Virginia Tech home page



Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2005 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.

What do you think of this story? Let us know via e-mail.



•  After the tsunami, Virginia Tech professors train mental health workers

•  Board, audit committee characteristics impact cost of debt

•  New Web tool helps teach programming

•  Canine brain tumors a possible model for human cancers

•  E-business: If you build it, will they come?

•  Conservation project results in discovery of ancient site

After the tsunami, Virginia Tech professors train mental health workers

Families are a resource in times of disaster, but last year's tsunami in Southern Asia shattered thousands of families and tore a hole in the region's mental health network. In the wake of the devastation, two family therapy professors traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia, to educate area mental health workers on psychosocial interventions. Fred Piercy and Margaret Keeling teamed up to teach psychologists and social workers at Atma Jaya University. During an intensive three-day workshop in February, they fashioned culturally sensitive interventions for families and children.

The need for mental health support there is great, noted Irwanto, (who, like many Indonesians, has only one name), director of the Atma Jaya Research Center, which hosted the conference. Of the 60 people from Aceh's non-government organizations who might be expected to provide mental health services, 20 were killed in the tsunami and another 20 are still missing. "We were very anxious to provide community action support" in which children and families were the center of attention, said Irwanto.

In a culture where family is the defining social structure, and after a disaster that left so few families intact, Piercy and Keeling worked on ways to bring communities together and make use of their strengths. They also helped workers identify ways to deal with their own "compassion fatigue," as many had experienced their own trauma.

"Our participants from Aceh discussed the mass destruction and chaos that they experienced," says Piercy. "One participant and her family saved themselves by climbing up in the rafters of their home. Their 8-year-old son is now terrified of water, even of holding a glass of water or taking a shower."

The Virginia Tech duo planned with local experts to develop a sustainable program of support for the future, since peoples' needs will continue to be great in the months ahead. In addition, the training provided a foundation for future collaborations between Virginia Tech, Atma Jaya, and mental health practitioners in the Aceh region and other parts of Indonesia affected by natural disasters. "We are making plans for a more comprehensive program of training and research concerning disaster mental health treatment," says Keeling.

"Dr. Keeling created a closing ceremony that I will never forget," says Piercy. "In it, each of the 30 participants came forward one-by-one and shared a name of someone who inspired them - someone to whom they were dedicating their work. Some mentioned the children of Aceh, the positive spirit of Indonesia, and those who lost their lives. Others mentioned personal mentors or family members for whom they are dedicating their work. As participants came forward, they took a green piece of paper cut in the shape of a hand and glued it to the outside of a map of Indonesia. The resulting Indonesian map, resting in the hands of loving, committed Indonesian professionals, will take a prominent place within the department of psychology at Atma Jaya University."

Piercy, chair of the human development department, has been to Indonesia many times as part of his work on HIV and drug abuse research and prevention projects. Keeling lived in a remote, undeveloped province on Indonesia formerly known as Irian Jaya (now Papua) for nine years. A first-year faculty member, Keeling says, "When I was hired, I was expecting to do international work, I just didn't expect it to do it so soon." Both speak the Indonesian language.

The two professors were sponsored by a variety of university and community organizations, including Atma Jaya University, the Jakarta psychological association (Himpsi), Virginia Tech's Office of Outreach and International Affairs and Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.

— Jean Elliott, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Board, audit committee characteristics impact cost of debt

Creditors view board structure, represented by composition and size, and audit committees as important indicators of the integrity of a company's financial accounting reports — and these perceptions are reflected in the firm's cost of debt financing, a new study by finance Assistant Professor Sattar Mansi shows.

Mansi's co-authored paper, "Board Characteristics, Accounting Report Integrity, and the Cost of Debt," was published in the Journal of Accounting and Economics (Vol. 37, September 2004). The paper examines the relation between a firm's cost of debt financing and the structure of its board of directors and board audit committees - specifically, the proportion of independent (or outside) members and the total number of members. He and his co-researchers tested their theories by analyzing 252 industrial firms from the Lehman Brothers fixed-income database and the S&P 500.

Independent directors, Mansi says, are believed to be superior monitors of management and more likely to provide credible financial reports, so he and his co-researchers investigated whether a firm's cost of debt is inversely linked to the proportion of independent directors. "We find that board independence is associated with a lower cost of debt financing. Our analysis indicates that debt costs are about 17.5 basis points lower for firms with boards dominated by independent directors (51 percent or more independents) compared to firms with insider-stacked boards (25 percent or less independents)."

The researchers discovered a similar negative relation between the cost of debt financing and board size. "We find that each additional board member is associated with about a 10- basis-point lower cost of debt financing."

As for audit committees, Mansi says, these subcommittees of the full board are responsible for overseeing the financial accounting process: recommending the selection of external auditors to the board, ensuring the soundness and quality of internal accounting and control practices, and monitoring external auditor independence from senior management. "As such, we anticipate that the composition of audit committees influences the financial accounting process, and this should have an impact on corporate debt yields."

The researchers found that firms with fully independent audit committees had a lower debt cost than firms with insiders or affiliates on the committee - about 15 basis points lower. Focusing on size, they found that committees ranged from one to 12 members, with most having four to five members, and that each additional member was associated with a 10.6-basis-point lower debt cost.

Says Mansi: "Our results provide market-based evidence that boards of directors and their audit committees are viewed as important elements in the reliability of financial reports."

— Sookhan Ho, Pamplin College of Business

New Web tool helps teach programming

A new learning/teaching tool, the Web-based Center for Automated Testing (Web-CAT), has been created by Stephen H. Edwards, associate professor of computer science. Web-CAT is a virtual center that helps students learn to program. It encourages "refl ection in action" by requiring students to test their own programs. Students must predict the behavior of their programs then Web- CAT provides immediate feedback on student performance with suggestions for improvement.

Students can make unlimited submissions to Web-CAT and check their progress as often as they choose while developing a solution. Web-CAT provides these services to students any time, anywhere at the student's convenience, and requires only a Web browser to use.

Since being introduced in computer science classes in fall 2003,Web-CAT has been used by more than 1,200 students in 50 undergraduate and graduate course sections, processing more than 86,000 program submissions. Assessments indicate that students using Web-CAT write programs with up to 45 percent fewer bugs and are more likely to turn in work on time.

Based on his research, Edwards has had a journal article published and presented several conference papers, a workshop paper, and two tutorials on applying these techniques in the classroom. His work was well received at the 35th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, with faculty members from other universities expressing interest in using Web-CAT. Though not yet ready for full dissemination, one other institution began using the service remotely in 2004, and two more will join this fall. With a grant from IBM, Edwards is integrating Web-CAT with popular course management systems and preparing it for public release.

Edwards' research was the subject of a 2003 fellowship from Virginia Tech's Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning.

- Kathleen Pantaleo, Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning

Canine brain tumors a possible model for human cancers

Biology major Jessica Kross began her days as a cancer research assistant haphazardly. Following a suggestion from biology Associate Professor Jill Sible, Kross investigated research opportunities in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and found a position with Professor John Robertson, who conducts comparative research between cancers in animal species and similar cancers in humans. Kross dedicated two years to studying the development of astrocytic brain tumors in canines.

The goal is to verify that the tumors in dogs can be used to study human brain tumors, said Kross.

Kross used antibodies to stain cells to determine whether brain tumors in dogs express the same proteins as tumors found in humans. The entire process of staining cells can take between five hours and a day and a half. With many minute variables that need to be precise, "it's exciting and entertaining when everything goes right and we get the results we are expecting," says Kross.

She used canines for her research because they are the only species that has naturally occurring brain tumors at the same rate as humans. Thus canines provide a more realistic model because the tumors are naturally occurring, rather than implanted in mice or grown in Petri dishes. The specimens she used were taken from dogs that had died of brain tumors over the last 20 years. "They were people's pets and there was nothing clinically that could be done for them," Robertson said. "People get the same type of aggressive neoplasms and also die from them."

Kross's research results have so far shown that astrocytic brain tumors in dogs express the same proteins as those found in humans.

For those suffering from cancer, this research is essential. The proteins that Kross is hoping to find are being used as targets for specific drugs to help fight this still very mysterious and developing disease. Researchers are hoping to identify which proteins are being under expressed and which are being over expressed so that they can develop better treatments. Such findings would allow doctors to treat patients more effectively without damaging as many normal cells as do such current treatments as chemotherapy and radiation.

"This tumor is almost 100 percent fatal within two years," said Robertson. "The results of Jess's work may move us one step closer to finding out how to arrest and treat these tumors in dogs and people."

Kross plans to attend medical school in the fall. She is interested in family practice, and now also in oncology.

- Jessica Cooper, marketing management student

E-business: If you build it, will they come?

While doing research for her new book, marketing Associate Professor Eloise Coupey was struck by how some companies seemed spellbound by the Internet and its promise of revolutionizing business.

"In many cases, companies were racing into digital territory, blithely ignoring time-tested tenets of solid business practice. Many of those companies failed during the dot-com collapse at the turn of the century," she says.

Coupey, whose textbook, Digital Business: Concepts and Strategies (Prentice Hall, 2004), is designed to be a practical guide to doing business online, says the reasons for failure vary by case, but she has identified some common themes:

— No real need or demand for an Internet-available product. ("Just because you can build a website," she says, "doesn't mean you should.")

— Poor forecasting of demand, resulting in inability to meet it (the experience of eToys during the 1999 holiday season, for example.)

— Failure to understand the target market. (The bankruptcy of online grocer Webvan suggests "people weren't ready to buy broccoli online.")

— Inability to manage the website — the communication interface with the customer — effectively ("poor design, functionality, and maintenance.")

None of these problems, Coupey says, is unique to the Internet. "The point is that sound business strategy should meld the old with the new, keeping the best parts of both to develop and implement new theories and techniques for effective business practices."

Coupey says she wrote the book to meet a need: none had existed that provided students or business owners or managers "a framework for leveraging the Internet to achieve strategic objectives." Trade press books, she says, "tended to be ad hoc collections of cases, based on consulting activity. The first two textbooks in this area focused on how to market products and services on the Internet, rather than how to use the Internet to facilitate online and off-line activities."

Her book discusses developing business intelligence with online research, building online business models, and implementing business strategy. It addresses the influence of technology on the interactions among consumers, marketers, and policymakers and the role of the Internet on business-to-business exchanges.

The Internet, Coupey says, has changed virtually every aspect of exchange relationships - between businesses and consumers and between businesses and other businesses. "It has far greater business potential than merely serving as an alternative outlet to a bricks-and-mortar presence."

- Sookhan Ho, Pamplin College of Business

Conservation project results in discovery of ancient site

What started out as a simple training mission for the Virginia Tech Conservation Management Institute (CMI) has turned into a project that is establishing the early cultural history of a part of Southside Virginia.

"This area of Virginia has seen little in the way of archeological survey for prehistoric or historic sites, and even less in terms of the excavation of known archeological sites," says Wayne Boyko, CMI research associate.

In early 2003, CMI began a cultural resources project at Fort Pickett near Blackstone, Va., to train the Virginia Army National Guard at the Maneuver Training Center to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, and other federal and state cultural resource protection legislation. The NHPA requires that land-alteration activities by the federal government don't destroy cultural resources eligible for listing on the National Register for Historic Places.

Cultural resources run the gamut from historic buildings and landscapes to cemeteries and, in the case of Fort Pickett, archeological sites. The CMI archeological staff used an approach grounded in research themes identified by the Council of Virginia Archeologists as being critical in understanding the state's human history. Thus, the Fort Picket project, under the direction of CMI Military Lands Division Coordinator Verl Emrick, has contributed to the field of archeology in general, and to the archeology of Southside Virginia in particular.

Based on the surveys already completed, the CMI archeologists have begun to establish the cultural history of the region. The oldest site found so far is 10,000 years old, based on spear and dart points.

"We are also beginning to document the functioning of prehistoric exchange networks through the excavation of known archeological sites," says Boyko. The archeologists found jasper from Pennsylvania and metavolcanic stone from the Uwharrie Mountains in North Carolina used to make projectile points, as well as steatite, or soapstone, which they think may come from Maryland and was used to make stone bowls before the use of ceramic technology.

While most of the archeology being done in Virginia is small in spatial terms and often isolated, Fort Pickett involves more than 40,000 acres. "It provides a great laboratory to examine several research themes," says Boyko. "For instance, we have the opportunity to look at establishing the culture history of Southside Virginia, settlement-subsistence studies, the functioning of prehistoric exchange networks, a consideration of population dynamics in the region, and the nature of early historic settlement in the area.

"The dynamic human history of the region presents a great and fascinating challenge," says Boyko. "Because this will be a long-term project, we expect to find many more pieces to the puzzle. We are providing a needed service to our sponsor while contributing academically and intellectually towards the discipline of archeology."