Applied to the right project, even a little bit of funding can turn the germ of an idea into a thriving new line of research and a fledgling collaboration into long-term partnerships. 

Fifteen of those projects are launching this year, funded by Diversity and Inclusion Seed Investments from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS).

Each project is a collaboration between a faculty member at Virginia Tech and a colleague at a historically Black college and university or other minority-serving institution. This program, designed to strengthen and diversity research networks across disciplines and universities, is one of several seed investment programs the institute runs as part of its mission to advance and expand research at Virginia Tech.

“Seed funding is one of the primary mechanisms we use to allow faculty to pursue new research directions that have incredible potential but might be prohibitively difficult to get off the ground otherwise,” Stefan Duma, the institute’s director. “We know that more diverse research teams tend to generate more robust solutions, and our hope is that the collaborations formed through this program go on to yield joint proposals, publications, and other projects that far outlast the term of the original award.” 

The two-year grants provide $10,000 per year to each research team. The funding often goes towards shared equipment or technology, travel, or student support — items faculty might otherwise struggle to fund.

“Expenses like travel and materials can be necessary to get a new partnership off the ground, but researchers’ existing federal grants don’t always cover them,” said Chris Tysor, ICTAS’ diversity and inclusion coordinator and a program manager at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which administers the program. “This award can fill in the gaps.”

The program has grown steadily since its launch in 2016. The list of partner universities now stretches to more than 30, and almost every year there is a new Virginia Tech department or college participating. This year, California State University Channel Islands is participating for the first time; so are Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture and Myers-Lawson School of Construction

“It’s been rewarding to see the program attract faculty from a wider and wider range of disciplines and expand the network of partner universities,” Tysor said. “It tells us that there’s really an appetite for these types of partnerships, and we’re honored to be able to provide the resources that can help make them possible.”

Another addition to the program this year is a new award co-funded by the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT).

That seed grant went to a project led by Ozzie Abaye, a professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Abaye will work with Leonard Githinji, an associate professor at Virginia State University, as well as Virginia Tech faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and School of Visual Arts on a culturally informed strategy for introducing mung beans to a food-insecure region in Namibia, using art and visual representations to facilitate the adoption of this high-value food into the community.  The additional funding from ICAT, bringing the total investment to $40,000 over two years, will allow the team to develop a cell phone app that relies exclusively on visuals to share recipes incorporating mung beans. 

For many faculty, the work made possible by these seed grants become the springboard for drawing in much larger federal grants: In a typical year, faculty report a collective total of about $3 million in external funding that they can trace to work supported by the seed grants. 

These projects received seed funding through the program this year:

  • Zinc Ion Batteries for Long Duration Energy Storage. Led by Feng LinDepartment of Chemistry, in collaboration with North Carolina A&T State University.
  • Actively Capturing Trace Airborne Analytes for Ultrasensitive WGM-SERS Biosensing. Led by Jiangtao Cheng, Department of Mechanical Engineering, in collaboration with Hampton University. 
  • Collaboration on Student design/build of a liquid rocket. Led by Kevin ShinpaughKevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, in collaboration with Morgan State University.
  • Identifying a suitable controlled environment for enhanced flavor and nutrition of microgreens. Led By Yun YinDepartment of Food Science and Technology, in collaboration with North Carolina A&T State University.
  • mcNC-LFA: multi-colored nanocage-based lateral flow assay for rapid and ultrasensitive detection of foodborne bacterial pathogens. Led by Juhong ChenDepartment of Biological Systems Engineering, in collaboration with North Carolina A&T State University. 
  • A partnership to identify and implement socio-technological innovations to accelerate upcycling farm and pre-retail food waste to decrease food insecurity in underserved communities. Led by Jactone Ogejo, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, in collaboration with North Carolina A&T State University. 
  • Effects of Gravity on Droplet Evaporation and Combustion of Liquid Fuels. Led by John Palmore, Department of Mechanical Engineering, in collaboration with Prairie View A&M University. 
  • Outdoor Games for Virginia: Understanding Science, History, & Diversity in Virginia. Led by Scott McCrickardDepartment of Computer Science, in collaboration with Virginia State University and Norfolk State University. 
  • Exploring the Ecoethical Identity for Responsible AI Research among Faculty and Students. Led by Qin ZhuDepartment of Engineering Education, in collaboration with California State University Channel Islands. 
  • Building a collaboration pipeline for student recruitment in support of the NASA proposal. Led by Venkataramana Sridhar, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, in collaboration with North Carolina A&T State University and Florida A&M University.
  • Digital Humanities Collaboration with Howard University Faculty and Students. Led by Tyechia ThompsonDepartment of English, in collaboration with Howard University.  
  • DEI Best Practices and Body of Knowledge Database in the Construction Industry. Led by Alireza Shojaei, Myers-Lawson School of Construction, with North Carolina A&T State University.
  • Interpretable AI for graph inference with application in neuroimaging: multi-source, multi-scale, and integration. Led by Meimei LiuDepartment of Statistics, in collaboration with Virginia State University. 
  • Democratizing Design Robotics. Led by Nathan King, School of Architecture, in collaboration with Hampton University and Howard University. 
  • Food Security: Agriculture, Engineering, and the Art of Food in a Culturally-Relevant Context. Led by Ozzie Abaye, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. (ICTAS-ICAT joint award.)


A complete list of ICTAS seed funding programs is available on the ICTAS website.