Not all global problems can be solved easily, but many can be approached by starting small.

For its signature seed funding program, the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE) has awarded up to $30,000 each to seven interdisciplinary teams through the ISCE Scholars Program. Spanning nine departments and six colleges, these Virginia Tech faculty are undertaking research projects to address human and societal concerns locally, nationally, and globally. They are tackling contemporary issues such as climate change, health disparity, human-environment interaction, and population health concerns.  

“Each year I am always impressed by the faculty and their collaborative efforts to address important health, social, and environmental issues from around the world,” said Karen Roberto, University Distinguished Professor and executive director of ISCE. “This year, we are pleased to fund projects that span such a wide range of topics with the potential to have far-reaching impact in our own region and beyond.”

Korine Kolivras, professor of geography, was awarded a $18,409 seed grant to help quantify Lyme disease throughout Appalachia. She and her research team aim to confirm the presence of the disease, document its diffusion into the region, and identify broad land cover areas associated with the disease.

“ISCE is instrumental in supporting our research team’s efforts in turning much-needed attention toward the emergence of Lyme disease in Appalachia,” said Kolivras, who works in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Land cover configuration plays a key role in the distribution of the disease, and Appalachia has a long history of land cover change associated with resource extraction.”

According to Kolivras, quantifying the diffusion pattern of Lyme disease and land use patterns should allow for education efforts to be enhanced at the edges of and beyond the expanding endemic zone.

“When a pathogen is newly introduced into an area, physicians do not expect it to be present and are unlikely to test for and then diagnose the disease,” Kolivras said. “An understanding of Lyme disease’s spread and its relationship with land cover is critically important to the health and well-being of residents in Appalachia.”

Another recipient of the grant, who was awarded $30,000 in seed funding, is Koeun Choi, assistant professor of human development and family science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Choi is leading a team that aims to address disparities in math learning with a novel program designed for a child’s technological learning device.

“With the support of ISCE, we are working on creating a new platform that integrates conversational AI [artificial intelligence] into mobile touchscreen devices such as smartphones and tablets to facilitate multisensory interaction between young learners and educational content,” Choi said. “We will examine the effectiveness of our platform with a focus on early counting experiences to reduce the disparity in parental math engagement and screen time.”

Choi and her team will test 30 children ages 2 to 4 from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. The children will complete two versions of a counting task on a touchscreen device, one version with the AI voice assistant and one version without. By comparing the results, Choi’s team will assess the impact of the AI voice assistant on the children’s learning.

Five other research teams have also been funded by the ISCE Scholars Program. With the expectation that the teams pursue larger, external funding from agencies such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Science Foundation, or the National Institutes of Health, these projects have the potential to make significant real-world impact.

Below is a complete list of ISCE’s 2023-24 Scholars and their research topics:

  • Shannon E. Bell, professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and John F. Munsell, professor and forest management and extension specialist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment are addressing social inequities and sustainability concerns in the Appalachian herbal industry supply chain.
  • Choi; Sang Won Lee, assistant professor of computer science in the College of Engineering; and Jinjing Jenny Wang, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University–New Brunswick are creating a new interactive platform using AI voice assistants with touchscreens for young children’s interactive math learning.
  • Alasdair Cohen, assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in population health sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and Leigh-Anne Krometis, professor of biological systems engineering in both the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are analyzing biospecimens and drinking water quality to evaluate associations between water and health outcomes for households using well water in Appalachian Virginia.
  • Eranga K. Galappaththi, assistant professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Tharani Anoja Gamage of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Sri Lanka are compiling field data on the effects climate change has on food security within the population of indigenous peoples in Sri Lanka.
  • Kolivras; Junghwan Kim, assistant professor of geography; and Valerie Thomas, professor of forest resources and environmental conservation, all in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, are documenting the diffusion and current land cover of Lyme disease in Appalachia.
  • Jingqiu Liao, assistant professor of environmental microbiology in the College of Engineering; Ryan Calder, assistant professor of environmental health and policy in population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Liqing Zhang, professor of bioinformatics in the College of Engineering, are utilizing machine learning and statistical modeling to identify sociodemographic disparities in the risks of exposure to soil bacterial pathogens associated with environmental factors at a nationwide scale.
  • Taylan G. Topcu, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering; Sarah Elizabeth Parker, research associate professor in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Justin H. Price, assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, are creating an evidence-based digital twin of a primary care clinic to enable close to real-time workload management in an effort to prevent health care provider burnout.

For more information about the ISCE Scholars program, visit this website.

Written by Felicia Spencer