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Originally published in the Summer 2002 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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•  Whistleblowers’ concern about retaliation justified

•  Developing a method to predict rock failure

•  Smarter, more robust unmanned vehicles

•  Modeling large molecules could speed synthesis

•  Working more than 20 hours a week hurts students’ math and science studies

•  Student evaluates bioterrorism effect on the farm

•  A new institute for metropolitan development

Whistleblowers’ concern about retaliation justified

Sherron Watkins was justified in her concern that she might suffer retaliation for exposing the accounting scandal at Enron, according to Joyce Rothschild, who has conducted the only national study of whistle-blowers from all walks of life.

Rothschild, professor of sociology at Virginia Tech, did an eight-year study, conducting in-depth interviews with 300 whistleblowers and more than 200 surveys of people who observed wrongdoing but remained silent. She found that 69 percent were fired as a result of exposing wrongdoing, even when they only reported this wrongdoing to higher-ups within their own employer’s organization. Of those who left their organization to report misconduct to outside authorities, Rothschild found that more than 80 percent were fired.

Rothschild, who has published five academic articles on her studies, found in many cases that the moment senior management realized that an individual might blow the whistle, “they began a race to discredit the would-be whistleblower before the whistleblower could discredit them.” The whistleblowers seldom emerged unscathed. In 84 percent of her cases, former whistleblowers said they became depressed and could no longer trust the managers of organizations. In 53 percent of the cases, whistleblowers suffered deterioration even in their family relations.

Statistical analysis of the data found that the larger and more systemic the observed misconduct reported by the whistleblower, the more swift and severe the reprisals. Gender, race, age, educational level, and years on the job
did not insulate a whistle-blower from retaliation. So what stirs people to take
these personal risks? Rothschild’s studies found that 79 percent of her whistleblowers were stirred to action by their values. “Sometimes they said that they got their sense of right and wrong from the codes of professional ethics embedded in their various occupations; sometimes they attributed their moral compass to religious upbringing or family teaching; but in nearly all cases, they said they were trying to do ‘the right thing,’” Rothschild says. “Of the remaining ones, 16 percent said that their whistleblowing had been defensive: they were afraid that they would be blamed for the misconduct of others.

“If we want people to come forward and to speak with candor to their superiors, then we will need to shore up legislation that will better protect whistleblowers from the swift and almost certain retaliation they now face. Moreover,” Rothschild says, “given the preponderance of organizations in my study whose first response was to get rid of the whistleblower and to suppress whatever critical information that may have carried, the evidence suggests strongly that organizations of all types have a long way to go in learning how to tolerate and even benefit from the dissenting views of conscientious whistleblowers.”

Rothschild is working on a book tentatively called Whistleblower Disclosures: The Battle to Control Information about Organizational Corruption based on her long-time study.

Developing a method to predict rock failure

Erik Westman, assistant professor of mining and minerals engineering, has won a $375,000, five-year NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award to develop a practical method for predicting failures in rock masses. The ultimate goal is fewer fatalities, lower construction costs, and improved environmental protection in the construction and operation of mines, bridges, tunnels, dams, underground buildings, and waste repositories.

Westman is adapting tomographic imaging — the same technology used in medical CAT scans — so that it can be used by engineers in the field to monitor redistribution of stresses within rock masses. Tomographic imaging “looks inside” a mass by transferring energy in the form of acoustic or seismic waves from one boundary to another. “In the case of rock mechanics,” Westman explains, “the waves are transferred from one side of a rock mass to another or from a borehole to the interior of a mine.”

Tomographic imaging is a nondestructive testing method, similar to those already used on a limited scale by engineers to find stresses and predict failures in large structures, such as airplane bodies. Scientists have done some testing of tomographic imaging on rocks in laboratory settings. Westman plans to advance the technology from the lab to the field. His investigation will be conducted in labs at Virginia Tech and the Pittsburgh Research Lab of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Westman will test his results in coal mines.

“NSF is interested in several applications for this technology, such as monitoring hazardous and nuclear waste repositories, dam and bridge abutments, and tunnels,” Westman says. Tomographic imaging also could be used by mining engineers to detect potential rock bursts, events in which pressure causes rock in underground mines to spontaneously explode. Another potential use is the periodic imaging of fault lines associated with earthquakes, to help geologists predict fault failure.

Smarter, more robust unmanned vehicles

With spinning wheels, moving masses, and $675,000 awarded recently in research grants, Craig Woolsey of Virginia Tech aims to help improve the maneuverability, robustness, and reliability of underwater, air, and space vehicles.

Woolsey, who joined Virginia Tech’s aerospace and ocean engineering faculty in 2001, has received a $375,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program Award and a $300,000 Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award to study the design of advanced controls and control mechanisms for unmanned vehicles.

Suppose the U.S. Air Force’s Predator aerial vehicle, in addition to taking off, flying within a limited range, and snapping photographs as ordered, could sense an anti-aircraft missile coming its way and take evasive action? Or suppose an unmanned submarine could be sent out to sea on its own, without being tethered to a ship, to track the boundaries of El Niño?

Such vehicles would have to use sophisticated control devices and advanced control algorithms — the muscles and brains of any unmanned vehicle — to perform complex maneuvers, Woolsey says. His research will extend new methods of advanced control design to underwater vehicles by incorporating the important effects of lift, drag, and other fluid forces. “Lift — the force that keeps an airplane in the air, for example — is an important consideration for air and ocean vehicles, and even some space vehicles,” he says.

Woolsey and his graduate students are building a spherical underwater vehicle with internal rotors. The vehicle will be tested in a water tank being constructed in Virginia Tech’s Randolph Hall, funded by the Reseach Division ASPIRES program. “As a first step, we’ll program the vehicle and have it perform maneuvers similar to those of an unmanned spacecraft,” Woolsey says. “The next step will be to add a streamlined hull and a propeller and control how the vehicle swims.” Woolsey is also exploring the use of moving masses for underwater vehicle control.

One of the goals of his project is to find ways to perform successful maneuvers with most of the controls inside the vehicle, where they are protected from corrosion and biological fouling and unusual problems like seaweed. The devices and control strategies Woolsey is developing can also be used for spacecraft, where controls have to be protected from intense forces and heat.

Another goal is to design controls that will enable the underwater vehicle to move at a low velocity or even hover without being thrown off-track by disturbances from waves or currents.

Woolsey became interested in the field when he helped analyze foreign missile systems, while working as a cooperative education student with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency while an undergraduate at Georgia Tech.

Modeling large molecules could speed synthesis

Computers, it turns out, can’t handle every problem at the speed of electrons. Ask them to provide a simulation of a complex molecule — more than about 15 atoms — and you could wait years for the outcome of an experiment. Daniel Crawford and his colleagues and students in chemistry are devising new ways to apply models to compute properties of individual molecules to compare with or predict experimental data. Some molecular properties of interest include structure, thermodynamic data, and spectra.

Crawford says, “There are also some molecules you don’t want to create experimentally — particularly ones that are highly toxic or explosive, for example.”

Crawford’s focus is large chiral molecules, such as amino acids, which have an inherent left or right handedness. The properties of each hand can be quite different. One example is the drug thalidomide, banned by the FDA in the 1960s. One hand of thalidomide has a sedative effect and the other damages fetal tissue.

A major area of chemical research today is the analysis of natural products, such as compounds isolated from marine species or plants. To synthesize such molecules, organic chemists must determine which “hand” they have isolated — a time-consuming process. “They often have to test the end product using methods such as circular dichroism (CD) spectroscopy, which shows a different spectrum for left and right handedness,” Crawford says. “Then they can compare the result with the original natural product to see if they have the right configuration.”

Crawford’s proposed research is to compute rapidly the CD spectrum of all possible hands and compare those results to the natural-product spectrum. “If the theoretical spectra are accurate enough, we should be able to identify positively which structure the experimentalists should target in the laboratory.”

However, quantum computation is complicated mathematically and requires vast computer resources, such as memory, speed, and disk space. Crawford is breaking the molecule into pieces and dealing with it a fragment at a time. If these reduced-scaling techniques are successful, he envisions helping to speed up the synthesis of natural products that can be used for such purposes as medicine.

Crawford’s research in theoretical and computational quantum chemistry has earned him a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Working more than 20 hours a week hurts students’ math and science studies

Kusum Singh, a professor in educational leadership and policy studies, questions the belief that part-time jobs benefit high school students. Her research suggests that students who work more than 20 hours per week take fewer math and science courses. Those students also perform more poorly on tests in those subjects than students who work fewer hours.

This unusually large study looked at more than 26,000 sophomores and seniors from about 1,000 high schools nationwide. It examined the impact part-time work had on students’ course-taking and their achievement on math and science standardized tests. Even when socioeconomic status and previous educational achievement were taken into account, jobs still had a “significant negative effect” on course work and achievement in math and science.

“The first 15 hours of work didn’t seem to matter,” says Singh. “But after that, when students are working 20 hours or more, it starts interfering with school performance.”

The number of high school students holding part-time jobs has risen steadily over the past two decades. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations where adolescents commonly both work and attend school. American students’ performance on science and math tests has lagged compared with that of other countries, an often-cited concern for education policymakers.

Some research suggests that when a high percentage of students at a school hold part-time jobs, the school’s teaching and learning atmosphere shifts because teachers begin to lower their expectations for student performance.

Singh’s research was published in the November/December 2000 issue of the Journal of Educational Research..

Student evaluates bioterrorism effect on the farm

Acts of terrorism against the United States have prompted one Virginia Tech student to look indepth at the impact an attack against agriculture would have on a farm, a community, and beyond.

Dairy science senior Amy Iager, whose family owns and operates a dairy farm just north of Washington, D.C., is developing and projecting the effects of a bioterrorism attack against a dairy farm, as well as developing response and prevention plans.

“There is a lot of emphasis placed now on homeland security, but no money is invested on the producer/veterinarian level, which I believe is the first line of defense. Measures should be taken in prevention and response,” Iager says.

“The dairy industry in this area is very important, and the research I am doing is applicable to current concerns,” she says. In addition to doing research for the academic experience, Iager hopes to encourage others to think about the effects bioterrorism could have in agricultural settings and beyond.

Iager is working with dairy science professor Frank Gwazdauskas. Her study corresponds to Gwazdauskas’ interests in natural and manmade disasters and preparedness, such as prevention and response plans.

“This involves the entire crop and meat supply of the country,” Gwazdauskas says. “Impact on the producers and consumers must be considered.”

Iager is investigating the hypothetical scenario of a 250-cow dairy, and exploring the impact that a biological, chemical, or radiological attack could have on the farm, the surrounding community, and beyond. An anthrax model will be considered as the biological attack, overuse of pesticide as a chemical attack, and radioactive emission as radiological attack. Various methods of realizing impact will come from considering the route of infection, cattle losses, spread, and financial loss. Iager plans to develop model biosecurity plans to offer practical solutions to the questions and scenarios presented by the research. This research experience, she feels, will help her understand the practical burdens these attacks could have on finances and public health.

“It is critical to evaluate potential hazards and to prepare responses to such hazards,” says Gwazdauskas. He serves on the emergency response task force at Virginia Tech, which is looking at scenarios on the Blacksburg campus and the surrounding community, and projecting preparation methods for the university’s crops and animals.

A new institute for metropolitan development

By 2010, there will be nearly 500 cities in the world with populations of a million or more, and more than 50 will have populations of 5 million or more. Urbanization on this scale has implications for community quality of life, the environment, and for governance. The new Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech will investigate the dynamics and development issues surrounding large metropolitan areas worldwide, as well as the critical dimension of globalization and its implications for major metropolitan areas. The institute, headed by Robert E. Lang, is located in Alexandria, Va., in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, whose size, growth rate, and socio-economic complexity presents a set of challenges and issues that parallel those of other major cities.

It will assist governments and nonprofit institutions in resolving policy problems through research, technical assistance, and continuing professional education. It will be able to assist communities in the region in developing strategies and capacities to help with metropolitan development. The institute will be working with numerous college and university research centers, including the Alexandria Research Institute, the World Institute for Disaster Risk Management, the Transportation Institute, civil and environmental engineering’s Occoquan Laboratory, and the Virginia Tech Institute for Information Technology. Metropolitan Institute researchers will also collaborate with faculty members from several Virginia Tech graduate academic programs in Northern Virginia.