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Vision

Population growth and urbanization represent real threats to the human condition by diminishing critical natural resources, challenging sustainable food production, and favoring the emergence and re-emergence of both infectious and environmentally induced disease states.  Global Systems Science is the study of such dynamic interplay among natural and social systems.  Virginia Tech has launched a Global Systems Science Destination Area that is focused on understanding and finding solutions to critical problems associated with human activity and environmental change that, together, affects disease states, water quality, and food production.  The Destination Area emphasizes a trans-disciplinary approach involving the integration and coordination of research, education, and public engagement.  Goals of the Destination Area will be accomplished by integrating theoretical and empirical inquiry with relevant curriculum development.  Synergistic interaction among faculty and student teams within the Destination Area, as well as their coordination with other related campus-wide initiatives, such as those focused on Data Analytics, Cyber-security, and Policy, will be catalyzed by participants with expertise in systems science approaches.  The effort will also be augmented by the aggressive recruitment of faculty and students interested in the development and application of systems approaches towards solving complex problems.  A particular ambition of the Destination Area is to assemble faculty and student teams having the cultural and ethnic diversity necessary to develop innovative solutions to social and environmental problems associated with global systems.    

Background

Beyond Boundaries, Virginia Tech’s envisioning of the future of the university, revolves around VT-Shaped Discovery, Communities of Discovery, and the Nexus of Discovery. VT-Shaped Discovery builds on and fully integrates the outreach and service missions of the university so that students will benefit from deep disciplinary understandings, crosscutting partnerships, and broad interpersonal and communications skill development. Communities of Discovery enable experiential learning and applied research competencies, including broad-based partnerships between the university and industry and nongovernmental and governmental actors. The Nexus of Discovery integrates disciplinary excellence and complex societal problem spaces, as seen in the Destination Areas.

Destination Areas (DAs), along with the related, smaller-scale Strategic Growth Areas (SGAs), will provide faculty and students with new tools to identify and solve complex, 21st-century problems in which Virginia Tech already has significant strengths and can take a global leadership role. Transdisciplinary teams, tools, and processes that are poised to tackle the world's most pressing, critical problems will be created through the DAs. As a result, Virginia Tech will become an international destination for talent, partnerships, transformative knowledge, and significant outcomes in these areas to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

The Global Systems Science Destination Area (GSS DA) is envisioned to be a transformative approach to problem solving that harnesses the unique strengths of Virginia Tech together with its institutional culture and mandate for service. The GSS DA is focused on critical problems that cross the nexus of natural and human systems: http://provost.vt.edu/destination-areas/da-global-systems.html

The GSS DA stakeholders requested submission of "concept" papers from faculty teams during the 2017 spring semester.  We asked that these concepts would propose using interdisciplinary teams to connect the full span of relevant knowledge necessary to comprehensively address issues and build signature strengths within a thematic area of the DA, as broadly defined by the GSS DA white paper.  We also asked that the concepts address humanistic, scientific, and technological perspectives in relationship to one another as a way to overcome traditional academic boundaries, such as those that separate STEM fields and the liberal arts. Below are 12 of the 13 concept papers that were submitted to the GSS stakeholders on May 15, 2017: 

Two concepts, Integrative Science Solutions for Freshwater Systems and Ecological and Human Health in Rural Communities, were selected to move forward from the Phase II Request for Concepts. These groups are currently developing their research, curriculum, and outreach programs and have been granted development funds to achieve this goal. Abstracts describing these initiatives are shown below.

Abstract

Despite considerable evidence linking human industrial and agricultural activities to ecological health, very little data are available directly linking exposure to environmental pollution and human health in rural areas, even though these communities have repeatedly been identified as subject to the most extreme health disparities.  Building on existing interdisciplinary strengths in environmental science, natural resources, and public health, this program is poised to pursue urgent unanswered questions regarding the linkages between humans’ well-being and conditions of the broader ecologies they inhabit in rural areas.  This initiative’s education, research, and engagement activities will focus initially on Central Appalachia, simultaneously known for unique ecological richness and dramatic landscapes, as well as worsening health disparities that cannot be fully explained by socio-behavioral factors.  As the initiative grows, activities will expand to rural communities worldwide, potentially collaborating with ongoing university initiatives and investments in India, China, Malawi, and Ecuador.  Motivated by the motto, “Ut Prosim”, service to the surrounding region will fulfill Virginia Tech’s mission as a land grant university, with the global reach going “beyond boundaries”.

Specific research questions include: 1) Are ecological health indicators, such as species diversity, predictors of human health in nearby communities, and vice versa? 2) How do long-term exposures to different combinations of environmental contaminants affect human and ecological health across generations? 3) How can researchers and educators connect with communities to inform and support their decision-making, and strengthen the opportunity for community voices to influence research priorities, policy, and education?  Substantial connections and ongoing collaborations with other destination areas, including Data Analytics and Decision Sciences, Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities, and Adaptive Brain and Behavior will be necessary to address these overarching issues.  Addressing health disparities related to geography, social class, and race, will require strong linkages with the Strategic Growth Areas in Policy and Equity and Social Disparity in the Human Condition.

Faculty Affiliates

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS)

Susan Clark (Horticulture), Leigh-Anne Krometis** (Biological Systems Engineering)

College of Engineering (COE)

Linsey Marr** (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS)

Emily Satterwhite** (Appalachian Studies, Religion and Culture), Rebekah Hester (Science and Technology Studies), Shannon Bell (Sociology)

College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE)

Paul Angermeier (Fish and Wildlife Conservation), Korine Kolivras** (Geography), Stephen Schoenholtz (Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation)

College of Science (COS)

Shyam Ranganathan (Statistics), Chris Thompson (Neurosciences)

College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM)

Julia Gohlke** (Population Health Sciences), Susan Marmagas** (Population Health Sciences), Terry Swecker (Large Animal Clinical Sciences)

Biocomplexity Institute

Samarth Swarup (Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory)

**Steering committee

Abstract

The overall goal of this focus area is to develop an interdisciplinary program to meet the pressing challenges facing freshwater ecosystems (lakes, river networks, and wetlands).  This Integrative Science and Solutions for Freshwater Systems program will enable integration of freshwater ecosystem-relevant biophysical sciences with the social sciences, arts and communication, through relevant research, education, policy support and outreach.  Ultimately, this entire integrative process will help inform management and allow for restoration and sustainability of waterbodies and their watersheds, which currently face four critical socio-ecological problems: Anthropogenic pressures on watersheds, inadequate quantity and quality of fresh water, losses of biodiversity and biosphere integrity, and transmission of water-borne disease.  This new knowledge will also allow for further exploration of how the human condition depends on functioning aquatic ecosystems and to effectively identify, discuss, and manage fundamental social choices regarding living and working within watersheds.

Investment in sustainable conservation and restoration of freshwater systems and adaptation to the changing climate through traditional funding, as well as support from governments, industries and philanthropic programs of major foundations, is already a billion dollar industry.  However, many restoration and management projects fail because they are too focused on limited surface water habitats or stream reaches, have a short timescale over which projects are assessed, and lack adequate interdisciplinary scientific input and societal needs guidance.  This program seeks to develop a framework allowing meaningful engagement from multiple disciplines and multiple public enterprises in complex issues.  This will better address water-relevant gaps in social science, policy, law, communication, conflict resolution, and structured decision-making to have on-the-ground impacts through broad approaches.

Faculty Affiliates

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS)

Brian Benham (Biological Systems Engineering, BSE), Jonathan Czuba (BSE), W. Cully Hession (BSE), Leigh-Anne Krometis (BSE), Durelle Scott (BSE), Kurt Stephenson (Agriculture and Applied Economics), Tess Thompson (BSE)

College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS)

Dean Bork (Landscape Architecture)

College of Engineering (COE)

Erich Hester (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Nicholas Polys (Computer Science)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS)

James Ivory (Communication)

College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE)

Paul Angermeier (Fish and Wildlife Conservation, FWC), Leandro Castello (FWC), C. Andy Dolloff (FWC), Verl Emrick III (Conservation Management Institute), Jess Jones (FWC), Daniel McLaughlin (Forest resources and Environmental Conservation), Ronald Meyers (FWC), Donald Orth**(FWC), Stephen Schoenholtz (VA Water Resources Research Center), Joel Snodgrass (FWC)

College of Science (COS)

Erin Hotchkiss (Biological Sciences), Eric Smith (Statistics)

**Team leader

The initiatives below are either concepts that were submitted to the Phase II Request for Concepts that had exceptional merit but were thought to need a little more work, or new concepts that are being developed.  Two concepts, which are being supported by funding from the Fralin Life Science Institute are Coastal@VT and Achieving Resilience and SmartPlants/Animals and SmartFarms for Global Food, Feed and Fiber Security.  New concepts that are being funded through the GSS DA are the Working Group on the Science and Policy of Biological Invasions (SciPoBI), further development and combining of the Microbiology at the Nexus of Food, Energy, Water and Health (MicroFEWH) and Antimicrobial Resistance Mitigation (ARM) groups, and Expanding the Mzuni-Virginia Tech Library Design Partnership to Include GSS-Related Research and Education Opportunities.  Abstracts describing these initiatives are shown below.

We are interested in hearing from other groups about their ideas.  Please see this page for instructions on how to request development funds. 

Abstract

The coastal zone hosts more than half of the world’s human population, large port facilities vital to the global economy, and military installations important to national and global security.  Accelerating sea-level rise, coastal hazards, ocean acidification, population growth, and rapid economic development threaten livelihoods, tourism, health, fish and wildlife species, and ecosystem services in this area.  The cascading impacts of these stressors represent a complex and formidable problem that can only be addressed by coordinated investment in research, teaching, outreach and inclusive engagement efforts, bringing together academia, industry, foundations, non-governmental organizations, governments, and local stakeholders.

The focus of Coastal@VT includes coastal systems research, teaching, outreach, and innovation, and is characterized by disciplinary strength and excellence, and by strong interdisciplinary links among the different disciplines.  These interdisciplinary linkages, developed through research and education programs, are institutionally manifested through the Destination Areas, such as Data Analytics and Decision Sciences, Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-centered Communities, and Integrated Security and Global Systems Science themes in food, infectious diseases, and water.  Collaboration across these Destination Areas will be vital to the development of new methodologies, such as advanced quantitative techniques and scenario planning, new technologies, for e.g., autonomous vehicles, and new virtual interactive tools, in order to communicate more effectively information on hazards, risk, adaptation and resilience to stakeholders in coastal areas.  Coastal@VT will serve as an incubator for advancing technology, policy innovation and knowledge exchange, as well as for forging sustained and long-lasting partnerships with industry and other organizations that work to make coastal zones more resilient and capable of adapting to rapidly changing environments.

Faculty Affiliates

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS)

Kevin Boyle (Director, Program in Real Estate), Venkat Sridhar (Sri) (Biological Systems Engineering)

College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS)

Yang Zhang (Urban Affairs and Planning), Todd Schenk (School of Public and International Affairs)

College of Business (COB)

Christopher Zobel (Business Information Technology, BIT), Loren Rees (BIT)

College of Engineering (COE)

Jennifer Irish (Civil and Environmental Engineering, CEE), Roberto Leon (CEE)

College of Liberal Arts and Human Studies (CLAHS)

Priya Dixit (Political Science)

College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE)

Anamaria Bukvic** (Geography), Ashley Dayer (Fish and Wildlife Conservation, FWC), Jim Fraser (FWC), Sarah Karpanty (FWC), Daniel Catlin (FWC), Luke Juran (Geography, VA Water Resources Research Center), Randy Wynne (Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Center for Environmental Applications of Remote Sensing)

College of Science (COS)

Robert Weiss** (Geosciences)

College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM)

Julia Gohlke (Population Health Sciences)

**Team leaders

Abstract

Meeting the food, feed, and fiber needs of a growing world population represents one of the signature challenges of this century.  This challenge necessitates implementation of advanced technologies, sustainable management of natural resources, and coordination of political forces.

The first component of the vision is SmartPlants/Animals, in which crops, livestock, and their associated microbes, will be designed to optimize yields in agro-ecosystems compromised by disease and pests, climate disruption, and other environmental stressors.  Fundamental research will be conducted on animal and plant genotype-environment interactions, integrated with translational research in breeding and biodesign.  These efforts will exploit cutting-edge technologies such as gene editing, genetic selection, genomic breeding, and engineering of microbiomes.

Equal in importance to resilient crops are innovations in precision agriculture and management of resources to increase efficiency, reduce pollution, and enhance ecological health (agriculture accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of all freshwater use).  Thus, the second component of the vision is the “SmartFarm”.  This is the farm of the future—efficient, productive, sustainable, and automated.  Irrigation systems will harvest and deliver appropriate amounts of water to the right areas of the farm at the right time.  Coordinated unmanned robots on the ground (tractors) and in the air (drones) will gather data on animal and plant health and developmental status that informs targeted, automated delivery of inputs and enables optimal harvest schedules.  Turbines will harvest wind energy, and power meteorological sensors to forecast weather and the onset of diseases.  Farm data will be stored and accessed through the cloud.  Big data techniques will transform the raw data into actionable intelligence available to stakeholders on mobile devices, anywhere, anytime.  This paradigm can be extended to SmartForests and into urban areas, where SmartGreenhouses and SmartRoofs will enable crops to be grown in close proximity to local markets.  Architects and civil engineers will work closely with animal, plant, and environmental scientists to create opportunities for aesthetic, yet purposeful, farms, structures, and facilities to invent the future of agriculture.

Faculty Affiliates

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS)

Ozzie Abaye (CSES), Maria Balota (PPWS, Tidewater AREC), Aureliano Bombarely (HORT), Susan Clark (HORT), Rebecca Cockrum (Dairy Science), Greg Evanylo (CSES), Elizabeth Grabau (PPWS), David Haak (PPWS), John McDowell** (PPWS), Scott Lowman (HORT). M.A. Saghai Maroof (CSES), David Schmale (PPWS), Wade Thomason (CSES), Richard Veilleux** (HORT), Boris Vinatzer (PPWS), James Westwood (PPWS), Robin White (Animal and Poultry Sciences), Bingyu Zhao (HORT)    **Team leader(s)

College of Engineering (COE)

Pratap Tokekar (Electrical and Computer Science)

College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE)

Thomas Fox (Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, FREC), Jason Holliday (FREC), Peter Sforza (Geological Sciences), Randolph Wynne (FREC)

College of Science (COS)

Dorothea Tholl (Biological Sciences)

Center for Communicating Science

Carrie Kroehler, Patty Raun (School of Performing Arts)

College of Veterinary Medicine

Kevin Pelzer (Large Animal Clinical Sciences), William Pierson (Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology), William Swecker (Large Animal Clinical Sciences)

PIs: Jacob Barney, PPWS, CALS

Bryan Brown, BIO, CoS

David Haak, PPWS, CALS

Erin Hotchkiss, BIO, CoS

Scott Salom, ENT, CALS

Budget Request: $10,000

Vision statement: Biological invasions by non-native organisms cost the global economy >$1 trillion annually. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment projected the rate and impact of biological invasions will increase with global trade, a rise in economic prosperity, and climate change. Additionally, invasive species disrupt ecosystem processes, reduce food production, and threaten human health. The recent Ebola and Zika epidemics highlighted the devastating impacts of biological invasions, as well as how such invasions can be mitigated with strategic and coordinated action. Solutions for such critical problems requires moving beyond the boundaries of traditional approaches to develop a nimble transdisciplinary strategy, that integrates technological breakthroughs in the science of biological invasions with advances in health and social sciences to produce more effective policy to address this grand challenge. 

Plan: In 2016, with support from the Global Change Center, we began coordinating researchers from diverse disciplines at VT to initiate a working group to outline future directions in solutions-based research and policy assessment for Biological Invasions.  Major impacts of this creative collision have been: (1) identifying the need for a catalysis meeting, bringing together VT faculty and global experts to ‘Horizon Scan’ approaches to address this grand challenge; (2) the need to continue to expand the critical mass of transdisciplinary expertise on campus; and (3) the development of a new graduate course, The Science and Policy of Biological Invasions (SciPoBI) (GRAD 6984), that all PIs will team-teach in Fall 2017. Here we are requesting funds for three efforts: (1) A 1.5 day workshop in Spring 2018 that invites VT faculty and local stakeholders to engage with global biological invasions experts to identify areas of impact for SciPoBI; (2)  Expanded “creative collision” interactions across campus to connect the VT base of expertise and conduct a GAP analysis of expertise in SciPoBI; and (3) Host both a high-profile researcher and a policy expert to engage students in our GRAD 6984 course facilitating the transdisciplinary training of the next generation of biological invasion scientists.  Together these efforts will identify: (a) the top research questions/challenges in the field of biological invasions; (b) the expertise needed to make VT a leader in addressing these questions/challenges; (c) how members of the VT community can better engage social scientists and society; and (d) how VT research can be leveraged to develop more effective state and federal policy.

Results from this catalysis group will be directly used to aid development of a Concept White Paper for the anticipated 2018 Global Systems Science Destination Area round of proposals. The workshop will have the added benefit of enhancing the collaborations and research priorities of existing VT faculty and lay the groundwork for focused large-scale grant proposals.

This fall, Virginia Tech faculty and students in Architecture (CAUS) will begin the process of developing the conceptual and schematic design for a new library at Mzuzu University (Mzuni) in northern Malawi. Mzuni lost over 50,000 books and journals in a fire in December, 2015. Since then, faculty and students at Virginia Tech have led the Mzuni Library Initiative that shipped over 8,000 books to Malawi this year and plans to send a similar shipment later this year.

During the Spring 2017 semester, three faculty from Architecture traveled to Malawi and established a library design partnership between Mzuni and Virginia Tech. This partnership is intended to foster opportunities across both campuses for students and faculty to engage in an interactive exchange, with the objective of building transdisciplinary global education and research opportunities.

This proposal seeks $8,000 to expand the scope of this exchange to include faculty at Mzuni and Virginia Tech who are working in GSS-related areas. More specifically, these funds would enable Dr. Michael Zimba (Dean of Science, Technology, and Innovation) and Dr. Mavuto Tembo (Senior Lecturer, Climate Change, GIS and Remote Sensing, Land Management) to join the Mzuni library delegation that plans to visit Virginia Tech in November, 2017.

While the design of a new library is a unique opportunity in itself, this proposal seeks to bring together faculty from Mzuni, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Tech’s University Libraries to explore how the new Mzuni library and the planned GSS building could lay the foundation for advanced GSS-related research and education. For example, how could these buildings support a state-of- the-art, data rich, virtual decision-support and learning environment that enables local-, regional-, and national-level actors in developed and developing regions to make decisions that improve resilience and sustainability? Put differently, what strategic investments could be located in these buildings that broadly serve the research and educational ambitions of each institution, and provide an international innovation space for highly-connected learning?

The answer to these questions will depend on the unique capabilities at each institution. The attached Appendix provides a snapshot of the current academic programs and research facilities at Mzuni. However, these areas are likely to expand as the university plans to double its existing capacity to serve over 6,000 students in the next five years. At Virginia Tech, the planned GSS investments – in freshwater systems; ecological and human health in rural communities; the microbiology nexus of food, energy, water, and health (MicroFEWH) and antimicrobial resistance mitigation (ARM); coastal systems; and the science and policy of biological invasions (SciPoBI) – signal the direction of future strategic investments. By bringing faculty in these GSS areas together with the Mzuni library delegation, we hope to explore opportunities to internationalize their planned research and educational activities. For example, the GSS groups focusing on ecological and human health in rural communities, freshwater, and infectious diseases could explore the idea of building on their proposed “in the field” course to also create a “virtual in the field course” that explores problems in Malawi and the United States. For example, students at both universities (working together in a virtual learning environment) could study a rural ecological and health problem in Virginia and around the city of Mzuzu. Learning in such an environment would also enable the formation of hybridized knowledge through the integration of Western and African knowledge.

It is important to stress that the GSS team behind this proposal is primarily interested in creating a unique and shared research and problem-based learning capability. While the Mzuni library and GSS buildings would initially anchor these capabilities, the long-term vision (below) is to develop a platform that could be located in any suitably equipped facility around the world.

Our vision is to create a next-generation open data fusion platform that will enable multidisciplinary scientists, decision-makers, development actors, and citizens to understand and leverage the potential of sensor-driven information and visual analytic and decision- support services. The platform would target the power of Web accessibility, open standards, and immersive media to integrate and communicate the interactions between complex, dynamic systems. Virginia Tech faculty (along with academic and industry partners) would develop the cyberinfrastructure for several innovations that include (1) the ingesting of data from online and government sources, field-stations, drones, citizens, development actors, communities, simulation models, etc., (2) the fusing and processing of these data through Models-as-a-Service (MaaS), and (3) the creation of Web3D interfaces designed for testing hypotheses and scenarios to enhance decision-making at various levels (community to national/international) (Figure 1).

Fig 1
Proposed Budget
Appendix

1. How much (up to $10,000) are you requesting?

$10,000 requested.

2. What will you use this money for?

Funds will be used to support two on-campus meetings.

The first meeting will be a joint meeting between team members of the Microbiology at the Nexus of Food, Energy, Water & Health (MicroFEWH) (17 team members) and Antimicrobial Resistance Mitigation (ARM) (18 team members). This will be a half-day meeting held in early September, 2017. We will use this meeting to: (1) explore common themes between our concept papers, (2) identify stakeholders to evaluate our proposed GSS concepts, and (3) revitalize our concepts beyond just the Destination Areas to align with the hiring plans of each of the college deans.

The second project planning meeting will include a half-day, on-campus working group of stakeholders including industry leaders, program managers from federal agencies, concept team members within our groups, and key administrators from participating units. This will be a half-day meeting held in October, 2017. We will use this meeting to: (1) highlight the research interests of participating faculty, (2) evaluate our proposed GSS concepts, (3) determine what our stakeholders need in terms of a trained workforce, (4) determine the skill sets that are valued (B.S., M.S., Ph.D.) in their employees, (5) prioritize our proposed list of hires and identify any new hires needed in our GSS areas that have not yet been identified, and (6) develop an action plan for improvements to our concept proposals.

3. Please justify the need for these funds.

We propose to have two half-day meetings at the Inn at VT from about 9am-1pm. These meetings will be held in early Fall, 2017, based in part on the availability of attendees. Funds are requested for a meeting room, and a catered breakfast and lunch. For the second meeting, we will have two short ‘poster breaks’, where students conducting research in our concept areas will present some of their work and have the opportunity to interact with stakeholders. Funds are also requested to support the travel and lodging of 10 stakeholders outside the university.

Team Leaders
Ann M. Stevens, Biological Sciences, COS
David G. Schmale III, Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science, CALS

Team Leader from second GSS Concept Area (ARM)
Peter Vikesland, Civil and Environmental Engineering, COE