This year, the Fralin Life Science Institute launched a new center to support research, education, and outreach in the field of global change. Directed by Dr. William (Bill) A. Hopkins, professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation (CNRE), the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech was officially chartered in January 2015.

“Five of the most important threats to natural ecosystems are habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change”, Hopkins said. “We have incredible expertise at Virginia Tech on each of these problems, but this expertise is scattered around campus in different colleges and departments. The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech will foster interactions among experts in each of these fields so that we can approach global change problems with a more holistic, interdisciplinary perspective. For example, we seek to assemble teams of faculty to understand how these factors interact with one another, one of the next frontiers in global-change science.”

A recent example of a global change issue is the sudden, rapid growth of algae in lakes and reservoirs around the United States. These toxic algal blooms are caused by a series of anthropogenic factors that include climate change, altered land use, and pollution. The subsequent consequences include significant food-web disruptions and drinking water impairment for metropolitan areas. To effectively mitigate such complex environmental problems, research teams comprised of biologists, toxicologists, geochemists, engineers, climate modelers, and social scientists are needed.

Confronting the multifaceted nature of global change requires well-coordinated interdisciplinary teams like these and highly integrated training models for the next generation of scientists. To address the challenges, the Global Change Center will provide a framework at Virginia Tech that encourages and facilitates interdisciplinary research, education, and outreach across campus.

Goals and vision

The center has 7 immediate goals:

  1. Establish Virginia Tech as an innovative international leader in global-change science, from basic research to development of science-based solutions that can inform policy, and provide visibility of our strengths to the world.
  2. Build a collaborative and well-integrated interdisciplinary research community including both natural and social scientists and engineers studying how major global threats individually and interactively influence the environment and society.
  3. Recruit the most innovative faculty and students to Virginia Tech.
  4. Position Virginia Tech to secure significant extramural funding and to form meaningful partnerships with broad stakeholders including federal agencies, non-government organizations, and industry.
  5. Make the best available science accessible to environmental policy-makers and the public through effective communication, participation, and dissemination.
  6. Create novel interdisciplinary research training programs for undergraduate and graduate students seeking to become the next leaders in global change science.
  7. Serve the Commonwealth by interfacing directly with decision-makers in Richmond and the National Capital Region, and by training the next generation of interdisciplinary scholars to address the most pressing issues associated with global change.
Bill Hopkins
Dr. Bill Hopkins is the director of the new Global Change Center at Virginia Tech.

According to Hopkins, “The Center will draw upon VT’s strengths in science, engineering and the social sciences, and capitalize on existing expertise in a wide array of academic units. We have already gained considerable traction towards this vision by unifying the enthusiasm of 37 faculty members across campus. We have also established a highly successful interdisciplinary graduate education program, Interfaces of Global Change (IGC IGEP), which will be central to the GCC’s educational goals.”

Building on success and looking to the future

The GCC has strong links to its administrative home, the Fralin Life Science Institute, which has committed funding, office space, and administrative support to this endeavor. Continuing support for the IGC IGEP comes from the Virginia Tech Graduate School.

“This is truly a broad endeavor that will benefit the entire campus community, including faculty and students from at least 6 colleges, 15 departments, multiple Institutes, and the National Capital Region.  It will also serve as a strong complement to other emerging strengths on our campus including several interdisciplinary graduate programs (IGEPs) and initiatives in Water, Sustainability, and Resiliency,” Hopkins said.