagues in Finland. In the years since, he has expanded his scope. His new work as an ISCE Scholar  will replicate data from Finland, Germany, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, as well as expanding to France, Spain, and Poland.

Hate speech in the United States differs from hate speech in Europe. Hawdon explains: “Here its race, and in Europe it is religion—anti-Muslim. The unifying factor is anti-immigrant sentiments.”

This broad geographic focus also allows Hawdon to look at all of the types of the Western welfare state: Nordic, continental, Mediterranean, Eastern Bloc, and the capitalistic nature of the U.S. model. Hawdon is curious to see whether the social security that a welfare state provides could reduce radical Islam, anti-immigrant, or other threats that residents perceive.

And while the internet, too, is evolving—Hawdon has marked a downtick in hate groups but an uptick in people without ties to terrorist organizations committing crimes in the name of terrorist organizations—there is hope.

“When you stand up to the bully, the bully often punches you. You have to have the courage. But when you do that, it makes that little piece of the internet a safer spot. The community of users can police themselves,” encourages Hawdon.

Corporations such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter can also make large impacts on civil society by cracking down on hate speech, fake news, and the like. Government also has to be a piece of the solution—Germany has strict hate laws and also significantly lower rates of hate speech.

“The internet is a challenging environment. We have a tendency to think it’s different from anything we’ve seen before and that’s not true. It still follows the same laws of social interaction. Like other communities, we can make them safer through our interactions and our willingness to look out for each other,” says Hawdon.

Cultivating Research Practices and Collaborations

Often, a successful application for external funding has a watershed effect on future research endeavors and funding. Such is the case for Thomas Ewing, Professor of History and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. An award by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and matching funds provided by ISCE and other university programs was the start of the flood. ISCE funds helped support a GRA for two years for the project Epidemiology of Information, which examined American and Canadian newspaper reports about the Spanish Flu in 1919.

“That was the first project we had that connected the humanities and the sciences,” said Ewing of the project that included a team of faculty and students from English, computer science, the library, history, and a Canadian expert.

While the project resulted in a website that is now dormant, the main product was the algorithm that the computer science team created to mine for the data. The project also resulted in a public forum, published articles, and features in newsletters and media pieces. Most importantly, though, it positioned the researchers to win more grants.

“There were five subsequent NEH grants that I trace back to that first one,” confirms Ewing. “The process of the research and the connections that were made not only made the three grants I’ve received possible, but also two others.”

Ewing later received a second grant from the NEH to host a summer seminar on the Spanish Flu, deepening the connections he had made during that first grant. The team took K-12 teachers to Washington, DC and conducted research there, which included similar methods as Epidemiology of Information. Another NEH grant that made use of the algorithm originally developed for a different subject soon followed.

Ewing’s projects have had direct impact on Virginia Tech students. After the grant, Ewing taught both a seminar in history on the Spanish Flu and an undergraduate course on epidemics in world history. From the first GRAs funded by ISCE and others, now Ewing’s projects also include undergraduates. Both graduate and undergraduate students have had the opportunity to work on federally-funded projects that allow them to dig deeply into the data.

ISCE’s focus on interdisciplinary team-building and collaboration by integrating the human element into technology-based research is evident throughout this five grant portfolio.

For more about Professor Ewing, go to:  http://liberalarts.vt.edu/faculty-directory/history-faculty/e-thomas-ewing.html

Risk Decision-Making and Substance Use in Adolescents

Jungmeen Kim-Spoon, an associate professor of psychology, is conducting the first-ever large-scale longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents designed to determine youth’s risk for substance use and risky health behaviors through annual brain scans and a battery of cognitive ability and personality tests.

Kim-Spoon’s current research has its foundation in the ISCE Summer Scholars program. In 2012, she and her research team received funding to study 24 late adolescents.

“This funding was so important,” Kim-Spoon remarked. “When you consider 1-2 hours in the MRI machine and all the tests, it was not a small project just a small sample size.”

That summer, the 24 study participants performed several cognitive tests, and even did gambling tasks inside the MRI machine to see which brain regions activated when a person took or avoided a risk. Personality factors, such as impulsiveness, self-regulation, and substance use, risky health behaviors, and risky sex behaviors, were also measured.

“We found that it’s important to measure their cognitive control ability, especially when they have a high sensation-seeking or reward-seeking propensity,” explains Kim-Spoon. Those personalities are likely to take risks and enjoy thrilling experiences. This in turn can help predict drinking, smoking, and other risky health behaviors.

With that pilot data in-hand, Kim-Spoon and Co-PI Brooks King-Casas, assistant professor of psychology in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, applied for an NIH grant that fall, and received funding the following year.

“I’m so grateful for the ISCE grant that provided the groundwork for our proposal,” says Kim-Spoon. “Otherwise I don’t think it would have been possible to be funded. Empirical evidence showing that we could do the work and some preliminary data showing that the results were promising made a stronger proposal.”

This five year multi-million dollar NIH grant is currently in year two. The investigators are following young adolescents through their development. “13 is the national average when adolescents start drinking. With four time points, we can see how their brain develops from 13 or 14 years of age to 16 or 17 and how their substance use behaviors change. We are examining how their brain changes and their personality developments. By focusing on sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, cognitive ability, and emotion-regulation skills, we will be able to explore who successfully adjusts versus youth who start using alcohol early, start using alcohol a lot, and who become addicted,” explains Kim-Spoon.

This first of its kind data will provide valuable insights about which adolescents are more vulnerable to alcohol use and the kind of factors health professionals should look for. Ultimately, the hope is that the study findings can be used to inform the development of preventions and interventions for the highest risk youth.

Global Education and Cultivating Creativity

Educational trends are shifting in the United States and internationally. A focus on teaching to the test has limited curriculums, minimized creativity, and even changed the very culture of countries. Carol Mullen, a professor in the School of Education specializing in education policy and learning innovations, has grown concerned with what she describes as “a culture of risk-averse test-taking that has gripped the globe.”

Mullen is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and an ISCE-GII research support grant. She traveled to China in summer 2015 to study “the significant disconnect between creativity and accountability in education.” While in China, Mullen was able to see for herself the dichotomy of creativity and strict STEM-centric curriculums. She collected data during site visits to various schools (rural elementary, special education school, kindergarten school, Montessori K-12 school, and high school), in addition to universities. In China she lectured at seven universities and research institutes, and she also taught two courses (undergraduate education at Southwest University in Chongqing and in graduate education at Virginia Tech), and designed a third course for online delivery.

The ISCE-GII grant allowed Mullen to hire a Chinese-speaking Virginia Tech PhD candidate to travel with her for one month as a translator, which was a critical supplement to her Fulbright-funded endeavors. “I could not have done this trip without the vital support of ISCE,” she says.

In China, Mullen was able to see how they are reforming their educational systems to foster creativity. After years of rigorous and restrictive educational policy, China unfortunately saw the ill effects of such standards: high suicide rates, children with extreme test anxiety, and an economy that is more about big business than creative endeavor. The reform is a top-down decision from the government, which is coming to see creativity as a means of fostering economic opportunity and development.

Ironically, the U.S. has been inspired by China’s high rankings in international educational scales and has adjusted its policies to be more test-oriented.

Both countries are struggling to find a happy-medium: an educational system that is competitive and provides children with 21st century skills, but also has a curriculum that lets children exercise creativity in practice, play, and decisions.

Mullen’s research has the ability to positively impact education on a national and international scale: her focus in educational leadership equips policy makers, stakeholders, principals, teachers, and other leaders to have a larger impact on their schools. As she says, “Change that sticks often comes from the top. Children need adults who honor and provide a platform for creativity.”

Mullen’s research is already expanding. Her book proposal has been approved; she has presented at national conferences and created interdisciplinary ties to research collaborators. Her goal is “to further develop my capacity as an international scholar specializing in global education.”

Shaping the Engineers of 2020

Aligning student preparedness with workplace demands is a common goal amongst universities and colleges; however, engineering industries repeatedly report that that their recently graduated new hires do not possess many attributes necessary for their jobs.

Denise Simmons hopes to change that. Simmons came across this pervasive problem while completing her doctoral work in civil engineering at Clemson University—she read The Engineer of 2020, a book detailing the concepts of competencies that engineers would need by the year 2020, and it captured her imagination. Now she is focusing her research efforts on preparing engineering students for their future careers. 

Simmons is the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award and drew inspiration for her current project from the NSF’s interest in competencies across engineering. One day she was having an informal conversation with Dr. Nicholas Clegorne, the Director of the Residential Learning Community, about leadership.

“I had heard industry individuals talk for over twenty years about how students were lacking in leadership,” remarked Simmons. “He [Clegorne] thought that it was interesting and together we thought, ‘Let’s form some formal research questions—let’s find why these deficiencies still exist.’”

The Institute of Society, Culture and Environment provided direct seed money to Simmons and Clegorne to look at the problem at its most basic level: how engineering leadership is defined.

“Our hypothesis is that this is where the disconnect will be. The school and industry will define leadership differently, or industry will want X, Y, and Z and the school will only include X. There are missing nuances.”

Simmons and Clegorne preformed an extensive literature review and developed a meta-synthesis of that data. They plan to submit it as a manuscript and have it serve as support for a September NSF application.

The team is looking to build the project out beyond their initial research questions to form a multi-phase interdisciplinary research project to explore engineering leadership competencies. Simmons also has plans for future collaborations to focus on the other competencies of that The Engineer of 2020 promotes, particularly communication.

“Ultimately, what I think the result is, is better prepared students. The common theme of my research is preparing 21st century STEM workforces.”

Antineutrino Research to Provide International Assurance

Scientists and defense personnel have long struggled with nuclear proliferation monitoring in hostile countries. Of particular concern is the heavy water reactor I-40, located in Arak, Iran. Patrick Huber, of the physics department, along with Thomas Shea and graduate students Eric Christensen and Patrick Jaffke, has shown that antineutrino reactor monitoring is feasible and provides otherwise unavailable capabilities.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles created by the decay of radioactive materials, nuclear reactions, or when cosmic rays hit atoms. Antineutrinos are similar to neutrinos, yet they spin in a different direction. Nuclear reactors produce such a quantity or neutrinos and antineutrinos, neither of which cannot be disguised, that measuring neutrino production could help defense agencies monitor reactors to which they have little, irregular, or no access to.

“Nuclear weapons had and continue to have a profound impact on the relation of nations. Nuclear non-proliferation, especially after 9/11, has become a focus of US foreign policy both under Republican and Democrat administrations and continues to drive decisions,” said Huber. “Having better technical tools ultimately provides more elbow room for diplomacy. In the particular case of Iran, our method would provide the international community with a high-level assurance that nothing is amiss, in a timely fashion. And it would provide Iran with a means to demonstrate its peaceful intentions with respect to the reactor at Arak.”

Huber and his team’s most current work was recently published in the prestigious physics journal Physical Review Letters and named “Editor’s Suggestion.” But before all the research, writing, and editing could take place, the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment assisted Huber.

“To pursue this interdisciplinary, high-risk project, I needed time,” said Huber. “The seed grant from ISCE most importantly allowed me to buy out of teaching to create time for this research project. [It] also provided resources to travel and interview experts and witnesses... we performed detailed analysis based on reactor simulations and advanced modeling techniques.”

Those modeling techniques have led the research team to definitely prove that antineutrino monitoring can be done.

“I believe that this work and the attention it got stimulated a lot of thought of how to actually build suitable detectors. It also highlights the strong but often hidden relation between basic science and national security.”

With such interest and need in the current scientific and political landscape, Huber believes this project will focus research and defense activities towards a practical system of reactor monitoring. Currently Huber is part of a collaboration called PROSPECT which seeks to address the problem of how to actually build those detectors.