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New Initiative Will Further Advance Virginia Tech’s Commitment to Life Sciences Research

Elizabeth Gilbert, an assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences and a researcher in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, works with students on a nutritional neuroscience experiment. In a new initiative announced by Virginia Tech, shared research facilities supporting the life sciences will provide core resources across departments and disciplines.

To increase its investment in and further the impact of its life sciences research, Virginia Tech will launch a new operational model involving two existing research institutes that will support university efforts to attract and retain preeminent life science researchers and to equip and develop shared world-class facilities necessary for their research.

Virginia Tech will transfer the resources of the Biocomplexity Institute into the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech on the Blacksburg campus. In doing so, Virginia Tech will support life sciences research across the university by providing “room to grow” through shared laboratories and catalyzing collaboration and partnership.

Shared research facilities supporting the life sciences will provide core resources across departments and disciplines. Staffed by expert technicians and guided by user needs, these facilities will drive efficiencies and promote collaborations across the research enterprise. This model will allow for scale and quality of investment not currently available to individual researchers, departments, or colleges; efficiencies of scale for service and infrastructure; and strategic support for university priorities.

Co-funded faculty in strategic thematic thrusts and promising research projects will have the potential to receive additional university support for strategic hires for faculty and retention of key faculty to engage in emerging areas of research excellence.

Dennis Dean, University Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and founding director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, will lead the institute. Dean will work closely with Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke and Vice President for Research and Innovation Theresa Mayer to convene a group of key stakeholders to oversee the implementation of this new model, support the transition of research infrastructure and staff, and determine the custody of capital equipment within the Biocomplexity Institute consistent with university policy.

“In addition to the world-class biomedical and health sciences research programs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, Virginia Tech has a timely opportunity to expand and transform research and scholarship capacity across the broader spectrum of the life sciences by engaging faculty from academic colleges across the university into an expanded collaborative model,” Clarke said. “This opportunity in Blacksburg will allow the university to direct efforts and energy in focused thematic areas of emphasis where faculty can convene under a coordinated structure to advance research and productivity through shared assets, facilities, equipment, and knowledge.”

“The new operational model will help faculty members based in the colleges partner more easily across disciplines in which Virginia Tech has the momentum and ability to address and solve complex issues at a global scale,” Mayer said. “Faculty will benefit from a shared funding model, garnering support not only from their academic departments and colleges, but also from central university resources that are set aside for institute-affiliated research.”

Virginia Tech currently has internationally recognized life science, biomedical, and health science research strengths in both Blacksburg and Roanoke. Virginia Tech has a strong portfolio of research and educational excellence in agriculture, natural and environmental sciences, veterinary medicine, human medicine, biomedical and health sciences, biological sciences, and computational and data-driven modeling and analysis — a combination only available to a few universities in the United States.

“Beyond our focus at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute on improving human and animal health through new preventions, treatments, and cures for diseases as well as exploring the mysteries of how the brain, heart, and immune systems work normally, there are many other important areas in the life sciences where Virginia Tech excels including in agricultural, environmental, and biosciences,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “This new initiative will provide resources and an exciting new institute model to grow these areas of research with leading-edge core facilities. It further represents an important step for the university, broadening our scientific impact and creating new opportunities for synergy across the biomedical, health, and the broader life sciences.

“While the two Fralin institutes have different areas of primary focus, there are numerous opportunities for our researchers to collaborate where the conceptual and technological advances in one area may inform the other,” said Friedlander, who also serves as Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.

“Dennis and I will begin exploring processes for incentivizing collaborations and lowering any structural barriers that may hinder them to do our best work by leveraging our strengths across the biomedical, health, and life sciences,” Friedlander said.

“Over the past 34 years, I have been honored to serve Virginia Tech in various roles and none is more rewarding than taking on this new commitment to excellence as we grow life sciences research and tackle some of the most challenging and significant problems facing society today,” Dean said. “Our unique ability to do transdisciplinary work and to align around seemingly unsolvable problems is distinct and rewarding work we do here at Virginia Tech.”

An internationally known researcher in the field of microbiology and bioinorganic chemistry, Dean will launch and oversee a national search for a new executive director of the institute this summer once the implementation of the new organizational model is in place. After a new director is in place, Dean will return to the faculty and continue to conduct his research.

Cal Ribbens, interim executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute, will return to his role as head of the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering. He will continue working with colleagues to deliver on the commonwealth’s promise to address long-term workforce needs in the tech talent pipeline by significantly expanding graduate-level studies at Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in Alexandria and undergraduate enrollment in Blacksburg.

“Dennis has been a leader and colleague with a deep understanding of the research need and the role of institutes at Virginia Tech,” Ribbens said. “Under Dennis’ leadership, and with the caliber of faculty researchers we have in the colleges, I am confident in the transition into this new model and look forward to working with the institute as I return full time to my role in the College of Engineering.”

Virginia Tech’s university-level research institutes enhance the university’s ability to address large-scale research opportunities by crossing traditional disciplinary and college lines. Both the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the separate but highly collaborative Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke are positioned to significantly contribute to impactful research that serves the commonwealth and the world.

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute was formed in 2008, itself the merger of two entities that formed in 1995 and 2003. The institute bears the Fralin name in recognition of the philanthropy by the late Horace and Ann Fralin. Horace Fralin was a member of the class of 1948 and a longtime supporter of Virginia Tech.

Last year, the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust and Heywood and Cynthia Fralin donated a record $50 million to Virginia Tech to support research at the newly renamed Fralin Biomedical Research Institute within the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center in Roanoke. Heywood Fralin is the brother of Horace Fralin.

“Horace would be proud to see his vision for life science research come into focus at Virginia Tech,” Fralin said. “To see the university elevate critical research like this by investing in and supporting the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is both important and exciting.”

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