Teresa A. Sullivan

One of the energizing aspects of daily life at UVA is the constant exposure to astonishing research, scholarship and other creative activities. Our faculty members are working at the leading edge of discovery to develop solutions to societal problems and to drive innovation in a multitude of disciplines. This work has real-world implications for all of us, because efforts under way now at UVA have the potential to improve human health, restore our environment, respond to natural disasters, and generally enhance the future that we—and our children and grandchildren—face. The American Cancer Society has estimated that 1,596,670 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year, and 571,950 Americans are expected to die of cancer. A team of young investigators at UVA is taking aim at this killer disease. Kevin Janes, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and his lab team of eight scientists are working to understand how signaling networks function within cells. This has important implications for diseases such as cancer, where the molecular signal processing has malfunctioned. In 2009, Janes was one of 55 engineers and scientists from around the country to receive a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award. These awards support creative young investigators who have highly innovative research ideas at an early stage of their careers. The work being conducted by Janes and his colleagues gives us hope that one day research may unlock the mystery of how cancer kills.

In another promising project, environmental sciences professor Karen McGlathery is leading a team of UVA colleagues, together with scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, to restore submerged grasses in the seaside bays of Virginia. These sea grasses are necessary to stabilize bottom sediment and to provide habitat for scallops, crabs, shrimp and all the fish that feed on these creatures. In the first half of the 20th century, pathogens and storms began killing off these sea grasses along Virginia’s coastline. In the years since, the bay bottoms have become muddy and barren, and the fishing and scalloping industry has suffered. Several years ago, McGlathery and her colleagues began seeding areas of Virginia’s Eastern Shore barrier island bays with eelgrass, a type of submerged sea grass common to temperate waters worldwide. These scientists are having measurable success, with thousands of acres of grass taking root and spreading out into lush underwater meadows. This issue of Virginia Magazine includes a story about the work that’s being done by McGlathery and other University scientists to improve water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

Creating affordable housing is a constant challenge in communities across the nation and around the world, and in recent years, a slew of natural disasters has generated a pressing need for disaster-relief housing. UVA is meeting these two needs through the ecoMOD and reCOVER projects, led by architecture professors John Quale and Anselmo Canfora, respectively. A collaborative effort, ecoMOD strives to design, build, and evaluate affordable sustainable modular housing. Quale also runs ecoREMOD, a parallel project focused on rehabilitating existing homes. He and colleagues and students from engineering, landscape architecture, and other disciplines have built or renovated nine ecoMOD or ecoREMOD housing units, with seven units in Charlottesville, one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and one in Jamaica. Canfora and his colleagues who lead the reCOVER project design and build energy-efficient transitional disaster-recovery housing. This team recently earned first place in an international competition with more than 400 original entries for design of disaster-recovery housing in Haiti, and reCOVER has drawn attention from the government of Japan following the tsunami disaster there. Because of this success with ecoMOD and reCOVER, UVA is the lead partner on a one-year grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification & Community Revitalization Commission to design and manufacture affordable and energy-efficient housing and disaster-recovery structures, through partnerships with companies and nonprofit organizations in Southside and Southwestern Virginia. The grant could transform the economy in that region by strengthening the modular and panelized housing systems industry there.

Sometimes a single professor can combine strands of different disciplines to reshape the realm of possibility. Music professor and composer Matthew Burtner recently received a 2011 IDEA award for a telematic opera that uses advanced networking technology to connect audiences and performers around the globe. The IDEA Awards are presented by Internet2, a consortium of universities, corporations, and government agencies that advance technologies. Burtner grew up near the Arctic Ocean in northern Alaska, and the title of his opera, “Auksalaq,” comes from the Inupiat word for melting ice. He recorded the sounds of melting ice by trailing a microphone underneath his sea kayak in the Arctic, infusing his opera with the realities of climate change. The opera uses high-speed Internet connections to link audiences and performers at multiple sites. For example, it might have a chorus at one site, percussionists at another site, the opera’s main character at another site, and so on. The opera will debut in October 2012, and will be performed simultaneously in New York, Alaska, Norway and other sites. Previous winners of the IDEA awards have typically worked in areas such as high-energy physics, software design, and supercomputing. Burtner’s award is a rare recognition in the arts.

These individual projects are representative of the broad range of research and innovation going on at UVA. We know that, to remain productive in a rapidly changing world, faculty members must push the boundaries of discovery. In an 1804 letter to his friend Larkin Smith, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Science is progressive. What was useful two centuries ago is now become useless … what is now deemed useful will in some of its parts become useless in another century.” Mr. Jefferson was using the word science in its 19th-century sense to mean the entire body of knowledge. Today, UVA faculty members are expanding this body of knowledge day by day and, in the process, shaping the future for all of us.