The Institute for Society, Culture and Environment provides monetary and technical assistance to faculty research endeavors. We are proud of our past awardees and how our assistance has contributed to their research agendas and discoveries. 

Cultivating Research Practices and Collaborations

Often, a successful application for external funding has a watershed effect on future research endeavors and funding. Such is the case for Thomas Ewing, Professor of History and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. An award by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and matching funds provided by ISCE and other university programs was the start of the flood. ISCE funds helped support a GRA for two years for the project Epidemiology of Information, which examined American and Canadian newspaper reports about the Spanish Flu in 1919.

“That was the first project we had that connected the humanities and the sciences,” said Ewing of the project that included a team of faculty and students from English, computer science, the library, history, and a Canadian expert.

While the project resulted in a website that is now dormant, the main product was the algorithm that the computer science team created to mine for the data. The project also resulted in a public forum, published articles, and features in newsletters and media pieces. Most importantly, though, it positioned the researchers to win more grants.

“There were five subsequent NEH grants that I trace back to that first one,” confirms Ewing. “The process of the research and the connections that were made not only made the three grants I’ve received possible, but also two others.”

Ewing later received a second grant from the NEH to host a summer seminar on the Spanish Flu, deepening the connections he had made during that first grant. The team took K-12 teachers to Washington, DC and conducted research there, which included similar methods as Epidemiology of Information. Another NEH grant that made use of the algorithm originally developed for a different subject soon followed.

Ewing’s projects have had direct impact on Virginia Tech students. After the grant, Ewing taught both a seminar in history on the Spanish Flu and an undergraduate course on epidemics in world history. From the first GRAs funded by ISCE and others, now Ewing’s projects also include undergraduates. Both graduate and undergraduate students have had the opportunity to work on federally-funded projects that allow them to dig deeply into the data.

ISCE’s focus on interdisciplinary team-building and collaboration by integrating the human element into technology-based research is evident throughout this five grant portfolio.

For more about Professor Ewing, go to:



Risk Decision-Making and Substance Use in Adolescents

Jungmeen Kim-Spoon, an associate professor of psychology, is conducting the first-ever large-scale longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents designed to determine youth’s risk for substance use and risky health behaviors through annual brain scans and a battery of cognitive ability and personality tests.

Kim-Spoon’s current research has its foundation in the ISCE Summer Scholars program. In 2012, she and her research team received funding to study 24 late adolescents.

“This funding was so important,” Kim-Spoon remarked. “When you consider 1-2 hours in the MRI machine and all the tests, it was not a small project just a small sample size.”

That summer, the 24 study participants performed several cognitive tests, and even did gambling tasks inside the MRI machine to see which brain regions activated when a person took or avoided a risk. Personality factors, such as impulsiveness, self-regulation, and substance use, risky health behaviors, and risky sex behaviors, were also measured.

“We found that it’s important to measure their cognitive control ability, especially when they have a high sensation-seeking or reward-seeking propensity,” explains Kim-Spoon. Those personalities are likely to take risks and enjoy thrilling experiences. This in turn can help predict drinking, smoking, and other risky health behaviors.

With that pilot data in-hand, Kim-Spoon and Co-PI Brooks King-Casas, assistant professor of psychology in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, applied for an NIH grant that fall, and received funding the following year.

“I’m so grateful for the ISCE grant that provided the groundwork for our proposal,” says Kim-Spoon. “Otherwise I don’t think it would have been possible to be funded. Empirical evidence showing that we could do the work and some preliminary data showing that the results were promising made a stronger proposal.”

This five year multi-million dollar NIH grant is currently in year two. The investigators are following young adolescents through their development. “13 is the national average when adolescents start drinking. With four time points, we can see how their brain develops from 13 or 14 years of age to 16 or 17 and how their substance use behaviors change. We are examining how their brain changes and their personality developments. By focusing on sensation-seeking, impulsiveness, cognitive ability, and emotion-regulation skills, we will be able to explore who successfully adjusts versus youth who start using alcohol early, start using alcohol a lot, and who become addicted,” explains Kim-Spoon.

This first of its kind data will provide valuable insights about which adolescents are more vulnerable to alcohol use and the kind of factors health professionals should look for. Ultimately, the hope is that the study findings can be used to inform the development of preventions and interventions for the highest risk youth.

Global Education and Cultivating Creativity

Educational trends are shifting in the United States and internationally. A focus on teaching to the test has limited curriculums, minimized creativity, and even changed the very culture of countries. Carol Mullen, a professor in the School of Education specializing in education policy and learning innovations, has grown concerned with what she describes as “a culture of risk-averse test-taking that has gripped the globe.”

Mullen is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and an ISCE-GII research support grant. She traveled to China in summer 2015 to study “the significant disconnect between creativity and accountability in education.” While in China, Mullen was able to see for herself the dichotomy of creativity and strict STEM-centric curriculums. She collected data during site visits to various schools (rural elementary, special education school, kindergarten school, Montessori K-12 school, and high school), in addition to universities. In China she lectured at seven universities and research institutes, and she also taught two courses (undergraduate education at Southwest University in Chongqing and in graduate education at Virginia Tech), and designed a third course for online delivery.

The ISCE-GII grant allowed Mullen to hire a Chinese-speaking Virginia Tech PhD candidate to travel with her for one month as a translator, which was a critical supplement to her Fulbright-funded endeavors. “I could not have done this trip without the vital support of ISCE,” she says.

In China, Mullen was able to see how they are reforming their educational systems to foster creativity. After years of rigorous and restrictive educational policy, China unfortunately saw the ill effects of such standards: high suicide rates, children with extreme test anxiety, and an economy that is more about big business than creative endeavor. The reform is a top-down decision from the government, which is coming to see creativity as a means of fostering economic opportunity and development.

Ironically, the U.S. has been inspired by China’s high rankings in international educational scales and has adjusted its policies to be more test-oriented.

Both countries are struggling to find a happy-medium: an educational system that is competitive and provides children with 21st century skills, but also has a curriculum that lets children exercise creativity in practice, play, and decisions.

Mullen’s research has the ability to positively impact education on a national and international scale: her focus in educational leadership equips policy makers, stakeholders, principals, teachers, and other leaders to have a larger impact on their schools. As she says, “Change that sticks often comes from the top. Children need adults who honor and provide a platform for creativity.”

Mullen’s research is already expanding. Her book proposal has been approved; she has presented at national conferences and created interdisciplinary ties to research collaborators. Her goal is “to further develop my capacity as an international scholar specializing in global education.” 

Shaping the Engineers of 2020

Aligning student preparedness with workplace demands is a common goal amongst universities and colleges; however, engineering industries repeatedly report that that their recently graduated new hires do not possess many attributes necessary for their jobs.

Denise Simmons hopes to change that. Simmons came across this pervasive problem while completing her doctoral work in civil engineering at Clemson University—she read The Engineer of 2020, a book detailing the concepts of competencies that engineers would need by the year 2020, and it captured her imagination. Now she is focusing her research efforts on preparing engineering students for their future careers. 

Simmons is the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award and drew inspiration for her current project from the NSF’s interest in competencies across engineering. One day she was having an informal conversation with Dr. Nicholas Clegorne, the Director of the Residential Learning Community, about leadership.

“I had heard industry individuals talk for over twenty years about how students were lacking in leadership,” remarked Simmons. “He [Clegorne] thought that it was interesting and together we thought, ‘Let’s form some formal research questions—let’s find why these deficiencies still exist.’”

The Institute of Society, Culture and Environment provided direct seed money to Simmons and Clegorne to look at the problem at its most basic level: how engineering leadership is defined.

“Our hypothesis is that this is where the disconnect will be. The school and industry will define leadership differently, or industry will want X, Y, and Z and the school will only include X. There are missing nuances.”

Simmons and Clegorne preformed an extensive literature review and developed a meta-synthesis of that data. They plan to submit it as a manuscript and have it serve as support for a September NSF application.

The team is looking to build the project out beyond their initial research questions to form a multi-phase interdisciplinary research project to explore engineering leadership competencies. Simmons also has plans for future collaborations to focus on the other competencies of that The Engineer of 2020 promotes, particularly communication.

“Ultimately, what I think the result is, is better prepared students. The common theme of my research is preparing 21st century STEM workforces.”

Antineutrino Research to Provide International Assurance 

Scientists and defense personnel have long struggled with nuclear proliferation monitoring in hostile countries. Of particular concern is the heavy water reactor I-40, located in Arak, Iran. Patrick Huber, of the physics department, along with Thomas Shea and graduate students Eric Christensen and Patrick Jaffke, has shown that antineutrino reactor monitoring is feasible and provides otherwise unavailable capabilities.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles created by the decay of radioactive materials, nuclear reactions, or when cosmic rays hit atoms. Antineutrinos are similar to neutrinos, yet they spin in a different direction. Nuclear reactors produce such a quantity or neutrinos and antineutrinos, neither of which cannot be disguised, that measuring neutrino production could help defense agencies monitor reactors to which they have little, irregular, or no access to.

“Nuclear weapons had and continue to have a profound impact on the relation of nations. Nuclear non-proliferation, especially after 9/11, has become a focus of US foreign policy both under Republican and Democrat administrations and continues to drive decisions,” said Huber. “Having better technical tools ultimately provides more elbow room for diplomacy. In the particular case of Iran, our method would provide the international community with a high-level assurance that nothing is amiss, in a timely fashion. And it would provide Iran with a means to demonstrate its peaceful intentions with respect to the reactor at Arak.”

Huber and his team’s most current work was recently published in the prestigious physics journal Physical Review Letters and named “Editor’s Suggestion.” But before all the research, writing, and editing could take place, the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment assisted Huber.

“To pursue this interdisciplinary, high-risk project, I needed time,” said Huber. “The seed grant from ISCE most importantly allowed me to buy out of teaching to create time for this research project. [It] also provided resources to travel and interview experts and witnesses... we performed detailed analysis based on reactor simulations and advanced modeling techniques.”

Those modeling techniques have led the research team to definitely prove that antineutrino monitoring can be done.

“I believe that this work and the attention it got stimulated a lot of thought of how to actually build suitable detectors. It also highlights the strong but often hidden relation between basic science and national security.”

With such interest and need in the current scientific and political landscape, Huber believes this project will focus research and defense activities towards a practical system of reactor monitoring. Currently Huber is part of a collaboration called PROSPECT which seeks to address the problem of how to actually build those detectors.

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Why Social Science?

Bill Riley, Director of NIH's Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research writes about the importance of research into the social determinants of health and illness.


Faculty Spotlight

Thomas Ewing's research on the Spanish Flu.