Tech Harnesses Data Revolution for
January 7, 2020
great scientific collaborations have existed
throughout history: Katherine Johnson,
Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson did the
mathematical calculations and equations that
launched satellites into space; Rosalind
Franklin and Maurice Wilkins took the first
high-resolution photographs of DNA using
X-ray crystallography; and Swami Vivekananda
and Nikola Tesla made great strides in the
understanding of cosmology and physics, to
name a few.
With a $1.2 million grant from the National
Science Foundation (NSF), David Schmale, a
professor in the School of Plant and
Environmental Sciences in the College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Shane
Ross, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton
Department of Aerospace and Ocean
Engineering in the College of Engineering,
aim to provide the tools for the next
generation of scientists that will tackle
big data sciences challenges. Both Schmale
and Ross are affiliated faculty members of
the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at
Schmale (bottom, center) and Shane Ross
(top, right) led a mini field campaign with
visiting undergraduate students last spring.
Peter Means for Virginia Tech.
Schmale and Ross plan to launch an NSF
Harnessing the Data Revolution: Data Science
Corps (HDR DSC) program at Virginia Tech,
which offers opportunities to underserved
biology and engineering undergraduate
students — students who are able to bring
their own perspectives to the field of data
This three-year program will include
undergraduate engineering and biology
students from Virginia Tech and partnering
colleges, such as Morehouse College, an
all-male historically Black college and
university (HBCU) in Georgia; Morgan State
University, an HBCU in Maryland; Bennett
College, an all-female HBCU in North
Carolina; and Hampden-Sydney College, an
all-male college in Virginia.
Recently, Virginia Tech has invested more
time and energy into increasing experiential
learning and diversity on and off campus.
This program is bound to be a crucial next
“A lot of the technology and resources that
we have here at Virginia Tech are just not
available at other institutions," Schmale
said. "We can leverage our resources to
provide unique opportunities for underserved
students. I had such a rich experience as an
undergraduate at the University of
California, Davis. Now, it’s time to pay it
forward with this new undergraduate data
sciences program that will provide unique
research opportunities for undergrads from
In the fall of 2020, Schmale and Ross will
co-teach a capstone course titled Data and
Decisions at the Engineering/Biology
Interface on the Virginia Tech campus.
Students from partnering colleges will take
the class online, where they can learn and
interact in real time.
Students will engage with the Computational
Modeling and Data Analytics Program, and
will be integrated into the Data and
Decisions Destination Area, an area of focus
that touches all of the units, colleges, and
departments at Virginia Tech.
Students will work in multi-university teams
toward addressing a pressing need,
identified from participating stakeholders,
with each team embodying an array of
scientific and engineering expertise. Once a
problem has been identified and laid out,
student teams will submit their ideas and
some will be selected for a data collection
field campaign the following summer, based
out of Virginia Tech.
However, this will not be Schmale and Ross’s
first data science-driven field campaign.
Last March, they hosted a mini field
campaign at Virginia Tech that brought six
undergraduate students from Morehouse,
Bennett, and Hampden-Sydney to dive deeper
into data and decisions research.
With this being the first time that Morgan
State University has collaborated on this
project, Birol Ozturk, an assistant
professor in the Department of Physics, is
excited to see how his students will benefit
from this new experience.
"We are very excited to participate in this
new project at Virginia Tech. I have
previously worked on a similar project,
where we were able to offer courses at
Morgan State University for the first time
in collaboration with other universities and
we wouldn't be able to offer them otherwise.
I look forward to contributing to the
project with my previous experience," said
For the new HDR DSC Program, 10 Virginia
Tech students and five students from each
partnering college will be selected annually
to help stakeholders answer big questions.
The stakeholders represent a variety of
research areas, including agriculture,
conservation, search and rescue, water
quality, transportation, and global health.
Students can select the research area they
want to pursue. With their freedom to
choose, students can explore new research
areas or, alternatively, they can expand
upon previous ones.
And, depending on the outcome of these
studies, Schmale says that students have the
potential to pave their own way to success.
“Through our new program, students are
expected to become the next generation of
data scientists. They will learn to work in
interdisciplinary teams to solve real-world
problems in response to stakeholder needs,”
said Schmale. “Their research experiences in
our program should link them to career
opportunities within those respective
Keri Swaby, the director for undergraduate
research in the Office of Undergraduate
Research, said that this program can give
students quite an advantage as they think
about the future of their research journeys.
“Virginia Tech’s Office of Undergraduate
Research is excited to partner with this
program to offer students joint professional
and social programming as a way to build
community and increase diversity in
research. Like other programs, this one will
offer students a unique opportunity to
experience what it would be like to be a
graduate student at Virginia Tech and could
give them an advantage in the application
process since they will have already
established a relationship with a faculty
member,” said Swaby.
Schmale and Ross also hope that the program
will help to pipeline undergraduate students
to join the BIOTRANS Program, an
interdisciplinary graduate program at
Virginia Tech that uses collaboration for
solving problems at the intersection of
engineering and biological sciences.
“This project incorporates both biology and
engineering students, who have some idea
about design and the details of modeling,
and brings those two groups together and
learning from each other. It’s very much in
the spirit of BIOTRANS,” said Ross.
Michael Wolyniak, an associate professor of
biology at Hampden-Sydney College, will also
take part in this program, and he is elated
to have his students work with other
institutions that have world-renowned
biology and engineering research programs.
“I have worked with Dr. Schmale before on
developing coursework related to bioethics
and considering issues in biology and
engineering research for a general audience.
This project gives us the opportunity to
work with an institution that is at the
forefront of research on the interface of
biology and engineering and to expose our
students to resources and opportunities to
which they would not ordinarily have access.
I am excited to have our students
collaborate with students from other
institutions to solve biological and
engineering problems directly relevant to
society,” said Wolyniak.
assembly of such unique and talented
undergraduates from different backgrounds
and perspectives will undoubtedly blaze a
trail in the field of data science, as
previously unexplored questions will lead to
answers that haven’t been solved before.
“I imagine that the things that these
students discover will lead to new questions
and, maybe, new funded spin-off projects. We
have seen that happen before with
undergraduate research leading to new
research areas,” said Ross.
Schmale and Ross acknowledge the National
Science Foundation (Award Number 1922516);
the Fralin Life Sciences Institute; BIOTRANS;
the Institute for Critical Technology and
Applied Science; the Institute for Society,
Culture, and Environment; and the Data and
Decisions Destination Area for their
financial support for current and previous