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NSF funds Virginia Tech program to train researchers at intersection of engineering, biology

The Virginia Tech Colleges of Engineering, Science, and Agriculture and Life Sciences have been awarded a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a Ph.D. training program aimed at preparing future researchers to solve emerging challenges at the intersection of the engineering and biological sciences.

The MultiSTEPS (Multi-Scale Transport in Environmental and Physiological Systems) project, led by Mark Stremler from the department of engineering science and mechanics (ESM), is being funded by NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program. MultiSTEPS is the fifth interdisciplinary program at Virginia Tech to be supported by IGERT, NSF's flagship training grant.

MultiSTEPS brings together an interdisciplinary cadre of experts to educate graduate students on issues of biological transport, such as fluid motion ranging from blood flow to ocean currents, that affect the development and health of organisms, the viability of ecosystems, and growth of the global economy.

Building upon the resources of Virginia Tech's Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED), the MultiSTEPS program will recruit a diverse population of future innovators and equip them with a unique set of multidisciplinary intellectual tools and research methods. The diversity of the students participating in an IGERT education contributes to their ability to solve large and complex research problems.

"Understanding, predicting, and controlling transport processes such as fluid motion are key to solving important biological and environmental problems in targeted drug delivery for the human body, preventing cancer cell metastasis, and controlling the spread of pollution and disease. As an example, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico clearly highlights the important connections between atmospheric flows, pollution transport, and damage to the environment," Stremler said.

Biologists are not normally trained in the complexity of transient transport or the interdependence of small-scale interactions and large-scale behavior, and in how these various issues might impact biological function. Conversely, engineers typically regard the biological system as a black box, often without much understanding of the basic biological principles governing the system's behavior.

"The discovery, analysis, and solution of critical issues in biological transport requires a new generation of truly interdisciplinary researchers who are educated in both engineering and biology, who merge these perspectives, and who can communicate effectively with fellow researchers, policy makers, and the public," Stremler added.

The MultiSTEPS team of 20 faculty comes from nine different academic departments in the three participating Virginia Tech colleges and from the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. The leadership team consists of Stremler and Shane Ross from ESM, Rafael Davalos from the Virginia Tech Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, Jeff Kuhn of biological sciences, and Pavlos Vlachos of mechanical engineering. Development of key educational components was guided by Deb Olsen, a retired faculty member in educational psychology who has previous IGERT experience as a core member of Virginia Tech's Exploring Interfaces through Graduate Education and Research (EIGER) program. The MultiSTEPS program further advances the efforts by Karen DePauw, dean of the graduate school, to strengthen interdisciplinary graduate education at Virginia Tech.

"It is significant to note that Virginia Tech has now received NSF funding for five IGERT projects. Of the nearly 250 projects funded by NSF (since 1998), only a selected number of universities have more than five IGERTs including University of Washington, Cornell University, Rutgers University, and University of Michigan. I look forward to working with Mark Stremler and the MultiSTEPS team," DePauw said.

"Our goal is to start these trainees on their career paths with the knowledge and experience necessary to tackle a myriad of complex problems that require a clear understanding of both engineering and biology," said Stremler. "This broad training program will prepare them to make groundbreaking discoveries in fields ranging from human health to sustainable agricultural and environmental practices."


Contact: Lynn Nystrom
Virginia Tech

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