The University of Virginia School of Engineering’s focus on bold research to benefit society resulted in another record-breaking year, despite disruptions caused by COVID-19: Sponsored research funding reached $83 million in FY2020, continuing a five-year climb.
"We have not wavered from our strategy to focus on areas where we can bring unique expertise and multidisciplinary strength to bear on complex challenges."
UVA Engineering Dean Craig H. Benson, Ph.D., P.E., NAE
“I could not be more impressed by our highly productive faculty, along with our staff and graduate students who support UVA Engineering’s research program,” UVA Engineering Dean Craig H. Benson said. “We pivoted when the pandemic struck and ramped back up quickly while following safety guidelines. We rallied in service to our community, developing much-needed personal protective equipment, modeling the virus’ spread and supporting virus testing. We remain dedicated to leading the nation in creating knowledge and technologies that are relevant and valuable to society.
“We have not wavered from our strategy to focus on areas where we can bring unique expertise and multidisciplinary strength to bear on complex challenges.”
In March 2020, when the University took active measures to control the spread of COVID-19, research labs were shuttered until early June as a safety precaution. Even with that interruption, UVA Engineering faculty submitted 762 proposals in FY2020, a 12% increase in proposals over the previous fiscal year. Not only did researchers submit more proposals, they were successful in earning funding, netting 378 awards compared to 335 the previous year.
One example of how UVA Engineering faculty and staff recalibrated their efforts to make research labs fully operational during the pandemic is in the Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility. Realizing that lab reopening protocols would not allow the facility to accommodate new users, lab manager Richard White and Department of Materials Science and Engineering information technology specialist Ig Jakovac worked for weeks to develop training videos and Zoom “drivers’ tests” to remotely train students and other researchers to safely use the facility and its equipment.
UVA Engineering Executive Dean Pamela M. Norris said, “I am proud of the Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility and all of our research teams, which have risen to extraordinary challenges this year. This type of innovation, along with excellent collaboration among our faculty, staff, students and school leadership, has positioned UVA Engineering to be even stronger when we emerge from this pandemic. It is exciting to see the bold ideas that will have a truly positive impact on society.”
Three UVA Engineering faculty members this year also earned highly competitive Young Faculty Awards from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency:
Prasanna Balachandran, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, combines artificial intelligence and quantum mechanics to better target research and development of high entropy alloys that perform well in extreme environments.
Chloe Dedic, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, employs a state-of-the-art laser technique to measure the properties of flame and contribute to research on combustion at hypersonic speeds.
Jon Ihlefeld, associate professor of materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering, is working to develop insulating materials for transistors that must perform reliably in high-temperature environments.
Liheng Cai, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and chemical engineering, is developing adaptive photonic polymers that could be applied to windows and, at the flip of a switch, reflect heat-producing infrared wavelengths while letting in all other visible light waves.
Lu Feng, assistant professor of computer science and engineering systems and environment, is designing rigorous, model-based evaluations of human and cyber-physical system interactions, with the goal of improving systems’ safety and reliability.
Kyusang Lee, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and materials science and engineering, is building the equivalent of a human eye to be used as optical sensors for autonomous vehicles, robotics, manufacturing processes or surveillance systems.
Yuan Tian, assistant professor of computer science, is using machine learning voice testing to analyze interactions between voice-activated devices and third-party applications, aimed at getting better understanding security threats and contributing to advances in the design of a wide variety of internet of things platforms.
"The past eight months have proven that even in the face of global challenges, our strategic approach and determination enable us to achieve our mission to make the world a better place by creating knowledge and educating engineering leaders. Our researchers are passionate about this, and we will continue to pursue opportunities to grow, discover and contribute."
UVA Engineering Associate Dean for Research Susan L.R. Barker, Ph.D.
The school’s remarkable research growth began more than five years ago with Benson’s and Norris’ strategic focus on building a research infrastructure that would support faculty in leading large initiatives, including an emphasis on research development support. Susan Barker leads the school’s research program as associate dean for research, along with Jeffrey Fox, director of research development, and John Ralston, director of corporate relations. UVA Engineering’s pre-award and post-award research administration teams work diligently to support faculty in submitting proposals and administering funded grants.
To help new faculty in building their research programs, Norris and Barker instituted a series of research orientations, workshops and mentoring opportunities, as well as annual research retreats and a library of online research resources. They strengthened ties with the University’s research leadership to provide services and support for faculty.
UVA Engineering also has focused on growing its Ph.D. program, which has resulted in a 66% increase in Ph.D. students since 2014.
Barker said even though the pandemic’s far-reaching impact on research programs and graduate student recruitment at the nation’s universities is not yet understood, UVA Engineering has a strong foundation upon which to rely.
“The past eight months have proven that even in the face of global challenges, our strategic approach and determination enable us to achieve our mission to make the world a better place by creating knowledge and educating engineering leaders,” Barker said. “Our researchers are passionate about this, and we will continue to pursue opportunities to grow, discover and contribute.”