Virginia Tech receives highly competitive IGERT grant

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 25, 2005 – The mass and energy transfer that takes place at natural interfaces determines virtually every aspect of life. A Virginia Tech team of scientists and engineers has received a prestigious Integrated Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) award in the amount of $3.1 million to study these phenomena.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing the funding for “Exploring Interfaces through Graduate Education and Research.” Known as EIGER, Virginia Tech’s project will explore naturally occurring interfaces among minerals, water, air, and microorganisms. In a unique twist, EIGER also will explore the complex human interfaces among people who make up the interdisciplinary teams that will investigate these interfacial phenomena.

Virginia Tech is now in a highly select group of only five universities in the U.S. with four active IGERT awards. The other universities include: UCLA, UCSB, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington. Virginia Tech was among an elite group of 23 new IGERT grants awarded in this funding round out of 550 proposals submitted.

A central feature of EIGER is that it is led by an integrated team of principal investigators at Virginia Tech consisting of: George Filz (civil and environmental engineering (CEE)), Roseanne Foti (psychology), Mike Hochella (geosciences), John Little (CEE), and Brenda Winkel (biology). These five faculty, together with Deb Olsen (Institutional Research), Jim Mitchell (CEE), and Beate Schmittmann (physics) developed the successful proposal to NSF.

“It is a rare privilege and great honor to team up with some of the most talented faculty on campus to work in a research field that means so much to science and engineering in general and the sustainability of Earth in particular,” said Hochella, the director of EIGER.

In all, EIGER will involve 20 faculty across 10 departments and four colleges. EIGER will support approximately 27 Ph.D. students during the next five years using the $3.1 million grant from NSF and additional cost sharing from participating departments and colleges.

EIGER includes 11 remote laboratory locations on five continents, and EIGER fellows, in teams of two, will engage in research at these international sites in a novel program called "paired internships."

“Gaining an interdisciplinary understanding of these complex processes will only be possible if we are able to transfer knowledge across the interfaces between humans and between disciplines. EIGER is unique because we will study these physical and psychological processes simultaneously,” said Little, the International Internship Coordinator.

EIGER will educate the "whole student" in a complex field vital to the leading environmental issues of the day. It is envisioned that this educational model will help drive an institutional transformation at Virginia Tech and beyond.

“As part of EIGER, we will develop a new graduate-level course that will actually teach students how to do interdisciplinary research in science and engineering. We will be offering this course to Virginia Tech’s EIGER Fellows and other doctoral candidates. These graduate students are among the very best in the country, and it’s an exciting prospect to work with them in the classroom and on research,” said Filz, the Curriculum Coordinator.

IGERT is an NSF-wide program intended to meet the challenges of educating U.S. Ph.D. scientists and engineers with the interdisciplinary background, deep knowledge in a chosen discipline, and the technical, professional, and personal skills needed for the career demands of the future. The program is intended to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.