Collaboration isn’t always seamless. Collaboration that involves multiple universities can present extra degrees of difficulty in the form of logistical and administrative hurdles to navigate. But when everything falls into place — or researchers find creative ways to nudge it into place — the rewards outweigh the effort. 

That was the consensus at a panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) at this fall’s research summit focused on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and minority-serving institutions (MSI). The summit is an annual event hosted by the Graduate School that helps faculty connect across institutions and offers students an opportunity to explore options for graduate education. 

The panel was largely composed of faculty members who have received funding through ICTAS’ Diversity and Inclusion Research Grants program. The two-year seed investments support new collaborations between a faculty member at Virginia Tech and a colleague at a HBCU or MSI.

Since the grant program began in 2016, a number of the parterships it has helped cement actually originated at the HBCU summit. That’s what happened for panelists Brenda Brand, a professor in the School of Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and John Fife, a psychology professor at Virginia State University. Fife had developed an interest in STEM education — fueled partly by his son, who was enthralled with robotics — and he ran across Brand’s work facilitating STEM programs for students in Montgomery County and the Mississippi Delta.

At the 2018 HBCU summit, Fife connected with Brand and Karen Eley Sanders, the associate vice provost for college access at the College Access Collaborative (where Brand is also a fellow). That conversation led the group to apply for ICTAS seed funding to develop a robotics workshop for underserved middle-school students. They envisioned that the workshop would not only introduce the students to STEM concepts, but also to influence their conceptions about their capacity to succeed.

Brand, Fife, and Sanders conducted the first workshop in the summer of 2019. They had planned a second one for 2020, but it was postponed by the pandemic and finally took place the summer of 2021. 

Pandemic-related disruptions were a common theme on the panel. 

“When you want to facilitate in-person interactions and suddenly you end up on Zoom, that’s a challenge,” said Rolf Mueller, a professor of mechanical engineering who's working with a network of HBCUs and MSIs, and an NSF-funded student research program spanning Borneo, Singapore, and South Korea, to expand research on bioinspired science and technology.

The constraints of virtual collaboration sometimes had unexpected upsides, however. Karen Vines, an assistant professor of agricultural, leadership, and community education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been working with Virginia State University Professor Marcus Comer to develop a cross-university agricultural extension course. Pre-pandemic, she said, the physical distance between the two campuses was a barrier to creating the course.

“I didn't know how we did that without one group feeling like they were participants in something from another university,” she said. But once everyone was working remotely, the distinctions imposed by geography eroded. Even after the team was able to resume occasional in-person meetups, they’ve continued to convene virtually two days a week. 

The seed investment program provides each research team $10,000 per year for two years. This funding often goes to offset the costs of travel, equipment and supplies, and student salaries, and the panelists concurred that having the resources to cover these expenses had been instrumental in helping the partnerships move forward. 

Wayne Scales, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering, also spoke on the panel. Scales is advising ICTAS on its diversity initiatives in addition to working with the Office for Inclusion and Diversity on faculty affairs issues.

Engaged in collaborations with HBCUs for years, he said that majority institutions like Virginia Tech can help fill in critical resource gaps, especially in faculty expertise, equipment, and curriculum development. “You have lots of really talented people there who may be under-resourced,” he said. “They want a partnership where you're going to come in and you're going to offer them something substantive in terms of research or educational programs.” 

The goal of the seed grant program is ultimately to create a foundation for long-term projects, and the panelists all described how they were building these young collaborations into more ambitious efforts. Vines and Comer are working on a proposal that would allow them to build on the concept between their institutions and and potentially expand it to others. They’re hoping it could ultimately serve as a pipeline to increase diversity in cooperative extension programs. Fife received a grant from the NSF to investigate how access to STEM resources and students’ self-concept might be related to other factors like coping style and stress management.  

The numbers back up the seed grants' credibility as catalysts for growth: Collectively, faculty funded through the program last year received $3.3 million in awards related to their seed projects, and the grants have created new partnerships between Virginia Tech and 27 other institutions.

The panelists had some advice for interested researchers. Fife and Mueller both recommended gaining enough familiarity with a potential collaborator’s work to open the conversation with a well-developed idea about how their expertise might complement yours. “Take some time to read their Google Scholar profile,” Mueller said. 

For his part, Scales stressed that it’s important to make sure that what you’re proposing is an equitable partnership that will bring something genuinely useful to the partner institution. 

But he’s often found, he said, that “there are areas of alignment in terms of strategic initiatives and strategic interests within universities. You can make a pretty good case that this partnership should exist.”

A complete list of ICTAS funding opportunities is available on this page.

Written by Eleanor Nelsen