BLACKSBURG, Va., Dec. 1, 2002 - Virginia Tech's campus, tucked between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains, is often wrapped in a thick layer of fog. An even more impenetrable barrier at many universities is an "Ivory Tower" mindset that leads academics to separate themselves from surrounding communities. But that doesn't seem to be a problem at Virginia Tech.
A group of 24 faculty and staff from the university called the Southside Implementation Team is reaching out to the Danville area through projects such as the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, currently under construction in Danville.
"It's central to our mission to transfer the research knowledge generated at the university to individuals, communities and families to enhance their opportunities for economic well-being and to enhance their quality of life," said John E. Dooley, a coordinator of the Southside Implementation Team and Virginia Tech's associate provost for university outreach. "That's what it means to be a land grant university.
Dooley said he has visited Danville about once per month during the last year and added that he spends 12-15 hours per week on tasks related to the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. The institute, which is intended to bring high tech research, advanced classes and new economic life to the Dan River Region, involves Virginia Tech, Averett University, Danville Community College, Danville and Pittsylvania County governments, the Future of the Piedmont Foundation and other organizations.
After first referring to the River City's vibrant atmosphere in the 1950s, Dooley said the team is working with the community to achieve "a new glory" for the area.
Other members of the Southside Implementation Team elaborated on Dooley's comments in separate interviews.
"The institute is really important. It's not a silver bullet. It's a catalyst - a really important catalyst, and this is a long-term process," said team member Anne H. Moore, a Danville native who is Virginia Tech's director for information technology initiatives.
Moore said she became involved in the institute in its early stages, helping the Future of the Piedmont Foundation develop an initial proposal for the facility more than two years ago. Moore also said she has worked on projects for Southside for weeks at a time, but recently has spent less time on them as more people have become involved.
Team member Bruno W. Sobral said the "preferred model" for his staff's collaboration with the institute "would be really to get resources-both infrastructure as well as personnel -placed locally (in Danville) and then to support those resources in every way we can."
Sobral, director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, said he manages four scientists who are "putting significant hours of time" into bringing "biotech plus infotech" to Southside. They will also be heavily involved in training people in Danville, Sobral said.
"Frankly, it's kind of like the old story of giving a man a fish as opposed to teaching him how to fish," he added.
One focus of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research should be developing concepts, reducing them to practice and then possibly licensing them to local businesses, said Professor Garth L. Wilkes, another member of the Southside Implementation team.
Wilkes, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering and co-director of a polymers laboratory at Virginia Tech, has laid out a framework for a polymer processing center at the institute. Polymers are materials made of long chains of molecules that are often injection-molded or made into films for use in a variety of consumer goods.
Wilkes described the kind of research projects he had in mind for the polymer processing part of the institute.
"One of the things that's important today is to add value, a value added in addition to just the processing, often by further chemical reactions," he said. For example, materials that are non-polar, which means other materials cannot adhere to them, could be made polar.
"Suppose in the midst of processing that material, turning it into a film or a fiber or whatever, you could modify the surface chemically to make it polar. Then the surface would be polar and I could stick something to it," Wilkes said.
This type of work is called "reactive processing," and Wilkes has talked with one local business, DanChem Technologies, Inc., about collaborating in this area, he said.
So far one candidate has been interviewed as a possible director of the polymer processing center, according to Wilkes. Under the director there may eventually be two other Ph.D.-level researchers, two technicians and graduate students, Wilkes said.
"I always have an interest in seeing things grow in the polymer area," he said. "If it benefits Danville and it benefits Tech and it benefits polymer growth - all those three - then I would be really happy."
November 30, 2002