David G. Schmale III, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was named to Popular Science magazine's 2013 Brilliant Ten list.
His research using drones—also called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs—to explore microbial life in the atmosphere earned him a spot on the prestigious list of international scientists, engineers, and thinkers whose innovations are changing the world.
Schmale and colleagues use research drones to track the movement of dangerous microorganisms that surf atmospheric waves. These waves collect, mix, and shuffle microorganisms across cities, states, and even countries. This research has deepened our understanding of the flow of life in the atmosphere and has contributed unique tools for scientific exploration in the burgeoning field of aeroecology.
"Important pathogens of plants, domestic animals, and humans can be transported over long distances in the atmosphere. Drones are important tools to study how these pathogens travel from one location to another," said Schmale. "They can be used to help predict potential outbreaks of human and animal diseases and even help farmers time their application of pesticides to thwart crop destruction."
Schmale, his team, and collaborators have gathered a number of high-impact findings since he began exploring high-flying microorganisms with drones. He was the first to develop an autonomous drone to sample microorganisms in the lower atmosphere. His drones collected strains of a fungus that caused a devastating wheat disease and produced dangerous toxins that far exceeded U.S. food safety thresholds. These discoveries have unleashed new and exciting civilian applications for drones, such as scouting for pests above crops and validating models for the spread of pathogens.
While Schmale is in Blacksburg, much of the flying takes place at Virginia Tech's Kentland Experimental Systems Laboratory, where he and other Tech researchers use the lab and associated airstrip to conduct sponsored research using a variety of unmanned systems.
Schmale and Boris Vinatzer, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, are part of an international team that is leading a first-ever study to examine and run DNA analyses on millions of microbes that hit the earth with each raindrop. Their work is being sponsored by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Dimensions of Biodiversity Program, which asked scientists to examine biodiversity in all corners of the world.
While lots of research has been done to catalog microbes that live in the sea and on land, the study of microbial life in the atmosphere and in rain is largely unexplored.
"It's an exciting time to be an atmospheric explorer," Schmale said. "The sky is the limit."
Schmale's TEDxVirginiaTech 2013 Talk »
Playing a dual role as veterinarian and scientist, Dr. Kathleen Alexander, an associate professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and an affiliated researcher in the Fralin Life Science Institute, studies human and animal interactions with a focus on the transmission of diseases between people and wildlife. She co-founded a nongovernmental organization called the Center for African Resources: Animals, Community, and Land Use (CARACAL), which strives to conserve wildlife and improve livelihoods for the people of Botswana. The recipient of Virginia Tech's 2013 Alumni Award for Excellence in International Outreach, Alexander described her work.
Botswana is an amazing place, a stronghold for some of the largest wildlife populations in Africa and the world. In some places like Kasane in Northern Botswana where I work, you might walk past warthogs while you go into the grocery store or, if you are not careful, run into elephants while you walk your dog.
As time has gone on, we've dramatically transformed our landscapes and, consequently, interactions between humans, wildlife, and domestic animals have become more complex and more frequent. The threat of zoonotic disease emergence—those diseases that originate in animals—is now widely appreciated by most everyone. From the fear of avian influenza to SARS, we all wonder when the next disease will emerge. What we don't understand is how the landscape, animal communities, and human behaviors can contribute to this process. What will open the proverbial Pandora's box?
My interest has been in looking beyond the hunt for the next new virus to focus on understanding how diseases might emerge. What are the connections? For example, how does shared surface water influence transmission pathways? How do landscapes transformed by humans escalate this process? How and where are we connected to animal populations? What attributes of animals and humans might change those connections, either minimizing or increasing risk [of transmission]?
Diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death in children under five years of age—something we still have not managed to control, despite all of our medical advances. I wanted to understand how diarrheal disease was affecting people in Botswana and the region. I was persistent and hunted across offices, libraries, and stacks of long-forgotten government medical records to create a 30-year data set of diarrhea case incidence in the country. What I found surprised me: Diarrhea was highest when there was no rain. Now, that wasn't what I expected. Why would this be the case?
I went back to the hospital, a very small hospital—five doctors for 23,000 people and a handful of nurses. I said to one of the older nurses, "What do you think? Why would diarrhea be highest at this time of the year where there is no rainfall?" She paused only a minute and told me, "Well, I know what it is. Let me tell you. It's flies. Flies are the problem." I started looking at the data on fly ecology and, interestingly, many of the species that are associated with sanitation and diarrheal disease increase in density and activity when it's the hottest and driest. Her ideas fit the system and gave us a new direction in our research. I was reminded how important it is to stay grounded and learn from the folks you are attempting to help, and not become too invested in your perceptions of knowledge as a scientist.
I feel deeply committed to making sure that what I do makes a difference … that people will be better off when I finish this work. So I'm very connected to the communities I work with and that's what inspires me—to know that you're helping the doctors and the nurses and community members and chiefs and, ultimately, that they trust you and know you are doing your best to help them.
Alexander's TEDxVirginiaTech 2012 Talk »
While teaching about the events of the past, Daniel Thorp brings excitement to the present for his students. As an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Thorp has received a near-perfect average teaching evaluation, as well as the university's 2013 William E. Wine Award. We sat down with Thorp to discuss how he uses his passion to get students interested in the past.
I have an audience with whom to share my enthusiasm. It not only keeps me intellectually excited about what I'm doing, [but] also creates a situation where I don't realize I'm getting any older because year after year after year, I'm dealing with a group that hasn't changed. They're 18 and 19 years old, and they're excited about getting started in history. Well, if they're not changing, I'm not changing! So, intellectually and emotionally and physically, it's a really invigorating experience and environment.
Year after year, the thing that I always get the most excited about is the Lewis and Clark expedition. With regard to most events as a historian, I know enough about the past that you couldn't pay me to live back then. The expedition is the one exception. I would sell my soul to the devil to have been on the Lewis and Clark expedition. I still just can't even really imagine seeing the West as they saw it.
There's a restaurant and diner in St. Mary, Mont., called The Park Café, and they're only open from about the middle of May until the end of August or early September. Every summer, they hire dozens of people to work as waiters and cooks and everything else. I keep thinking that one of these summers, I'm going to just apply and spend a summer at The Park Café as a short-order cook. I think that would be fun.
[Students] are astonished that I'm an actual living person without a cell phone. I've never had a cell phone and have no interest in having [one], which even most of my colleagues find unusual and I think most of my students find inexplicable. So, in some ways, I can't relate to them, and I realize that. But I think the way in which I can relate to them is by demonstrating a genuine enthusiasm for the class or for the subject and helping them to feel some of that same excitement.
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