Fralin Explorer Magazine, Winter 2021

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f r a l i n


w inter 2021

Director’s Message


Amid a global pandemic, what the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech offers to its faculty, staff, students, and to the world is more important than ever.



A trans-Atlantic journey: how microbes and dust travel from Africa to the Americas


Sterling Nesbitt receives NSF CAREER award to study the evolution of vertebrate communities during the Triassic Period


Walking a fine line: How chemical diversity in plants facilitates plantanimal interactions

Providing resources to Virginia Tech’s environmental and life sciences community supporting innovative research, education, and outreach.

COVER STORY Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens to tackle infectious diseases


Researchers co-locate to Steger Hall at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute to tackle infectious diseases and rapid environmental change




About Fralin I







Biotech-In-A-Box Program continues to foster scientific curiosity despite COVID-19

Virtual but still interactive: Kids’ Tech University returns to Virginia Tech

Editor: Kristin Rose Jutras Art Director: Alex Crookshanks Writers: Kristin Rose Jutras, Kendall Daniels, and Rasha Aridi Photography: Alex Crookshanks

Cover illustrations: Front cover: Researchers from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute tackle infectious disease. Back cover: The 5 buildings of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Front cover and back cover illustrations by: Alex Crookshanks




STRATEGIC PRIORITIES Paradigm-shifting Science Developing Next Leaders Impacting Communities

Dear Fralin Life Sciences Institute Community, Amid a global pandemic, what the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech offers to its faculty, staff, students, and to the world is more important than ever. We are committed to improving the human condition by supporting innovative environmental and life sciences research, education, and outreach. As three promising vaccines make their way to campus, I am hopeful about the future. I also want to recognize all the hard work and partnership of the researchers and leaders in our five buildings: Steger Hall, Fralin Hall, Integrated Life Sciences Building, Latham Hall, and Life Sciences I. There are many examples of how the Fralin Life Sciences Community has stepped up when needed. Our affiliated faculty quickly pivoted to create engaging, online courses, and our researchers responded to the need for rapid testing shortages and assessed shortages of critical 4


equipment and supplies. The contributions of essential employees, who remained in our five buildings, and the care you all took for each other during these challenging times have made me proud to be part of our life sciences and Virginia Tech community. All members of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute community have taken individual responsibility to combat the coronavirus, collectively positioning the Institute to continue supporting its strategic priorities: conducting paradigm-shifting science, developing next leaders, and impacting communities. We are continuing to move the needle in the wicked problems spaces that threaten the environment and the human condition: infectious disease, evolving climate change, rising sea levels, air and water pollution, and decreasing biodiversity.

I am reminded of a quote from Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Photo credit and illustration: Alex Crookshanks.

By championing and supporting the Global Change Center, Center for Coastal Studies, Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropodborne Pathogens, and the upcoming Translational Plant Sciences Center, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is continuing to help forge a solution to these pressing global challenges. We have recently invested in the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens. The vision of the center positions Virginia Tech to become a national and international research and training resource that is a leader in advancing transformative science and developing effective countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases. This center includes faculty participants from at least seven colleges and more

than 25 departments on campus. We are grateful to have X.J Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Virology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, as the founding director of the Center. You can read more about this new Center tackling infectious diseases on page 12. The Institute as a whole is striving to make an impact at the environment - human condition interface. We have co-located faculty together in Steger Hall to tackle infectious diseases and rapid environmental change. Many of these researchers work across multiple problem spaces in computational modeling and data analytics. You can read more about this effort in the story on page 15. As an Institute, we are focusing on impacting our communities. Inclusion and diversity begins with education and outreach at the grade school and high school levels. We can enhance them at the College level and encourage underserved students to apply to graduate school. Through programs like Kids’ Tech University and Biotech-in-a-Box, the Institute has incorporated initiatives that provide learning opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds. For more than 20 years, the Biotechin-a-Box program has provided Virginia high school and community college classrooms with complete biotechnology kits. Every year, the program reaches 10,000 diverse students across Virginia. Read more about our education and outreach activities on page 20. I look forward to tackling some of the pressing challenges at the environment - human condition interface with you. Take care and stay safe.

Sincerely, Matt Hulver

Executive Director, Fralin Life Sciences Institute



A dust plume traveling across the Atlantic in July 2018. Source- NASA Worldview.

explorer | NEWS

A Trans-Atlantic Journey: How Microbes and Dust Travel from Africa to the Americas

Virginia Tech researchers received a $1.1 million grant from NASA to investigate how microbes can travel across the Atlantic on dust plumes

Written by Rasha Aridi Each year, over 180 million tons of dust are swept up from the Sahara Desert, blown across the western edge of Africa, wisped across the Atlantic Ocean, and deposited throughout the Americas. These are called dust plumes, and they carry more than just sand.


In fact, dust plumes play a crucial role in the long-range transport of microorganisms. A team led by Virginia Tech researchers in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands received a $1.1 million grant from NASA to study microbial diversity in dust plumes and the physics behind Ex

the transport of dust and microbes along superhighways in the sky. “One of the less understood aspects of dust is that these particles could be a vehicle for microbes — viruses, bacteria, fungi that can come across the Atlantic, as if hitchhiking on these dust particles,” said Hosein Foroutan, the principal investigator on the grant and assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering. Foroutan and his collaborators will take a transdisciplinary approach to study the microbial biodiversity in dust plumes by analyzing collected

samples, investigating satellite data, and creating transport models. Ultimately, this research will inform experts about which microbes are being transported to the Americas and what that could mean for the health of plants, domestic animals, and people. To do this, the team is operating on an intercontinental scale. They will analyze dust samples collected from various sites between the United States and Africa, including the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Sampling at various locations on the “dust superhighway” will allow the team to study differences in microbial biodiversity. Using DNA sequencing, culturing, and other

microbiological techniques, the team will be able to determine the types, concentrations, and viability of microbes in the dust samples. “Little is known about the diversity and viability of microbes traveling on African dust. Could devastating plant and animal pathogens be riding on African dust? If so, we would like to know where they are going and when they might arrive there,” said David Schmale, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. As a collaborator, Schmale will work to identify microorganisms in dust samples. But microorganisms are especially sensitive to the environment — temperature, altitude, precipitation, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation can all affect the survival of microbes. Coupled with atmospheric and satellite data, the researchers will be able to use microbial diversity data to peer into the life of microorganisms traveling in dust plumes from one continent to another. “We’re lucky we can associate

As the (A) dust plumes move across the Atlantic, researchers will analyze (B) samples collected at various points, (C) satellite retrievals, and (D) atmospheric models. Figure courtesy of Hosein Foroutan.

microbes with dust, which we can detect using satellites because we have no way of continuously detecting these airborne microorganisms on this scale. You’re talking about a huge scale — a couple thousand kilometers apart — and up to five to six kilometers above the surface,” said Foroutan, who is also an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. Research on the microbial diversity in dust plumes can help scientists understand what kind of microbes

may be blown in from overseas and how to prepare for that. Since species in the Americas have not evolved to deal with microbes native to other parts of the world, an invasive microorganism can pose a significant threat to plants, animals, or people. “Pathogens are not respecters of international boundaries. One of my main motivations is to help farmers and others manage the risk that dust-borne microorganisms may pose. With better tracking and prediction tools, stakeholders can make informed choices about precautions they can take to halt the spread of disease and ensure a secure food supply for all of us,” said Shane Ross, a collaborator on this grant and a professor in the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. Ross studies transport using observational and simulation data and will be applying his expertise to analyze dust transport. As the project progresses in the future, the team hopes to put out an open call for international collaborators to contribute their samples for a more global analysis of this phenomenon.

Left to Right: Shane Ross, Hosein Foroutan, and David Schmale.



In Petrified Forest National Park, rocks that were once deposited by rivers and lakes are exposed and within them, one can find a rich diversity of life. Photo courtesy of Brenen Wynd.

explorer | NEWS

Sterling Nesbitt receives NSF CAREER award to study the evolution of vertebrate communities during the Triassic Period Written by Kendall Daniels Approximately 252 million years ago, 95 percent of all life on Earth was destroyed in what was the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history. But not long after, there was a sudden surge of reptilian diversity that coursed throughout the land, in the oceans, and in the skies. After receiving a five-year Faculty Early CAREER Development Program award totaling $622,222 from the National Science Foundation, Sterling Nesbitt, an associate professor of geobiology in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science, and a team of researchers are gearing up for a new field project to learn more about how extinction events -- and time 8


itself -- drive evolution in vertebrate communities. “Do communities persist for millions of years? Are the communities that we see outside our very windows always in this state of change or are they pretty stable and it takes a lot of pushing from a natural disaster to move them to a new state?,” asks Nesbitt, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Global Change Center. To answer these questions, Nesbitt has chosen to explore a critical time in Earth’s history: the Triassic Period. This time period faced a multitude of catastrophic events, but it was also during this time when

key groups of present-day vertebrates -- including mammals, turtles, lissamphibians, and squamates -- originated. Nesbitt and his team will focus their efforts on the Petrified Forest National Park. Located in northeastern Arizona, the park is renowned for its giant fossilized trees that date back to the Late Triassic period. Among the trees, paleontologists have found entire fossil communities that have lasted for at least 15 to 20 million years, making this the perfect place to find fossils for their research. With a team of undergraduate and graduate students, and fellow faculty, Nesbitt will be excavating new fossils from areas within and

“As paleontologists, our work is almost detective-like, and our hypotheses about how animals lived and interacted can only be based on the fossils, and therefore, the data we collect,” said Michelle Stocker, an assistant professor of geobiology in the Department of Geosciences, and also an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Global Change Center. “By focusing on the interconnectivity of these precise locations and time periods, and collecting both large and small fossil remains, we will be able to construct a much richer and more accurate idea of the types or lack of changes that occurred during the Triassic,” Stocker added. The team will also conduct an extension of the Discoveries in Geosciences (DIG) Field School, a

Sterling Nesbitt, an associate professor of geobiology in the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech.

around Petrified Forest National Park. In addition to collecting new data, the team will visit museums and institutions that already have information from this area, such as the University of California, Berkeley and the American Museum of Natural History.

K-12 education program created by University of Washington, which brings STEM teachers out to Petrified Forest National Park, where they work alongside researchers. Then they can apply what they have learned to paleontology-related activities in the classroom. Most teachers from the original program represent the northwestern United States. In an effort to increase diversity, the team will be recruiting teachers from the southeastern

Virginia Tech undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty are excavating a rich fossil site from the Triassic Period at Petrified Forest National Park. Photo courtesy of Sterling Nesbitt.

United States and Native American groups throughout the southwest, specifically the Zuni and the Navajo, Nesbitt said. “Our hypothesis is that the communities are actually really similar for a really long period of time. In the Triassic, it was essentially the same community again and again but with slightly different species. They looked really similar and probably had similar ecological roles,” said Nesbitt.



explorer | NEWS

Walking a fine line: How chemical diversity in plants facilitates plant-animal interactions Written by Rasha Aridi We aren’t the only beings who enjoy feasting on tasty fruits like apples, berries, peaches, and oranges. Species like bats, monkeys, bears, birds, and even fish consume fruits — and plants count on them to do so.



A male Passerini’s tanager, Ramphocelus passerinii, eats the fruit of Piper sanctifelicis. Photo by Bernadette Wynter Rigley.

diverse chemicals and to determine the functions of these chemicals in plant-microbe and plant-animal interactions.

the first plants to colonize a recently disturbed area. It also serves as an important food source for wildlife, especially bats and birds.

Wildlife disperse their seeds by eating the fruit and defecating the seed elsewhere, thus carrying the fruit farther away and spreading the next generation of that plant. But attracting wildlife might also mean attracting harmful organisms, like some species of fungi.

“There is still so much we don’t know about the chemical compounds plants use to mediate these complicated interactions. As we continue to lose global biodiversity, we are also losing chemical diversity and the chance for discovery,” said Lauren Maynard, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences within the College of Science.

At La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, Maynard and a team of international ecologists worked to better understand the evolutionary ecology of P. sancti-felicis. Their findings were recently published in Ecology and serve as a step forward in understanding why plants have such great chemical diversity.

Plants walk a fine line between attraction and repulsion, and to do this, they evolved to become complex chemical factories. Chemical ecologists at the Whitehead Lab at Virginia Tech are working to uncover why plants have such

Piper sancti-felicis is a neotropical shrub related to Piper nigrum, which produces black peppercorn. Although P. sancti-felicis isn’t as economically important as its peppery cousin, it fulfills an important ecological role as one of

By analyzing the samples, the team discovered 10 previously undocumented alkenylphenol compounds in P. sancti-felicis. Alkenylphenols are rare in the plant kingdom, as they have been reported only in four plant families.

The alkenylphenol compounds were not distributed evenly across the plant, though. Maynard found that fruit pulp had the highest concentrations and diversity of alkenylphenol compounds, while leaves and seeds had only a few compounds at detectable levels. Later, a pattern emerged: Levels of alkenylphenol were highest as flowers developed into unripe pulp, but then decreased as the pulp ripened. When Maynard and her collaborators tested alkenylphenols with different species of fruit fungi, they found that the alkenylphenols had antifungal properties. But those same compounds also made the fruits less tasty to bats, which are the plant’s main seed dispersers. This is a delicate balance: high levels of alkenylphenols protected the fruit from harmful fungi as it developed, but when it ripened, alkenylphenol levels dwindled so that bats would be interested in eating it.

“Many fungal pathogens attack ripe fruits and can make fruits unattractive to dispersers, or worse, completely destroy the seeds. Our study suggests that these toxins represent a trade-off in fruits: They do deter some potential beneficial partners, but the benefits they provide in terms of protecting seeds outweigh those costs,” said Susan Whitehead, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. This study is the first to document an ecological role of alkenylphenols. Chemical interactions in the plant kingdom are not easy to see, but they play a crucial role in balancing trade-offs in various interactions. In the case of P. sancti-felicis, alkenylphenols help the plant walk the fine line between appealing to seed dispersers and repelling harmful fungi. “Finding the nonlinear pattern of alkenylphenol investment across fruit development was really exciting.

It suggests that the main function of the compounds is defense,” said Maynard, who is also an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow in the Global Change Center, housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. This discovery helps researchers understand the nuances of tropical forest ecology and how chemical diversity in plants helps maintain that delicate balance. Plant chemical defenses have mostly been studied in leaves of plants, so this new discovery furthers scientists’ understanding of how and why these compounds are crucial in fruits. “This study advanced our understanding of how tropical forests work by bringing together scientists and expertise from multiple fields of study: plant ecology, animal behavior, chemistry, and microbiology,” said Whitehead, who is also an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

The research team on a Piper expedition in Barva Volcano National Park in Costa Rica. From left to right: Susan Whitehead, Lauren Maynard, Juan Pineda (Organization for Tropical Studies), Orlando Vargas Ramírez (Organization for Tropical Studies), Gerald Schneider (Virginia Tech), and 11 Juan Chaves (Barva Volcano National Park). Photo courtesy Ex of Lauren Maynard.

explorer | COVER STORY

TO TACKLE INFECTIOUS DISEASES Written by Kristin Rose Jutras

Infectious diseases are constantly emerging and reemerging worldwide, causing immense threats to the health of humans, animals, and plants. This is especially clear now as researchers tackle the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused more than 85 million human infections worldwide. To meet this challenge, Virginia Tech created the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens. “The critical mass of Virginia Tech faculty working in the area of infectious disease and pathogens is impressive, and their enthusiasm for the new center is exciting,” said Matt Hulver, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Additionally, the creation of this new center could not be more timely.” The vision of the center positions Virginia Tech to become a national and international research and training resource that is a leader in advancing transformative science and developing effective countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases.

Photo illustration: Alex Crookshanks.

X.J. Meng. Photo courtesy: Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

The new center is administratively housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and includes faculty participants from at least seven colleges and more than 25 departments on campus. “The mission is to foster and promote a cohesive and synergistic environment for interdisciplinary and collaborative research across the Virginia Tech campus in the area of emerging, re-emerging, infectious diseases,” said X.J Meng, the founding director of the center and University Distinguished Professor of Virology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The majority of emerging human infectious diseases are of animal 14


origins owing to increasingly close interactions among humans, domestic animals, and wildlife. Many other factors, including climate change, land use and land cover change, intensive farming practice, backyard farming, animal poaching, and bushmeat consumption all bring animal pathogens closer to human habitats, leading to spillover or cross-species infections in humans. “In keeping with the land-grant mission of Virginia Tech, the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens has several overarching objectives that include translating basic and mechanistic research in infectious diseases into tangible results, such as vaccines, antimicrobial drugs,

intelligent infrastructure, and diagnostics that benefit the global society,” said Meng, who is also a member of National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. The center will help train the next generation of infectious disease scientists by providing interdisciplinary research training opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students and recruit top faculty and students in the broad field of infectious diseases. The center also positions Virginia Tech to become more competitive in acquiring large center grants, program grants, and training grants

explorer | COVER STORY which typically require an extensive team of scientists from different disciplines. “Given that the mission of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is to strategically invest in targeted research areas within the life sciences, we believe the center is an excellent fit within our institute and will provide broad support for Virginia Tech’s life science community,” Hulver said.

and pathobiology (Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine), geography (College of Natural Resources and Environment), civil and environmental engineering (College of Engineering), biological sciences (College of Science), medicine/ infectious disease (Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine), and biochemistry (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) has been working to solidify the center’s themes and direction.

The center draws upon Virginia Tech’s existing expertise of diverse affiliated faculty members in biological, biomedical, medical, engineering, agricultural, veterinary, plant, social, and environmental sciences spanning seven colleges and more than 25 departments. An Advisory Leadership Committee representing different academic units, including biomedical sciences

“The global impact of COVID-19 has reinforced Virginia Tech’s ability to be responsive and agile,” said Don Taylor, interim vice president for the Office of Research and Innovation. “As a result, we’ve assembled faculty with diverse expertise, including infectious diseases, to foster a cohesive and synergistic environment for interdisciplinary research and training, which further

enhances Virginia Tech’s position in the commonwealth and the nation as a destination for solving infectious disease problems.” The center will focus on local and state important issues in infectious diseases, such as microbial contamination in drinking water in Appalachian rural areas, Lyme disease, bat white-nose syndrome in Virginia, microbe-related food safety, and COVID-19 prevention. The center will develop sciencebased solutions for issues related to infectious diseases and educate graduate students to effectively communicate their research results to policymakers and the general public. To become affiliated with the center, faculty members are encouraged to contact the center director to discuss benefits and expectations.

Researchers co-locate to Steger Hall at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute to tackle infectious diseases and rapid environmental change Written by Kristin Rose Jutras The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of bringing together innovative scientific minds to tackle infectious diseases and the need to forecast future threats at the human-environment interface. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute co-located researchers from across three colleges at Virginia Tech to Steger Hall to make an impact at the interface of infectious disease and the environment.

“We are building upon the launch of our newly formed Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens and Fralin’s existing centers to support synergies among faculty who are working to tackle some of the grand life-science challenges of our time and improve the human condition. We are excited to have an impact on the community and to develop new leaders at the intersection of environmental changes and infectious disease, while building

on our strengths in computational modeling and data analysis,” said Matt Hulver, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. A group of Virginia Tech professors who focus on vector-borne disease, disease ecology, pathogen transmission, ecological forecasting, and data analysis and computational modeling have moved their research programs to Steger Hall and are looking forward to collaborating: 15


explorer | COVER STORY

Clément Vinauger, assistant professor, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Vinauger lab aims to understand the mechanisms that allow bloodfeeding insects to be efficient disease vectors and identify and characterize factors that modulate their hostseeking behavior with the goal of developing new modes of mosquito control. The Vinauger lab leverages interdisciplinary tools to study the genetic and neural basis of mosquito behavior by combining methods from biochemistry, neuroscience, engineering, and chemical ecology.

Chloé Lahondère, assistant professor, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Lahondère lab studies the effects 16


of temperature and climate change on the eco-physiology and behavior of mosquitoes, kissing bugs, and tsetse flies. Her lab also has an interest in sugar feeding behavior in mosquitoes as well as in monitoring pathogens in local mosquito populations. The main goal is to better understand the ecology and biology of disease vector arthropods to develop new control tools using a multidisciplinary approach involving genetics, behavioral analyses, and field observations. These tools can be exploited to control mosquito populations and reduce the spread of disease.

Kate Langwig, assistant professor, biological sciences, College of Science. Langwig is a quantitative field ecologist, and uses mathematical models parameterized by field and experimental data to provide insights at the hostpathogen-environment interface. Langwig’s research program focuses on the role of disease in determining population dynamics and community structure. As part of this research, she explores how variation among hosts influences epidemiological dynamics, population impacts, and the effectiveness of vaccines.

Langwig’s lab also studies the impact of infectious disease on ecological communities, the importance of disease in determining species extinctions, and the long-term persistence of populations affected by invasive pathogens.

Joseph Hoyt, assistant professor, biological sciences, College of Science. Hoyt’s research interests lie at the intersection of disease ecology and conservation biology. His lab works on basic and applied research questions, primarily in emerging infectious diseases of wildlife. His current research program is focused on understanding how pathogens are transmitted through multi-host communities, spanning individual to landscape scales. He is particularly interested in disentangling the relative importance of environmental transmission and free-living pathogen stages to help facilitate the control of future disease outbreaks and provide a deeper ecological understanding of infectious diseases.

Clockwise from top left: Assistant Professor Brandon Jutras; Associate Professor Quinn Thomas; Associate Professor Leah Johnson; Assistant Professor Luis Escobar; Assistant Professor Lauren Childs; Assistant Professor Clément Vinauger; Assistant Professor Kate Langwig; Professor Dana Hawley; Assistant Professor Joseph Hoyt, Assistant Professor Chloé Lahondère (center).

Photo illustration: Alex Crookshanks.

is using cutting-edge quantitative microscopy and molecular techniques to discover new targets for the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease. In addition, the Jutras lab is studying closely-related bacteria that cause syphilis, tickborne relapsing fever, and leptospirosis.

Brandon Jutras, assistant professor, biochemistry, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Lyme disease is now the most reported vector-borne disease in the United States. In Virginia, it is estimated that the incidence has increased more than 6,000 percent in the past 10 years. Four major species of ticks can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but only one of them, the blacklegged, or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), is found in Virginia. The Jutras lab

Dana Hawley, professor, biological sciences, College of Science. Pathogens are colonizing novel host populations with

increasing frequency, underscoring the need to understand what factors drive infectious disease spread and the evolution of more harmful pathogens. The Hawley lab investigates the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that underlie host susceptibility, pathogen virulence (i.e., the amount of harm that pathogens cause their hosts), and infectious disease transmission. The Hawley lab approaches disease ecology from a multi-disciplinary perspective to understand how individual physiology and pathogen characteristics, such as virulence, social behavior, and environmental context, interact to influence infectious disease dynamics. Ultimately, these studies will improve the understanding of the broader processes that underlie pathogen evolution and spread in wild animal, domestic animal, and human populations. 17


explorer | COVER STORY “Infectious diseases don’t follow disciplinary boundaries - their spread results from the convergence of molecular interactions within cells and tissues and ecological interactions between organisms and with their environment. We really have to break out of our departmental silos to effectively study the complexity of infectious disease emergence and spread,” said Hawley. The Global Change Center, an arm of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, also moved and will be administratively housed in Steger Hall. “Big problems require innovative collaborations and bold strategies to find solutions. Co-locating faculty from different colleges working on some of the most ‘wicked’ societal challenges of our time, will generate new collaborations, foster interdisciplinary student training, and promote efficiency. I am excited to make the move and help support the vibrant community in Steger Hall,” said William Hopkins, associate executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and director of the Global Change Center. Hopkins’ research program at Virginia Tech, which focuses on physiological ecology, conservation, and wildlife ecotoxicology, also moved to Steger Hall. “The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is removing barriers, both physical and disciplinary, and is positioning our faculty to advance Virginia Tech’s work in infectious diseases and its impact on a global community,” said Cyril Clarke, executive vice 18


president and provost of Virginia Tech. “Working together across a range of disciplinary interests, I anticipate that new ways of thinking about the linkages between human, animal, and environmental health will better prepare us to manage pandemics such as COVID-19.” A group of scientists with cuttingedge skills in data analysis, computer modeling, and ecological forecasting have also joined Steger Hall to tackle multiple problem spaces including those related to global change:

Leah Johnson, associate professor, statistics, College of Science. Johnson is a statistical ecologist working at the intersection of statistics, mathematics, and biology. She focuses on understanding how differences between individuals in a population result from external heterogeneity and stochasticity, and how this variability influences population level patterns, especially in the space of infectious disease epidemiology. She leads the Quantitative Ecological Dynamics Lab (QED Lab). The lab currently focuses on understanding how climate impacts transmission

of vector-borne diseases, and how to predict changes in where disease is likely to be transmitted as climate changes. She also examines how environment and human changes to the landscape can impact energetics, foraging behavior, and population dynamics of animals. Her approach is to use theoretical models to understand how systems behave generally, while simultaneously seeking to confront and validate models with data and make predictions. Thus, a significant portion of her research focuses on methods for statistical — particularly Bayesian — inference and validation for mechanistic mathematical models of biological and ecological systems.

Lauren Childs, assistant professor, mathematics, College of Science. Childs develops and analyzes mathematical and computational models to examine biologically motivated questions. A main focus of her research program is understanding the pathogenesis and spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue. There is an emphasis on the interactions

within an organism, such as between an invading pathogen and the host immune response. In addition, she also examines how these within-host interactions impact transmission of disease throughout a population. Construction and analysis of the models utilizes mathematics ranging from differential equations, dynamical systems, to stochastic analysis.

Luis Escobar, assistant professor, fish and wildlife conservation, College of Natural Resources and Environment. Ongoing global change projects in the Escobar lab include the role of aquatic and terrestrial invasive species in disease transmission, effects of climate change on the burden of vectorborne and water-borne diseases, and the development of analytical methods to assess the impacts of global change on biodiversity and diseases. Escobar’s lab focuses on the distribution of biodiversity, including parasites and pathogens at global scales, and under past, current, and future environmental conditions. Escobar is particularly interested in the use of ecoinformatics to study infectious diseases of fish and wildlife origin.

observations and ecosystem models using Bayesian statistical techniques. Thomas leads an NSF-funded effort to galvanize the field of ecological forecasting using data from the National Ecological Observatory Network, an effort that includes Leah Johnson on the leadership team.

Quinn Thomas, associate professor, forest resources and environmental conservation, College of Natural Resources and Environment. Thomas’ research group studies the forest and freshwater ecosystems upon which society depends. They use quantitative models to simulate how ecosystems change over time in response to land-use, climate change, atmospheric deposition, and management. Additionally, they measure carbon, water, and energy exchange between ecosystems and the atmosphere using eddycovariance and biometeorology sensors. Finally, they forecast the future of ecosystems by combining

Johnson, Childs, Escobar, and Thomas will focus on mathematical and computational modeling across multiple problem spaces related to infectious disease, climate change, invasive species, and other aspects of rapid environmental change. “I’m excited at this point in my career to expand the group of people I work with across campus while still representing my home department in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. A career is a set of chapters, and this chapter’s move to Steger Hall will enable me to create new collaborations with quantitative and computational scientists from different departments who are interested in solving problems at the environment-human interface,” Thomas said.



explorer | FEATURE

Kristi DeCourcy (left) and Kristy Collins (right) pack a “Caging the Blob” kit for their Biotech-in-a-Box program. Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

For aspiring young scientists, getting hands-on experience in the laboratory is the best way to pique their scientific curiosity and expand their knowledge in a memorable way. But for many schools across Virginia, getting access to expensive scientific materials can be difficult with already stretched out budgets. Virginia Tech’s Biotech-in-a-Box program helps to alleviate this strain.


“Even if schools can afford to buy some of the equipment, they can’t get the expendables like samples, agarose, buffers, and stains,” said Kristi DeCourcy, the director of the Biotech-in-a-Box outreach program. “Some schools are very well-equipped and have the resources. But most of the schools have a very small budget. That is why we provide these kits for them.” In a normal year, the Biotech-in-a-Box program provides pre-made biotechnology kits for 10,000 to 15,000 science activities to public and private middle schools and high schools all over the state of Virginia. Since its inception in 1994, the program has continued to expand, and their numbers have been fairly steady. But, COVID-19 sent a devastating blow to this year’s program.

EXPLORER | FEATURE “We pulled the plug on sending kits out in March 2020,” DeCourcy said. “The schools are almost all virtual. This academic year, a lot of teachers opted out. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I have a lot of requests lined up for the spring and the teachers are hoping that they will be available then. I probably got 5 percent of my normal requests for fall, and some of those were canceled when schools switched to virtual after the semester started.” In light of Virginia’s shift to a mostly virtual education system, DeCourcy made demo kits that the teachers could borrow and show on the Zoom video conferencing platform with their students. Some teachers are working together to film the demos and share with one another

science experiments. This was when the Biotech-in-a-Box program was born. The program is primarily funded by the Fralin Endowment, which was previously upheld through the Fralin Biotechnology Center. As opposed to other outreach programs, the program is not funded through grants, guaranteeing that the program can stay for the

“THE TEACHERS THAT BORROW THESE KITS ARE THE BEST OF THE BEST. THEY ARE WILLING TO GO THE EXTRA MILE TO GET THESE ACTIVITIES FOR THEIR STUDENTS,” SAID DECOURCY. to alleviate the stress of recording and share quality videos that will engage students. “The teachers that borrow these kits are the best of the best. They are willing to go the extra mile to get these activities for their students,” said DeCourcy. “It’s not easy. Yeah, they get this crate with everything in it, but they still have to make the buffers, set everything up, and get the students going. So the ones that are doing this program are the ones who really want their students to get the experience.” Back in 1994, Fralin director Tracy D. Wilkins launched an initiative with Dennis Dean to help increase and improve early science education around Virginia. The two professors held workshops for high school teachers around the region and it was becoming increasingly apparent that teachers were having difficulty affording equipment for 22


long run. What makes this program unique from others is that the program doesn’t restrict how the teachers use the kits. Where one teacher could borrow one kit for an AP Bio class, another may borrow five kits to coordinate with four other teachers to use for 20 classes. “One of the problems with a lot of outreach programs is that they try to tell teachers how to use the materials and

mandate how it’s done,” DeCourcy said. “But that’s one thing we avoid. We make the kits available and the teachers put them into the curriculum, wherever it fits with them.” In addition to removing restrictive barriers, the program excels at maintaining good customer service. Before sending kits to the schools, everything is checked to be sure that it’s working when it leaves Virginia Tech. And if something were to break during transit, the program can overnight supplies to teachers.

All photos in this spread by: Alex Crookshanks except lab photo of slime mold courtesy of Kristi DeCourcy.

The Biotech-in-a-Box program offers five different kits that range from chromatography to immunological tests: • The Protein Electrophoresis kit contains equipment and materials needed for polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of proteins and allows students to design their own experiments to answer questions about evolution and forensics. • The Column Chromatography kit contains materials to purify proteins and allows students to separate proteins based on physical characteristics, such as size, charge, and polarity. • The Immunology Introduction kit contains materials to explore the use of antibodies as tools in diagnostic tests. Students learn about how disease spreads using techniques common in medical and forensic fields. •The DNA Biotechnology kit contains materials that allow students to analyze DNA by agarose gel electrophoresis. There are ethics and CSI scenarios in the manual. • The Caging the Blob kit contains materials needed to teach students about the survival tactics of living organisms. Students construct mazes of Lego blocks to examine how slime mold responds to physical barriers. If you would like to learn more about the program or how you can access a kit, contact Kristi DeCourcy at decourcy@ or call (540) 231-7959. 23


explorer | FEATURE Kids’ Tech University has launched its 12th annual spring program at Virginia Tech. But like most of this year’s events on the Blacksburg campus, the program has had to adapt because of the pandemic. Hosted by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and in partnership with Virginia 4-H, Kids’ Tech University bridges the gap between scientists and kids to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) more accessible as kids investigate a variety of scientific topics alongside Virginia Tech

that we would have to cancel the program altogether. But after thinking about it for some time, I thought maybe we could try something different with being virtual. While this is not how I want the program to continue for years to come, it may be a great exercise in adaptation and rolling with the punches,” said Collins. In a normal year, the program strives to create a “university feel” by including children in an interactive session, which resembles a college lecture, in a university classroom.

249 other kids and undergraduates to learn and experience a topic. We are trying hard to ‘re-create’ that during the hands-on activity portion of the program by having small groups of kids and undergraduates interact,” said Collins. Kids’ Tech University has four program dates for the semester, and participants and parents are expected to attend all four. Sessions are held in the morning and conclude by noon. The first session which occurred on January 30, 2021, was led by Helena


KIDS’ TECH UNIVERSITY RETURNS TO VIRGINIA TECH WRITTEN BY KENDALL DANIELS undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty. But along with the challenge of changing the program has come opportunity. Kristy Collins, the director of education and outreach at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, has found ways to ensure that kids will continue to stimulate their scientific curiosity at home. “During the summer, I was thinking 24


But this year, the program is hosting the interactive sessions through Zoom - and materials for the hands-on activities have been mailed directly to participant’s homes. Undergraduates are still lending a helping hand throughout the program too, as they lead the participants and their parents through each activity virtually. “There is just something unique about going into a physical space with

Carvalho, a physiologist and an assistant professor from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute. The session explored the five human senses and how the human body connects to the outside environment. At the end of the session, participants put together a model lung system.








The schedule for the spring 2021 Kids’ Tech University semester includes:

Jan. 30, 2021: A session on the five

human senses by Helena Carvalho, assistant professor from Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute. The hands-on activity will illustrate each sense.

Feb. 27, 2021: A session

on an ecological adventure to explore the plants and animals that inhabit the world around us with Bill Hopkins, professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the director of the Global

Change Center at Virginia Tech, and the associate executive director at Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

March 20, 2021: A session on the

bacterium that causes Lyme disease with Brandon Jutras, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. During the hands-on activity, participants will build paper microscopes called foldscopes.

April 10, 2021: A session on circuits

and power flow throughout the circuits by Paul Ampadu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering. The hands-on activity will involve the construction of a paper circuit

out of LEDs, batteries, and copper tape. In order to keep up with the costs of providing a quality program, there will be a nonrefundable registration fee of $50 per child, payable upon registration. Parents have an option to apply for a scholarship during registration. Registration for Kids’ Tech University is capped at 250 students. Please email Kristy Collins at with any questions.

KTU logo & shirt design by: Alex Crookshanks.




faculty members:

Steger Hall Fralin Hall Latham Hall Integrated Life Science Building Life Sciences 1

Faculty that actively participate in Institute sponsored

research. The Institute is closely aligned with Virginia

activities, including participation in Institute funded

Tech’s other five research institutes, which include

Centers and focus areas, use of core facilities housed and

the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC,

supported by the Institute, and participation in Institute

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the Institute

supported graduate and undergraduate programs are

for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences, the

invited to become affiliated faculty members. Affiliated

Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, and

faculty members are given resources necessary to

the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology.

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech is an instrument of strategic university investment committed to enhancing the quality, quantity, and competitiveness of life sciences research, education, and outreach across Virginia Tech. Residents of the institute’s five buildings are automatically considered affiliated

explore new, innovative science that benefits people in



the New River Valley, the Commonwealth of Virginia,

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech

and the world. Through seminars, conferences and

strategically invests in targeted research areas within the

research group support, the Institute serves as a meeting

life sciences. Such investments include recruitment and

point for progressive ideas involving multidisciplinary

set-up support for new faculty members, retention and

explorer | ABOUT

h o r a c e  f r a l i n

Following his graduation in 1948 with a degree in electrical engineering, Horace Fralin forged a partnership in Fralin and Waldron Inc., a company that specializes in federal housing programs, health care facilities, and retirement centers. The company has also been involved with the revitalization of Roanoke. Mr. Fralin was a charter member of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society and was a Corporate Distinguished Benefactor, founding member of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center Board of Directors, and served as president of the Virginia Tech Foundation. He served on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, College of Engineering Committee of 100 Advisory Board, Virginia Tech Foundation Executive and Finance Committee, and was chairman of the Hotel Roanoke Advisory Committee. The Virginia Tech Alumni Association recognized his leadership by honoring Fralin with the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award, and in 1992 the university conferred upon him its most distinguished award for service, the William H. Ruffner Medal.

recognition of established faculty members, seed funds for new research projects, equipment purchases, graduate

Fralin’s bequest to Virginia Tech, valued at $8.6 million, is one of the largest gifts in university history. Four million dollars of his gift was, at his request, earmarked for the study and application of biotechnology. These funds have been used to create a permanent endowment for the institute. The proceeds from the endowment are used to match contributions and grants from other sources to continue the outreach, teaching, and research missions of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Through this endowment, Horace Fralin will continue to support research in the fields of human and animal health and agricultural productivity forever.

student recruitment and support, undergraduate research support, and support for outreach activities. Research initiatives within the life sciences receiving the highest priority for support include vector-borne disease, infectious disease, plant sciences, ecology and organismal biology, obesity, and cancer biology. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is also actively engaged in cooperative partnerships with colleges, departments, and other institutes that also support the life science community. 27


Fralin Life Sciences Institute Steger Hall 1015 Life Science Circle Blacksburg, VA 24061 540-231-6614