Aly Hoeher, VT SuN Student, Shares her Experience “Bridging the Disciplinary Gap” at an Oakridge Workshop

This past week I attended a workshop at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee that focused on software called RMCProfile (RMC stands for Reverse Monte Carlo). It was a fairly small group of about 50 people, and the knowledge level ranged from the original software developers and coders, to new grad students like me, hoping to learn about an unfamiliar topic and integrate it into our research. I suspect that I was the youngest in terms of education as a first year Ph.D. student, but there were many more grad students further in their programs, postdoctoral students, neutron and x-ray beam scientists, and professors both early and late in their careers.

The participants had a range of backgrounds almost as varied as the experience level. Participants with backgrounds in physics and chemistry were more common, but not exclusive. There were several people with backgrounds in material science engineering, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t a lone geologist in the crowd. It was a small, but diverse group of people that came together to discuss an interdisciplinary technique with a broad variety of applications.

The one thing that we all have in common is an interest in modeling of atomic and chemical structures. RMCProfile is a powerful method used to model scattering patterns that are produced when a neutron beam or x-ray beam interacts with your sample of interest. The goal for many of these experiments is to develop an atomic structural model of your sample. There are many ways to work with these scattering patterns and RMCProfile is one that is still very much being developed and expanded.

Part of the workshop was focused on performing a tutorial and learning the basic use of RMCPofile, as well as some time spent on more advanced integration techniques. A significant amount of the workshop was also dedicated to talks and posters. Different participants from different backgrounds explained their research and how they hope to integrate this software modeling into their analysis.

Right now this software is still at its beginning stages with a lot of room for further development. Indeed a few hours of the workshop were dedicated to discussion of improvements of the software. It will become more user friendly, more versatile, and hopefully it will also become more well known. It can be used for modeling and examining structures of nanoparticles and amorphous materials, mapping displacements, examining spin factors in magnetic materials, electrochemical properties, elemental absorption, and many other questions that involve atomic structures of materials.

The software in itself could almost be called interdisciplinary for the same reason it has an advantage over other modeling software. It can integrate different types of datasets that are collected to measure atomic structures. RMCProfile can combine data from electron diffraction, raman spectroscopy, x-ray absorption spectroscopy, total x-ray scattering, and bragg x-ray diffraction all together to produce a model if one type of data set doesn’t fully answer your question.

It was a refreshing experience to spend three days surrounded by people from a variety of backgrounds that were brought together by a specific goal. I hope that as they continue to build and develop this software, they will continue to introduce aspects that make it valuable for a diverse background of users.

Joyce Zhu, GRAD 5134 Student, Shares her Interdisciplinary Experience as Part of the Flint Water Study

Joyce Zhu at the AEESP conference hosted by Yale, June 2015
Joyce Zhu at the AEESP conference hosted by Yale, June 2015

While the Flint, MI water crisis is an enduring tragedy for all the harmed families with lead poisoned kids and other water-related health problems, the water would still be poisonous without brave individuals with diverse backgrounds stepping up to take action. First and foremost to be recognized are the Flint citizens, who educated themselves and worked together with the Flint Water Study Team, Professor Marc Edwards, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Mr. Miguel del Toral, the brave whistleblower from the EPA, and many other people. The battle that was fought in Flint exemplifies how individuals trained in different disciplines, along with citizen scientists, can effect crucial societal changes. As a member of the Flint Water Study Team, I have been involved in the investigation of high lead in the water since the July 2015. While the science of lead leaching into the water and means to prevent corrosion were already proven, the existence of scientific knowledge and regulations alone were not sufficient for the city to take action to stop poisoning its citizens. Firstly, the importance of those in authority to do their duty was paramount, but to overcome this barrier, communicating science to a diverse, and often skeptical or untrusting, group of stakeholders was critical. In a recent Editorial article in the Nature special issue on interdisciplinary research, it was highlighted that “True interdisciplinary science cannot be rushed, not least because the best course of investigation is rarely clear at the outset.” In an interview with Dr. Edwards, he acknowledged that the release of results demonstrating elevated blood lead levels in kids by Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha was one of the most influential turning points in action finally being taken. The importance of the role of citizen science in the Flint collaboration cannot be understated. In my experience in the city-wide sampling, I learned that when science is explained to the public in a way they can understand and relate to, they can actually do it better than the responsible agencies. As researchers, we might be more comfortable dealing with experimental apparatus and data. But when we consider the broader impact of our work on the society, it is essential that we step out of our disciplinary silos and learn to value and work with all stakeholders in order to benefit our communities, our countries, and the world.

A Nanoparticle Flaps its Wings

You may have heard the saying that “a butterfly flaps its wings and…” insert your absurd unintended, chaotic, massive consequence here (e.g., a hurricane). We may not have much control over butterflies, but we do make choices as industries, governments, and individuals on which products we produce, regulate, and consume. Examples of such products that we initially thought were wonderful advances for humankind include chlorofluorocarbons (refrigerants), tetraethyl lead (makes engines run smooth), and DDT (curbed malaria epidemics). Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of such substances included a hole in the ozone layer, elevated blood lead, and poisoned ecosystems.

What can we learn from these experiences? Now we are in the midst of another industrial Chasing nanoparticles (MS ClipArt)boom: Nanotechnology. It is estimated that thousands of tons of nanomaterials are now being produced each year. Why is there such an interest in nanomaterials? Well, to put it simply- they are “special”. Nanomaterials have unique properties in the size range of 1-100 nanometers that differ from their behavior as larger particles or in dissolved forms. Could these unique properties be a concern to the environment? This is a topic explored by the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VT SuN). The aim is to be proactive, and think ahead in terms of what negative consequences our next engineering feats could lead to and nip them in the bud. For example, nanoparticles can be produced with numerous core materials, coatings, and surface modifications- maybe minor tweaks in design now could save the environment later.

In our article to come out in Water Research (Ma et al. 2014 we sought to determine if commonly produced nanoparticles, made of titanium dioxide, silver, ceria, or iron, might disrupt important water purification processes at wastewater treatment plants when flushed down the drain. We focused in on nitrifying bacteria, which are responsible for removing toxic ammonia, as our canaries in the coal mine. The good news- no observable effects of any of the nanomaterials on nitrifying bacterial activity! However, pyrosequencing of 16S rRNA genes revealed that there were some shifts in the microbial community structure unique to the presence of nanosilver. Future research may explore this further, especially with longer-term dosing, since this study took place in lab-scale simulated wastewater treatment plants over only about 8 weeks. Nonetheless, if there is ultimately good news that nanoparticles can be flushed safely down the drain without environmental impact, well, then that is good news! But, we will not know this for certain unless we test it out- and there are numerous more forms of nanoparticles that need investigating. The earlier we can identify the safest forms of nanoparticles, the better we can guide our “butterflies” in terms of the time and money invested in technological advances and hopefully avoid paying a grave price with unintended environmental consequences.

Reflections on the Future as the new Associate Dean of Interdisciplinary Graduate Education

Credit:  rosipaw No modifications made.
Credit: rosipaw No modifications made.

As is true with most students I have known, I have long struggled to define myself and where I can best contribute something positive to the world while also deriving  a sense of personal satisfaction.  Honestly, I still struggle with the question, “what is your area of expertise?”  Because my B.S. is in Biology- does that make me a biologist?  My Ph.D. is in Environmental Science, but earned from a Civil & Environmental Engineering department and now I am a professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering.  I understand the need for humans to organize, label, and classify information to make sense of the world- I certainly do this all the time myself.  At the same time, I can’t help but relate to the concept of the square peg trying to fit in the round hole.

But then, the world changed- or did it?  Whether it is the world that has changed, or our perception of it, suddenly the need for square pegs seems to have become abundantly clear!  What are some of the major challenges in the world today? Global climate change! Up to 25% obesity rates in the U.S.! New designs for our infrastructure to secure a sustainable future in water and energy! Rapidly moving technological development in nanotechnology, molecular biology, and human medicine!  None of these challenges can be met within the confines of one single academic department, rather, they can only be addressed through an interdisciplinary framework.

I am very fortunate to count myself among the faculty at Virginia Tech, a true pioneer in interdisciplinary education and research.  As the new Associate Dean and Director of Interdisciplinary Graduate Education, have I finally found my calling and come to roost in my own personal square hole? I think so- but in any case, what will be motivating me from this point forward is to help reveal the holes of all dimensions to maximize the talent and satisfaction of our graduate students, while also addressing the world’s greatest needs.