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Spotlight: Q&A with Christopher Dunavant, Senior Software Engineer for Electronic Research Administration

Outside of work, Chis Dunavant (right) has performed in the band Happy Hollow Stringband over the last 10 years.
Outside of work, Chis Dunavant (right) has performed in the band Happy Hollow Stringband over the last 10 years.

Chris Dunavant, a Senior Software Engineer in Electronic Research Administration, has made invaluable contributions to the Office of Research and Innovation that include designing, implementing, and maintaining various web-based software tools. As a result of hard work and steadfast dedication, Dunavant was nominated for the President's Award for Excellence for the 2019-20 academic year.

How does your background contribute to where you are right now in your career?

I received my initial training in computer science and programming from a nearby community college in West Virginia. I used the knowledge obtained there to build software applications for VTLS Inc., a local Blacksburg library automation company. During my time in the library automation field I was able to work closely with university libraries and their staff from all over the world to develop information storage, retrieval, cataloging and digitization solutions. As a result of the diverse positions I held at VTLS Inc., I was able to broaden my experience in all aspects of software development, from gathering design specifications, coding, and testing to release.

With the skills I learned at VTLS, I was able to branch out on my own as an independent software developer. During the two years as an independent software developer, before being hired at Virginia Tech, I honed the skills that have served me well in my work with the Office of Research and Innovation. I was able to obtain an in-depth grasp of what is required to take an idea from its earliest conception to it’s realization in a web-based application. I discovered that it required a constant feedback loop —  from idea to tangible usable software — and back again to a reevaluation of the original idea. In real-world software development, constant and quick iteration is the key to success. If you can minimize and streamline the communication channel between stakeholders and the developer, and by extension the time it takes from idea to that idea’s realization in code, most of the battle has been won.

Finally, while working at Virginia Tech I was able to take advantage of the tuition assistance employee benefit. This benefit allowed me to complete the Virginia Tech Master of Information Technology graduate certificate, which was specifically designed for working professionals. The new knowledge and techniques learned in that program strengthened my existing knowledge base regarding the software development process.

What support do you provide for the research community?

My role as a Senior Software Developer is to work closely with employees and leadership in the Office of Research and Innovation to develop software applications that support the mission of bolstering the research enterprise at Virginia Tech. Over the past 13 years I have had the opportunity to develop numerous web-based applications in partnership with many dedicated employees in the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance, and Research Information Technology. It is my job to take innovative ideas and business processes developed by these individuals and their stakeholders and realize them in web-based software applications.  

My software development work falls broadly into three main areas of responsibility within the Office of Research and Innovation.

The first area is the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP). Together with OSP staff and leadership, we have been able to develop applications that support award setup and modification, cost share management, subcontract setup and modification, and limited submission management.  

The second area is the Division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance. I have worked with each of the administrators in all of the division units to develop web-based submission and management systems for each of their programs.

My final area of responsibility is the development of miscellaneous tools for the Office of Research and Innovation. As a member of the Office of Research IT team I was well placed to provide web-based support tools for staff. These tools included the ability to request, approve, and track staff training opportunities; a large file sharing tool designed specifically for the office to easily share large documents among themselves and non-Virginia Tech sponsors, and a role management tool that helps OSP maintain the proper department-level access to OSP applications.

Tell us about some of the most recent tools you have developed for researchers.

Along with the Post-Award lead administrators, lead by Phaedra Lewis, in the Office of Sponsored Programs, we have recently developed an Award Management system.  This new system has taken the Post-Award management process from a paper-based, mostly individualized process and converted many aspects of it into a web-based, standardized process. From the beginning we knew the system needed to be designed — to not only support the award management process within OSP —  but, allow department managers and fiscal technicians, as well as primary investigators and their co-investigators the ability to have a complete picture of all of their awards and compliance requirements. Over the past two years we have completed functionality for all three groups, with the investigator functionality set to be released fully to the university community this month. Our goal is to continue to improve this application providing all stakeholders in the award management process with timely and accurate information regarding their responsibilities to the university and sponsor. To learn more about the system, please visit: https://secure.research.vt.edu/post.

I would also like to mention the Institutional Biosafety Committee Protocol Management system. In conjunction with Regina Allen, the Institutional Biosafety Committee Program Director, we were able to convert a PDF and email based protocol submission and management process to a fully web-based system that allows this critical university oversight to be performed more efficiently. It was personally satisfying to complete this system as it was the final “protocol management” system to be developed, following on from the development of the Institutional Review Board Protocol Management and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Protocol Management systems.

Finally, I would like to highlight the recent additions and changes to the Disclosure and Management system. User’s of this system will have noticed a more streamlined outside activity disclosure submission and approval process. This new streamlined approach was spearheaded by Cristen Jandreau, the Research Conflict of Interest Program Director. A new research disclosure module has also been developed with a financial interest in a business module coming soon. Together these modules support university-wide disclosure submission.

Has COVID-19 impacted the way that you serve the research community, and if so, how?

My day-to-day work hasn’t been significantly impacted by the new realities under COVID-19. A large part of software development work already involves self-imposed quarantine to complete many aspects of the job. However, it has been a busy time updating existing systems to facilitate COVID-19 related processes. The Institutional Review Board Protocol Management system was updated to allow researchers to submit Resumption of Human Subjects Research plans to the Human Research Protection Program. The Institutional Biosafety Committee Protocol Management system was updated to help facilitate the management of weekly COVID-19 meetings. There have also been other minor changes to existing systems driven by COVID-19. Overall, it has also been satisfying to see the work we’ve done moving many processes online allow much of the staff in the Office of Sponsored Programs and the Division of Scholarly Integrity and Compliance to more easily and efficiently, work remotely.  

What inspires you?

I am inspired by the professionals that I work with on a daily basis in the Office of Research and Innovation. They have a drive to simplify and improve processes surrounding the myriad regulatory rules, sponsor requirements, safety protocols, and training frameworks involved in the research enterprise. I feel fortunate to have the unique opportunity to work directly with the stakeholders who benefit from the software I develop. There is an immense satisfaction in seeing the outcome of my work reduce repetitive tasks, increase visibility of information, and turn reactive business processes into proactive opportunities for growth. I truly believe the idea of software automation in this area is not to eliminate work per se, but to elevate work, allowing administrators to focus on customer support needs of the research community at Virginia Tech.

In general, I am also inspired by the overall mission of research. I know that my work is only a small, behind-the-scenes piece of the framework of scientific and social research going on at Virginia Tech. I’m convinced that the outcome of research (and education) is a leading driver of improvement in our lives.

When do you think you are at your best, professionally?

I am at my best when I’m working with a program director or small group of staff developing a software solution. I enjoy listening to their concerns, ideas and experiences and converting that into web-based applications. I am motivated by the iterative give-and-take of the design process and being committed to simplifying complexities whenever possible.   

In what ways does Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community guide you?

I consider every clause in Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community to be a touchstone for the work of a software developer. As a software developer, I never lose sight of the fact that software is there to serve people and not the other way around. Despite the abstractness of coding and software development, software applications are at their best when the designers and developers are true to the values of the stakeholders they serve. The Principles of Community state, “We affirm the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely. We encourage open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect.” This sentiment should be in the forefront of every person’s mind involved in a software project.  A climate of openness in the software development process is essential to a quality software product.

To nominate a professional from the Office of Research and Innovation, please fill out this brief survey.