Thanks to seed funding, more Virginia Tech undergraduates will spend part of their time this year on research, unraveling the mysteries of dancing bubbles or ice nucleation or designing biomedical devices and swimming boats.

Nine interdisciplinary faculty teams across six colleges won $10,000 awards from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), which will support 27 undergraduates.

The seed funding helps provide wages, research supplies, and travel to conferences.

For an undergraduate, working in a research lab offers a behind-the-scenes look at innovation and an opportunity to test-drive a career in science or engineering.

“We’re committed to supporting the experiential learning activities at the university and are excited to support interdisciplinary research experiences for undergraduates,” said Vinod Lohani, a professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering and the director of education and global initiatives at ICTAS.

“It’s rewarding to see the intellectual and professional skills that students develop during their time in the lab,” Lohani said. “And it’s valuable for the faculty and graduate students, too, who learn how to be more effective mentors.”

This is the second year of the seed-funding program. David Schmale, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has won this funding two years in a row — last year to support on-campus undergraduate research involving flying samara seeds, and this year for an international project studying ice nucleation with a collaborator in Austria.

Schmale knows firsthand the impact undergraduate research can have on a student’s career.

“I was fortunate to have a fantastic mentor when I was an undergraduate student. He allowed me to do independent research and allowed me to publish as an undergraduate,” he said. “And I also took advantage of an education abroad program and studied for a semester in Costa Rica and Panama. And that experience changed my life. I saw the world in a new way when I came back to the U.S.”

Undergraduate research programs like this one, which provides funding for student stipends, create opportunities for a more diverse range of students.

The program is designed to increase Virginia Tech’s applications to two programs at the National Science Foundation that support undergraduate research: the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Sites and International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) programs, which bring students from around the country to study at Virginia Tech and give Virginia Tech students the opportunity to study internationally.

The seed funding from ICTAS helps new undergraduate research initiatives get off the ground and build up the infrastructure to be competitive for these national awards.

“If you can show funding agencies that you can do what you’re proposing to do, and you’ve set up all the communication lines, you have a much greater chance of the proposal being funded,” Schmale explained. “That’s what ICTAS has been really instrumental in doing for my program, and we’ve had a great record of turning these small investment projects into major federal grants.”

The following research projects won ICTAS REU Seed Grants this year:

  • Dancing motion of bubbles through an acoustic cell-sorting application, led by Shima Shahab, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics; Billie Lepczyk, a professor of creative dance at the School of Performing Arts; and Rafael Davalos, the L. Preston Wade Professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics.
  • Developing a digital game prototype to support systems thinking education in K - 12, led by Alejandro Salado, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering;  Aisling Kelliher, an associate professor of computer science; Anderson Norton, an associate professor of mathematics; Martha Ann Bell, a professor of psychology; and Miguel Nino, an instructional design and training manager at University Libraries.
  • Design, manufacture, and optimization of a robotic boat, led by Sevak Tahmasian, an instructor in the department of biomedical engineering and mechanics; Shahab; and Caroline Jones, an assistant professor of biological science.
  • Decision sciences for resilient communities, led by Thomas Skuzinski, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning; Tripp Shealy, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Robin Panneton, the associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Science.
  • Collecting observations and data analysis and encoding for the geosciences, led by Sarah Stamps, an assistant professor of geosciences; Zachary Easton, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; and William Moore, as associate professor of atmospheric and planetary sciences at Hampton University.
  • Biosurface engineering, led by Maren Roman, an associate professor of sustainable biomaterials; Michael Bortner, an assistant professor of chemical engineering; and Yong Woo Lee, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics.
  • Cross-disciplinary research in bioinformatics and statistics, led by Liqing Zhang, an associate professor of computer science, and Xiaowei Wu, an assistant professor of statistics.
  • Undergraduate research on ice nucleation in Austria, led by David Schmale, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed sciences.
  • Case Studies to Build Transdisciplinary Research Skills at the Undergraduate Level, led by Freddy Paige, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Joseph Wheeler, a professor of architecture; Walter Lee, an assistant professor of engineering education; and Denise Simmons, an assistant professor at the Myers-Lawson School of Construction.


Virginia Tech currently hosts three REU sites, on automotive engineering, biomechanics, and interdisciplinary water sciences, and three active IRES programs, on electric transportation systems, interdisciplinary water sciences, and bioinspired science and technology.

Research participation at the university is supported by the Office of Undergraduate Research, which works with students and faculty to help coordinate projects.

The students involved in the flying samara project won Virginia Tech’s undergraduate research competition and are drafting a manuscript for publication; Schmale and Shane Ross, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, have submitted a proposal to the NSF to fund an REU site based on the research.

For Schmale, creating opportunities for undergraduate researchers is a way of giving back. “I’m coming full circle and thinking, ‘what can I do for these undergraduates, just like my undergraduate research mentor did for me?’” he said. “Let’s create the next generation of biologists and engineers through rich research experiences that defined us in our youth.”

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