Since its launch in 2016, the Diversity and Inclusion Seed Investments Program from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science has forged partnerships between faculty at Virginia Tech and nearly 30 historically Black colleges and universities or other minority-serving institutions. Now the program is attracting faculty from new departments, expanding its footprint as it continues to pay dividends for researchers. 

The program provides seed funds that Virginia Tech faculty can use to establish new collaborations with external colleagues. These awards, intended to lay a foundation for long-term faculty partnerships, have consistently led to joint publications and grant applications and helped faculty net larger external awards. More broadly, the program deepens connections and dialogue between Virginia Tech and HBCUs and MSIs, strengthening and diversifying the research ecosystem. 

Past applications to the program have come primarily from the colleges of engineering, science, and agriculture and life sciences. This year, the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology and the School of Performing Arts and English department in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences are represented, too. 

“We’re very pleased that these awards are reaching a wider group of faculty,” said Stefan Duma, the director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) and the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering. “Thanks to the talent and dedication of the faculty who have sought out these seed investments, the awards have had an excellent track record of fostering productive partnerships and forming the basis for subsequent external funding. It’s very rewarding to see that impact expand.”

The awards offer $20,000 over two years to each team; the institute typically awards 15 new seed grants each year, maintaining around 30 funded partnerships. The funding can be used for shared equipment or technology, travel, or student support, overcoming practical barriers to collaboration by filling in gaps that larger federal grants often don’t cover.  

Last year, projects funded by these awards went on to receive more than $2.7 million in external funding. They’ve also helped support more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students across Virginia Tech and partner institutions.

Chris Tysor, ICTAS’ diversity and inclusion coordinator and a program manager at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, manages the program. 

“It’s a small award, but if it allows them to visit their collaborators, or bring their collaborators here, or get these students into our labs and expand their network, then to me that’s worth it,” she said. “The fact that those faculty were able to receive larger federal grants — to me, that’s just icing on the cake.” 

Every year, faculty participating in the program present their research at Virginia Tech’s HBCU/MSI Research Summit, an annual event hosted by the Graduate School that helps faculty and students develop new partnerships. 

Virginia Tech’s strategic plan and Beyond Boundaries initiative identifies a diverse and inclusive environment as one of the university’s key priorities; this program is one way the institute helps further that goal. 

“The more diverse our research community is, the stronger it will be,” Duma said. “We all have a responsibility to use the resources available to us to help make sure that community works for everyone, and at ICTAS that means directing seed funding to partnerships that promote diversity. The success of this program is really a testament to the power of collaboration.” 

Fifteen faculty members were awarded new Diversity and Inclusion investments in 2020:

Gena Chandler-Smith, an associate professor of English, is working with Florida A&M University on a pilot undergraduate-research program targeted at underrepresented students. 

Jiangtao Cheng, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, is partnering with Hampton University to develop a viral sensing system for SARS-CoV-2 inspired by the physics of spiderwebs.

Bill Clark, a research associate in the Electronic Systems Lab at the Hume Center, is expanding partnerships with Morehouse College and Spelman College. 

Feng Lin, an assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Science, is working with NC A&T to develop metal-nitrogen-carbon catalysts with dual metal sites for proton-exchange membrane fuel cells. 

Kevin Hamed, an assistant professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is collaborating with Hampton University on a Diamondback Terrapin conservation project.

Rakesh Kapania, the Mitchell Professor of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, is working with San Diego State University to broaden participation in aerospace engineering graduate studies and research. 

Robin Queen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, is collaborating with NC A&T on a project involving health disparities and foot biomechanics. 

Maren Roman, an associate professor of sustainable biomaterials, is working with Florida A&M University to further opportunities for successful transitions between master’s and doctoral programs in chemistry for underrepresented students. 

Jayesh Samtani, an assistant professor and small fruit extension specialist at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, is working with Virginia State University on a study measuring the effects of nitrogen dose on strawberry yield, fruit quality, and fruit biochemistry.

Annie Stevens, an assistant professor of percussion in the School of Performing Arts, is working with Morehouse College to develop diverse programming for symphony orchestras. 

Ken Stiles, an instructor in the Department of Geography and a lecturer at the Hume Center’s Integrated Security Education and Research Center, is helping to develop a minor program in intelligence at Norfolk State University. 

Karen Vines, an assistant professor and continuing professional education specialist in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is working with Virginia State University to develop a cross-institutional Introduction to Cooperative Extension Course. 

Trey Waller, the director of graduate student programs in the College of Engineering, is working with Virginia State University on a joint effort to prepare underrepresented and minority undergraduate students to succeed in an accelerated master’s program in advanced manufacturing. 

Donna Westfall-Rudd, an associate professor of teaching and learning in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is working with NC A&T to develop a collaborative program for undergraduate research in agricultural and extension education. 

Weijun Xie, an assistant professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is working with Virginia State University to develop blood vessel detection algorithms for diabetic retinopathy images.

Written by Eleanor Nelsen