Seriously Interdisciplinary Graduate Education

Friday morning, I attended a really interesting talk and discussion by Matt Wisnioski about his seminar, STS 6614: The Origins of Innovation. The talk was part of a series sponsored by ICAT, the Institute for Creativity, the Arts and Technology at VT. The course was designed for one of our newest IGEPs, Human Centered Design. HCD and the others are really hitting the ground running since being notified of their funding last spring– this course has a healthy enrollment of graduate students from disciplines including science and technology studies, mechanical engineering, computer science, and visual arts (I’m most certainly forgetting some- help me out by commenting more details!) who want to explore what it means to be innovative, past, present and future. Matt showed some great videos his students produced to explain their course readings, and he described how the students’ backgrounds and interests shape the direction of the course. It was a great opportunity to visit ICAT’s studio space and see some aspects of what the HCD IGEP has in store for their students.

Brain eating amoeba and growing challenges in safe drinking water

The death of 4-year old Drake Smith Jr. in St. Bernard Parish, near New Orleans due to brain-eating amoeba has caused ripples in Louisiana and across the nation. For the first time has Naegleria fowleri (brain eating amoeba) been found breeding in treated waters in the US.
It is suspected that Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) is responsible for what happened as it destroyed most  structures and caused the population to steeply plummet (to 8000 from 67000). Several parts of St. Bernard Parish, thus, lie vacant where water just sits stagnant in pipes and chlorine levels go down allowing harmful microorganisms to breed. 
According to Dr. Michael Beach of CDC, N. fowleri is completely destoyed in the gut but is high-risk  if it goes up the nose. Hence, chlorine levels in water systems should remain at acceptable levels to continue to kill pathogens and parasites before it flows out of the tap.
Maintaining disinfectant (like chlorine) levels is a significant challenge for water utilities and addressing this becomes even more critical as cases of microbial/parasitic organisms growing in pipe systems pop up. 
It is important to realize the extent to which the microbial world can impact drinking waters and work on research that addresses challenges like these. N. fowleri isn’t the only parasitic organism that puts tap water at risk; opportunistic pathogens like legionella are also a risk in premise plumbing systems.  We also need to start thinking long term about responses to environmental disasters, like Katrina, striking and how piping infrastructure usage can change with time (either as a consequence of disasters or independently by other factors). 
Facts and news report source: NBC (‘Deadly brain amoeba in tap water may be tied to Katrina’ by Maggle Fox. Available here:

Mark your calendars! An international expert on water and body weight will visit VT!

The Water IGEP group is pleased to announce that Dr. Rebecca Muckelbauer, faculty at the Berlin School of Public Health in Germany, will be presenting on her area of expertise – water consumption and body weight outcomes! A link to her most recent publication on this topic can be found here, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

All are invited to attend Dr. Muckelbauer’s presentation on the Virginia Tech Campus, in Fralin auditorium, on Monday December 9th from 3-4p. We are very excited to have her travel here to speak to our faculty and students!

CDC’s report: Waterborne Disease

This week the CDC released a new report on waterborne disease outbreaks associated with drinking water and other non-recreational water (2009-2010). The report may be accessed at:


Enhancing Communication & Collaboration in Interdisciplinary Research

A great new resource for interdisciplinary research and education was recently published. Enhancing Communication & Collaboration in Interdisciplinary Research (2013, Sage) is edited by Michael O’Rourke, Stephen Crowley, Sanford D. Eigenbrode, and J. D. Wulfhorst. This is the team responsible for developing the Toolbox workshops for interdisciplinary teams to discuss their assumptions and approaches to research. (Drs. O’Rourke and Crowley visited Virginia Tech last fall to offer a Toolbox workshop.) This project also hosted an intellectually stimulating conference in 2010 that started to bring together interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners from a wide variety of fields to learn from each other about studying and improving communication in interdisciplinary collaborations: philosophers, educational researchers, interdisciplinary scientists, information scientists, and health promotion professionals, to name a few. The volume comprises 18 chapters that run the gamut from think pieces through research studies and descriptions of successful interdisciplinary communication interventions. The authors are leaders in the emerging fields of integration sciences and the science of team science as well as researchers and administrators at universities and at government agencies including National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The chapter that I coauthored focuses on the impact on host institutions of 15 years of NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program (IGERT) grants. Over the years, Virginia Tech has been awarded 5 IGERT grants. The chapter uses interviews with deans, IGERT directors, and other faculty members to describe how a focus on enabling graduate students to pursue interdisciplinary research topics actually paves the way for interdisciplinary research to become more accepted across the institution. When IGERT first started in 1998, these multimillion-dollar grants legitimized interdisciplinary research and raised its profile on campus. The faculty directing IGERT programs became advocates and experts for interdisciplinary research on their campuses, sometimes being invited to serve on special advisory boards to the president of the institution. At institutions with multiple IGERTs, the faculty could band together to advocate for changes to policies that would enable graduate students to work across departments and colleges with multiple advisors and stable funding. These improvements to graduate policies were perhaps predictable, but there is also strong evidence that policy and cultural changes extended to the faculty, in terms of new hires in interdisciplinary areas and systems to support pretenure faculty whose scholarship is interdisciplinary.

New course: Biodiversity Conservation

Dr. Paul Angermeier and Dr. Amy Vilamagna will be offering a new course in the upcoming spring semester. The course, Biodiversity Conservation and Environmental Sustainability: Interfacing Ecological and Social Sciences, will examinee the history, theories, current status, and future prospects, given ongoing global changes, of biodiversity conservation as a societal enterprise.

The course will emphasize the study, practice, and scientific and socioeconomic contexts of conservation, especially as it relates to emerging goals for sustainability. It will synthesize ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural perspectives as it explores cross-institutional and cross-disciplinary approaches to conservation. Students will be encouraged to consider how they might engage science, policy, and other professionals in achieving conservation goals.

Read the complete course description here (PDF).