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SUMMER 2002 ISSUE

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Originally published in the Summer 2002 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

Material appearing in the Virginia Tech Research Magazine may be reprinted provided the endorsement of a commercial product is not stated or implied. Please credit the researchers involved and Virginia Tech.

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Research flows like a river

By Leonard K. Peters
Vice President for Research (2002)

artwork: skeleton with his fist raised

Skelton with his fist in the air: a student artist's depiction of the body's response to disease.

About the cover art and other art in this issue: Students from Virginia Tech's art department who were enrolled in Advanced Visual Communications for spring semester 2002 were given a special assignment; they were asked to do an editorial illustration for the article on infectious disease research. Professors Robert Fields, Meg Nugent, and Chris Bailey worked with them to develop the finished pieces.
   When the assignment was first made, we didn’t know what to expect. How would they reflect the public’s apprehension in the wake of October’s anthrax incidents?
   The students’ responses ran the gamut from fearful to flag-wrapped and in-your-face. We found that we favored those with confidence bordering on attitude. We selected those that depicted an aggressive response, such as Shaun Webster’s cover illustration — a weaponized fantasy germ under fire.
   There wasn’t room for all the illustrations we liked. So, in addition to the cover and the art that accompanied the article, we’ve included Jennifer Trotter’s fist-in-the-air depiction for this page. She says she was thinking of the human body’s response and the medical researcher’s response to disease as she created the illustration.

On their way to oceans and lakes, streams — like university research — support communities, anglers, and many other life forms; recycle nutrients; enrich the land; remove pollution; and sometimes become diverted or dry up.

A concept often used in discussing research process and productivity is that of a pipeline. Research is said to be in the pipeline.

A project can enter the pipeline at several stages in the range from basic to applied research — as a theory or question to be explored, as a discovery to be unfolded or developed, or as a product to be tested or improved.

With the pipeline analogy, one imagines valves and faucets. Open a valve called “funds” or some other form of resources, and the research moves toward the faucet, where results will pour out to refresh economic development, national security, health, all depending on what was in the pipeline.

Perhaps a more accurate analogy is a stream.

Ideas and projects can flow in, like surface runoff after a heavy rain, along the length of the stream. Ideas also filter in like water through marshes and groundwater from far-reaching watersheds. Lively creeks can feed the stream in a steady and reliable manner. Occasionally, a dam opens its gates and a rush of water pours down, sometimes enriching and sometimes diluting the activity of the stream. Or there is a spill ... Well, we can work this analogy in many ways.

The point is, the university research process is an ecosystem, not a conduit. A few years ago, a team of researchers that included Virginia Tech’s stream team in biology, published an article in Science that reported on how small streams impact water quality, by removing nitrogen, for instance. The article and other publications from the same project talked about how shaded streams and sun-lit streams marshal different resources to support a variety of life.

On their way to oceans and lakes, streams — like university research — support communities, anglers, and many other life forms; recycle nutrients; enrich the land; remove pollution; and sometimes become diverted or dry up.

The research process is important. Many people learn in the process. New directions and possibilities are discovered by researchers who are as alert to the process as they are to a desired outcome.

That is why this magazine tells you about research that is in process. There have been some discoveries, such as a John Donne work or a way to grow ginseng in the wild; and some creations, such as software to study earthquakes or a piano composition that wrenches the heart with historical and modern allusions. But the research is ongoing, as is the study of small aircraft for transportation and smaller aircraft to scout fields for disease.

And while we may row gently down the stream — lest we miss its wonder and riches, or miss an exciting fork — life is not a dream. Thus we do research to combat infectious diseases that are a natural part of life and to combat use of disease as a weapon.