Blog Posts

2020 Summer Newsletter

President’s Message

 

Dear Friends,

The events of the last few months have changed all of our lives.  It is my hope that you have been able to adjust to the new normal and have been able to stay healthy.  As you will see in this edition of our newsletter, our members are actively involved in responding to the COVID-19 crisis—and we have been actively involved in helping plan the restarting of our economy once the threat decreases.  An update of all of current activities are included in this newsletter.

One of our members, X.J. Meng of Virginia Tech, has been involved in suggesting strategies to prevent other viruses from jumping from animal reservoirs to human beings. A physician and virologist, Meng is recognized for his work delineating the mechanisms of transmission and pathogenesis of emerging and zoonotic viruses of veterinary and human public health significance

In the Spring Newsletter, we announced the new Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) Fellowship program.  Six graduate student scientists and engineers from participating Virginia universities spent 12 weeks serving as science advisors at legislative offices, executive agencies, and prominent companies and nonprofits in Virginia.  A report of this very successful effort will be developed over the next few months.

Our study on the impact of sea level rise and coastal flooding in Virginia, commissioned by the Joint Commission on Technology and Science and under the direction of Drs. Antonio Elias and Jon Goodall, is well underway. A committee has been established and its first meeting will occur in early September.

As also noted in the Spring Newsletter, the Virginia Academy was designated to provide technical support for all of activities of the new Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority (VIPA).  Governor Northam has appointed the members of the VIPA Board and I am pleased to announce that one of our members, Dr. Barbara Boyan, the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean, College of Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University, is a member of the six member citizen Board.

Unfortunately, the 2020 Summit on Health Care Logistic, scheduled for November 11-12, 2020 at the Downtown Marriott in Richmond was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.  A Call for Proposals for the next Summit scheduled for the fall of 2021 has been sent to our mailing list.  The call is included in this newsletter.

For me, one of the high points of the newsletters continues to be the occasion to learn more about our members.  First, one of our current and well-known Virginia Academy members and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Vint Cerf, was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  Because of his enormous impact on the development of the internet and the importance it plays in all of our lives today, we decided to profile him in this edition of the newsletter.  In addition, we want to introduce you to two new members of the Virginia Academy, Dr. James Galloway and Dr. Timothy Wilson, both faculty at the University of Virginia. Both became members of the Virginia Academy as a result of their elections in the National Academy of Sciences.

As you can see, the Virginia Academy continues to be active during these trying times.  In the meantime, please do what you can to stay safe. Also, please feel free to contact me if I can be of any assistance.

Sincerely,
James H. (Jim) Aylor
President, Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine

Table of Contents

 

Interview with Member X.J. Meng
COVES Fellowship Program Update
JCOTS Study on Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Update
Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority (VIPA) Update
VASEM Organizes Sea Level Panel for JCOTS Study
Summit 2020 Update
Summit 2021 Call for Proposals
Welcome new members: Dr. James Galloway and Dr. Timothy Wilson
Member Profile: Vint Cerf

Attacking Pandemics at Their Source:
VASEM member X.J. Meng addresses COVID-19 

X.J. Meng’s background gives him the ideal vantage point both to assess the array of new vaccines being developed to treat COVID-19 and to suggest strategies to prevent other viruses from jumping from animal reservoirs to human beings. A physician and virologist, Meng is recognized for his work delineating the mechanisms of transmission and pathogenesis of emerging and zoonotic viruses of veterinary and human public health significance. He has also developed effective licensed commercial vaccines against swine viruses that cost pork producers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Meng was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016.

“While much of the focus in the world today is rightly focused on developing vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19, there are other animal viruses in the wings that can cause future pandemics, and they are constantly evolving,” he says. “We need a strategy to address these infections at their source, in their own animal hosts before they jump species infecting humans.”

The Virginia Academy tapped Meng’s expertise and his extensive network of connections with infectious disease specialists when it asked him to organize the academy’s 2017 annual summit. Titled Emerging Infections and Preparedness, the summit featured a keynote address by Anthony Fauci, and, thanks to the range of presenters, the summit report (available on the Virginia Academy website) serves as a valuable primer for people wanting to know more about where diseases like the COVID-19 originate, how they jump to humans, and what can be done to interrupt this cycle.

Probing the Mechanisms Behind Cross-Species Transmission

Over the last eight years, Meng has extended his research to include coronaviruses, but he is known for his work on the hepatitis E virus (HEV). His group discovered and characterized the first animal strain of HEV, swine HEV, and demonstrated that swine HEV can cross species barriers and infect humans. “Using HEV as an example, my lab is trying to understand how and why animal viruses jump species to humans,” he says. “We are trying to identify both the host factors and the viral genetic elements that allow it to infect across species barriers.”

Although Meng is quick to point out that it is difficult to predict cross-species transmission based on host and viral genetic factors alone, the discoveries his lab is making can shed light on strategies that might be used to interrupt this process. This is important because the enormous economic and social disruption caused by the current crisis only highlights the inadequacy of our current approach to treating pandemics — developing a vaccine after it appears. “With hundreds of viruses capable of jumping species, we are always going to be a step behind,” he says. Unless we effectively eliminate or control the sources of these zoonotic animal pathogens, new human infections will continue to emerge from animals.”

Preventing Infectious Diseases from Emerging

When asked what he would do if he had unlimited resources, Meng stresses the importance of studying and controlling so-called animal pathogens in their own hosts, thus preventing them from jumping species. To provide an indication of the scale of this enterprise, Meng notes that bats harbor more than 200 viruses, many of which are zoonotic and also infect humans. And while the coronavirus causing COVID-19 is thought to have originated in bats, there are at least 50 other coronaviruses known to infect domestic animals and wildlife. In other words, this effort would be extensive, but finite.

“If we understood the biology and disease-causing potential of these animal viruses in more detail, there are many things we might be able to do to prevent their spread and cross-species infection,” Meng says. “We could, for instance, develop vaccines for animal viruses with a high likelihood of jumping species.” Around the world, individual researchers like Meng are working on these issues, but given our understanding of the damage a single pandemic can do, their efforts need to be amplified many times over.

Meng also advocates that steps be taking to clamp down on the human activity that contributes to the emergence of these pandemics, buying researchers time. Deforestation, intensive animal farming, poaching, and bushmeat consumption all bring animal pathogens closer to human habitats, he notes, as do the ecological disruption caused by climate change.

In the meantime, Meng is hopeful about our ability to develop a coronavirus vaccine within the next year. “The results of Phase 3 trials will be crucial,” he says. “If there is a silver lining in the current crisis, it is that we are experimenting with so many different approaches to producing vaccines. But after we conquer this disease, we really need to take the broader view and address the underlying causes of these emerging infections.”

Fellowship Program Helps Young Scientists and Engineers Impact Public Policy

Despite the impact of COVID-19, all six inaugural COVES Policy Fellows have been active and engaged in remote work with their placement offices over the past three months. For example, at Virginia Bio, Sarah Hall helped publish an op-ed on the biopharmaceutical industry’s role in re-opening Virginia and provided support for the House Committee on Health, Welfare, and Institutions’ Educational Series. Through his Fellowship at Dominion Energy, Ryan Chaban had the opportunity to tour the Surry Nuclear Power Plant facilities and oversaw a team of undergraduate interns focused on nuclear energy in Virginia. Sandra Yankah, a Fellow at the Virginia Department of Health Office of Health Equity, was engaged in the rapidly changing data and policy behind COVID-19’s impact in Virginia. She shared the following reflection:

“The historic events that have occurred in recent months have been driven by the convergence of a pandemic that has accentuated inequality and a social movement that challenges the root causes of it. These events have highlighted the potential of community-driven social movements to enact change, and the propensity for science to act as a form of advocacy. During my fellowship with VDH, I have worked on statistical techniques that identify racial disparities in morbidity and mortality rates, and the complex array of social and economic factors that contribute to them. At times, engaging in the process of examining and analyzing data that illustrates the pervasiveness of social and economic inequality has been difficult because it is a stark reminder of the devastating outcomes associated with these disparities. However, engaging in the process of communicating these findings to policymakers has underscored the important role science plays in social justice and advocacy.

The efforts VDH has undertaken to address the disproportionate effects of the pandemic have included the participation of community leaders, practitioners, advocates, epidemiologists, and data scientists. Incorporating these diverse perspectives in the dissemination and implementation of scientific findings has undoubtedly aided in the efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on vulnerable populations. This approach also reflects the efforts being taken at all levels to address systemic factors that drive inequality.”

You can read Sandra’s full blog post about her experience here.

Throughout the summer, each Fellow was paired with a VASEM Board member mentor and participated in professional development luncheons with policy experts like Fran Branford, the State Secretary of Higher Education, Dahvi Wilson, Vice President of Public Affairs at Apex Clean Energy, and even Senator Mark Warner (see photo below)! The COVES Fellowship program cumulated in the first annual COVES Fellows Forum on August 27, 2020. The Forum featured flash talks and Q&A with all of the Fellows, as well as remarks from Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association of the Advancement of Science.

COVES Fellows Meeting with Senator Warner
More information about the COVES Program is available on the VASEM website here.
Questions? Contact the COVES Working Group at covesfellowship@virginia.edu.

Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Study Kicked Off

Dr. Antonio Elias, Chair

 

The Joint Committee on Technology and Science (JCOTS), which requested a study on sea level rise and coastal flooding from the Virginia Academy, convened on July 14 for the first time after last November’s elections. While the meeting, carried out via Zoom, was open to the public, the Virginia Academy was the only outside organization formally invited to participate.

Delegate C. E. (Cliff) Hayes Jr. was unanimously elected as the new chair, replacing Senator John Cosgrove who had chaired the Committee for the past two years.

Dr. Antonio Elias, chair of the Study and Secretary/Treasurer of the Virginia Academy, briefed the new chair and the Committee on the study Terms of Reference that, absent a formally empaneled Committee, had been negotiated with the Committee staff.  The members expressed satisfaction with the goals and objectives of the study, as well as with the organization of the study committee which consists of 14 members, including faculty from six Virginia Universities and research institutions, state government, rural and urban planning commissions, and private industry.  Senator Cosgrove graciously accepted an invitation to be a member of the study committee.

The first meeting of the study committee will occur in early September, and most of the presentations and dialog with invited organizations will be carried out this fall, with an interim report due by November 30.

The new JCOTS chair pointed out that this legislative year, JCOTS has been charged by the General Assembly to perform over 20 studies, all but this one related to information technology, artificial intelligence and related topics.  This represents a significant increase over the less than ten studies normally asked of JCOTS.

Given JCOTS’ very limited organic resources, this workload represents a unique opportunity for the Virginia Academy and its members to provide pivotal long term scientific and technological advice to JCOTS, and, through them, the Legislative and Executive branches of the state government.

Update: Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority

VASEM member Dr. Barbara Boyan appointed to VIPA Board of Directors

Dr. Barbara D. Boyan, the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean, College of Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University, has been named a member of the newly formed Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority (VIPA) by Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam.  Dr. Boyan, a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, is one of six citizen appointments the governor made to the board of the new authority that will help finance and commercialize promising technological research, as well as new companies and entrepreneurs in Virginia’s emerging high-tech economy.

VIPA was developed to consolidate all innovation initiatives within Virginia such as the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, Virginia Research Investment Committee, the Commonwealth Center on Advanced Manufacturing, and the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. Its overall goal is to support the entire life cycle of innovation, from translational research, to entrepreneurship, to pre-seed and seed stage funding, to acceleration, growth and commercialization, enhancing Virginia’s tech-based economic development. The idea is that a collaborative, consistent, and consolidated approach will assist the Commonwealth in identifying its entrepreneurial strengths, including the identification of talents and resources that make the Commonwealth a unique place to grow new innovation-based businesses. As part of the VIPA authorization, the Virginia Academy will be asked to be available to provide technical support for all VIPA activities.

Dr. Boyan is a member of both the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering.

Summit 2020 Update: Healthcare Logistics

The Virginia Academy’s 2020 Annual Summit on Healthcare Logisticspreviously scheduled for November 11-12, 2020 at the Downtown Richmond Marriott, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus.  Proposals are being accepted for the next Summit to be held in the fall 2021.

Summit 2021: Call for Proposals

The Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine provides independent forums to exchange emerging ideas and issues in science, technology, and medicine. One of these activities is the Annual Summit. The Annual Summit provides an opportunity for networking between university, industry, and government leaders to address the current and future issues facing the Commonwealth. Topics that align with strategic needs of Virginia are of special interest.

Proposals for Summit 2021 are due November 1, 2020. If lead organizers are not a member of a Virginia Academy, they should be sponsored by a Virginia Academy member.

Submissions to organize a summit will be reviewed by the Virginia Academy Board of Directors.  If you have additional questions or would like further information, please contact the VASEM Association Director, Jennifer Sayegh at (804) 775-1922 (jsayegh@mwcllc.com) or the Virginia Academy President, Jim Aylor at (434) 284-1282 (jha@virginia.edu).

VASEM Welcomes New Members

VASEM is pleased to welcome two new members from the National Academy of Sciences

James Galloway, NAS

James Galloway is a biogeochemist known for his work on the magnitude and consequences of the human alteration of biogeochemical cycles.  His research includes investigations on the natural and anthropogenic controls on chemical cycles at the watershed, regional and global scales. He started first with trace metal biogeochemistry of the coastal ocean, and then expanded to investigations on the increased acidification of the atmosphere, soils and fresh waters.  Most recently he has focused on the nitrogen cycle.  Galloway was born in Annapolis MD and grew up in Maryland and Southern California. He graduated from Whittier College with a BA in Biology and Chemistry, and from UCSD in 1972 with a PhD in Chemistry for his research on the fate of trace metals in a coastal ocean.  Following two years as a professional potter in Lexington VA, he was a postdoctoral fellow in Ecology and Systematics at Cornell University.  He joined the faculty of the Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Virginia in 1976, where he is now the Sidman P. Poole Professor of Environmental Sciences.

He was elected to Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002, and to Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2008.  Also, in that year he, together with Harold Mooney, Stanford University, received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.  In 2020 he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

 

Timothy D. Wilson, NAS

Timothy D. Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. He has published numerous scholarly journals and books, primarily on the topic of the limits and sources of self-knowledge. He has conducted research showing the limits of introspection as a source of self-knowledge, the dangers of engaging in too much introspection about why we do what we do, the difficulty in predicting our future emotional reactions, as well as the pleasures we can derive from “just thinking.” He has also conducted research on applications of social psychology to address social problems. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Russell Sage Foundation.

Wilson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2020. In 2015 the Association for Psychological Science awarded Wilson the William James Fellow Award, to honor a “lifetime of significant intellectual contributions to the basic science of psychology.” He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. The University of Virginia awarded him its highest academic honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence in Scholarship, as well as an All-University Outstanding Teaching Award.

In 2002 Wilson published Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (Harvard University Press). The New York Times Magazine listed the book as containing one of the best 100 ideas of 2002. In 2011 he published, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change (Little, Brown). The author Malcolm Gladwell said, “There are few academics who write with as much grace and wisdom as Timothy Wilson. I thought his last book Strangers to Ourselves was a masterpiece. Redirect is more than its equal.”

The NAS announcement of its newest members is available here.


Member Profile: Vint Cerf

The Internet Seen Through the Lens of the Pandemic

As NAE member and newly elected NAS member Vint Cerf sees it, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a stress test for the Internet, highlighting its strengths and its deficiencies. “The Internet is a big 3-D landscape and the COVID-19 virus a giant spotlight,” says Cerf, Google’s vice president and Internet evangelist. “The pandemic has illuminated its bright areas and exposed its shadowy ones. Our experience shows us where we need to bring light into darkness.”

Cerf is in a position to make these judgments. Although he takes his title as Internet Evangelist with a grain of salt, he has taken advantage of this platform to pursue initiatives that extend the Internet’s reach and encourage its benign and beneficial use. “When I started at Google in 2005, Larry Page and Sergey Brin gave me an enormous amount of latitude to engage in Internet-related policy and in actions that contribute to the spread of the Internet,” he says. “I get to look at the Internet from myriad perspectives, whether it is technical, economic, political, or regulatory, all of which are within the purview of my mandate.”

At the Intersection of Technology and Policy

This emphasis on extending access fits Cerf as well as his trademark three-piece suits, but his ability to influence the context of the Internet rests on the regard he gained for helping to build it. Cerf, of course, is known as an Internet pioneer — in 1974, he and Bob Kahn began work on TCP/IP, the protocol suite that governs the movement of data through the network — but he has continued to advance the technology throughout his life. In the 1980s, as vice president of MCI Digital Information Services, he helped develop the first commercial email system connected to the Internet. Since 1998, he has worked with scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build the interplanetary Internet that now links the Mars rovers and orbiters and the International Space Station to control centers on Earth.

Although Cerf was elected to the National Academies of Engineering and Science on the strength of his technological accomplishments, his election citations also refer to his leadership in the evolution of the Internet. He has been deeply involved in the regulation of the Internet and the creation of standards. For instance, he has chaired ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, as well as the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology for the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

His other initiatives focus on ensuring that the Internet serves as a force for good, improving the lives and well-being of people across the world. In 2015, he co-founded People-Centered Internet, a nonprofit that, among other goals, promotes access and connectivity, fights disinformation, and leverages technology to help communities be more resilient. He also chairs the Marconi Society, which celebrates innovators harnessing technology and works to achieve a digitally inclusive world.

Exposing Internet Strengths and Flaws

In March 2020, Cerf announced that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. Although they were not hospitalized and gradually recovered, their symptoms were both debilitating and frightening. Not surprisingly, one Internet bright spot that Cerf highlights is its role in fast-tracking research on COVID-19 vaccines by enabling scientists to share computational and informational resources.

As an engineer, Cerf has also been pleased with the way the network has held up in the face of an unprecedented spike in usage, but as citizen, he does not shy away from the deficiencies highlighted by the pandemic. “There are a wide range of desiderata still to be satisfied to make the network more usable than it is today,” he says.

One issue is availability and access. Cerf notes that the Internet is simply unavailable to a significant portion of the world’s population. In the United States, People-Centered Internet is actively supporting Native American tribal connectivity initiatives including the Tribal Digital Village’s, Network Startup Resource Center’s and MuralNet’s efforts to claim unlicensed 2.5GHz spectrum before it is auctioned off.

Where it is available, Cerf notes that there is limited competition, which makes it expensive. By throwing millions of people in the U.S. out of work, the pandemic has only highlighted the issue of cost. Cerf imagines that a government data stamps program could help people maintain access needed to work or attend school, much like the food stamp program ensures children benefit from good nutrition. “There is a lot of work to be done to assure Internet access of reasonable quality and cost,” Cerf concludes.

Another shadowy area that the pandemic has reviewed is the subversion of the Internet to spread misinformation and disinformation as well as to propagate malware, denial of service attacks, and spam. “As an engineer, I tend to evaluate the Internet in terms of its underlying infrastructure, but it would be a mistake not to reflect on the applications running on the Internet, to note their consequences, and to try to contain them,” Cerf says. He is calling for the establishment of measures — through treaties, incentives, and the establishment of voluntary norms — to combat harmful behavior on the Internet.

“The Internet has generated wonderful opportunities that were frankly not on our radar screen 45 years ago, but it has also created problems that we did not foresee,” Cerf says. “The pandemic is helping us see both more clearly.”