Teresa A. Sullivan Photo by Luca DiCecco

The cover story in this issue of Virginia describes the experience of living in the pavilions in the Academical Village. These original buildings, designed by Thomas Jefferson, give us a physical connection to the earliest days of the University, when the first professors and students converged on Charlottesville to give life to Jefferson’s great experiment in higher education. By Jefferson’s design, the first floors of the pavilions served as the classrooms, where faculty members and their student-neighbors came together to learn. Each of the early professors taught in a specific field —law, medicine, mathematics, natural history, and other disciplines spanning the realm of what Jefferson called the “useful sciences.” The professors lived on the pavilions’ second-story levels above the classrooms, and between pavilions, at that second-story level, Jefferson included walkways. These walkways permitted the professor of one field to stroll over for a conversation with a neighboring professor of another field.

Those second-story walkways provide a useful metaphor for our modern University. Today’s discoveries and innovations frequently emerge, not only in isolated fields of study, but also in the spaces between disciplines. The complex, multifaceted problems facing society—climate change, disease prevention, economic turmoil—demand a multidisciplinary approach to solutions. Our faculty members and students in various schools and disciplines thrive most fully, and deliver the greatest benefits to society, when they take the second-story walk to connect with colleagues working in other disciplines.

The U.Va. Bay Game is one example of a successful second-story collaboration. In 2009, faculty members from a range of academic units came together to develop a large-scale, participatory simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Participants take on the roles of farmers, policymakers, land developers, watermen and concerned citizens to test the long-term effects of their decision making. This project has given us a better understanding of the Bay as a complex system, and it holds great promise for improving stewardship of the Bay and other watersheds. Faculty members who are involved in this project today represent a wide range of disciplines—environmental sciences, architecture, law, business, public policy, education and systems engineering.

Another second-story conversation led to a new screening tool for diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness among adults. This disease affects more than 10 million patients in the U.S. alone and causes more than $500 million annually in direct medical costs. Screening is essential for prevention, but more than half of patients fail to get screened because of the high cost and limited availability of exams. Paul Yates, an assistant professor of ophthalmology, and Shayn Peirce-Cottler, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, met when discussing how stem cells could affect blood vessel development and repair in the eye. They realized that a low-cost solution for imaging the retina was a great unmet need. With support from the U.Va.-Coulter Foundation partnership, they designed and built a new low-cost camera system called the CavCam to screen for eye disease by creating images of the blood vessels in the retina. The CavCam can be produced for less than $1,000, making it possible for patients in rural areas and underdeveloped nations to get screening exams.

In another second-story initiative, a group of faculty representing architecture, nursing, biomedical engineering, medicine, and business have developed a course called BioInnovation that generates innovations in health care. Students from a range of disciplines come together to analyze units within the U.Va. Health System, including an operating room, a nurses’ station on a hospital floor, the echocardiography unit, the waiting room in the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center and other sites. They look for opportunities to improve health care delivery and safety, the quality of the patient experience and employee satisfaction. The course has now been offered three times, with growing enrollment each time, and will be offered again in spring 2012.

The Chaco Digital Initiative is a cross-disciplinary effort to create a digital archive that integrates widely dispersed archaeological data collected from Chaco Canyon in the late 1890s and the first half of the 20th century. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chaco Canyon holds ruins that have immense ancestral importance for many Native Americans of the Southwest. But research records are currently scattered around the country in various repository institutions. U.Va. faculty members from anthropology, computer science and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities are integrating Chaco Canyon data in this digital archive so that archaeology scholars can more easily access and assemble information relevant to their research. The Chaco Digital Initiative is a model for the use of new technologies in archaeological scholarship, and a prime example of second-story collaboration.

We have many other second-story projects under way. Faculty members from psychology and the Health System are working together to install virtual windows and surround-sound systems in the Cancer Center infusion rooms where patients receive chemotherapy. Most of these rooms have no windows, and the virtual windows and sound systems will create a more soothing, restorative environment for patients. Another project known as ESPRIT (Energy Systems Prototyping, Research, Innovation and Translation) brings faculty from engineering, architecture, chemistry, and business together with staff from the Office of the Architect and Facilities Management to address major energy issues. The ESPRIT team is applying systems approaches to develop energy-conservation solutions, including low-loss energy transmission and energy-efficient buildings and communities.

In addition to these specific projects, the broad OpenGrounds initiative, led by associate professor of architecture and associate vice president for research Bill Sherman, fosters creative research at the confluence of science, technology, arts and the humanities. OpenGrounds provides support for faculty members who push the frontiers in their fields and who work across traditional boundaries. With a new studio space opening this fall, OpenGrounds will host workshops and lunch-table discussions in which faculty members and students can engage in dialogue and debate across disciplinary boundaries.

We frequently look to Thomas Jefferson’s founding principles to guide our work in the University today. With purposeful design, he created his Academical Village to promote collaboration and the shared pursuit of knowledge. Between the pavilions are those second-story walkways that enable cross-disciplinary conversation. For those of us who live and work in close proximity to the Lawn, the walkways serve as constant reminders of the need to reach out across traditional boundaries to work together with our colleagues from disparate fields of study. Along those walkways, in those spaces between disciplines, there are discoveries, innovations, novel therapies and grand solutions waiting to be born.