Virginia Tech Magazine
Hok-E-News -|- Fall 2006

Virginia Tech Magazine's online feature, Hok-E-News, which is updated quarterly with Web-only content, gives Web-savvy readers more news and stories about some of the exciting things happening at the university today.

Gobble de Art

Hall of Fame Hokie Bird
Hokie Proud! HokieBird
A Bird You Can Bank On HokieBird
Hall of Fame HokieBird
Artist: Alisa Colpitts
Hokie Proud!
Artist: Walter Shroyer
A Bird You Can Bank On
Artist: Natalie Siegel
To view the entire flock of HokieBird statues that landed in Blackburg as part of the town's Gobble de Art initiative, go to

Jacob Lutz, John Lawson to lead Virginia Tech Board of Visitors
by Larry Hincker

Virginia Tech Board of Visitors

At its regular quarterly meeting held in June at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Va., the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors elected Jacob A. Lutz III, partner, Troutman Sanders LLP of Richmond, Va., as its new rector.

John Lawson, president and chief executive officer of W.M. Jordan Co., Inc., of Newport News, was named vice rector.

Lutz succeeds Ben J. Davenport Jr., of Chatham, vice chairman of the Future of the Piedmont Foundation. Davenport's four-year term as a member of the board of visitors expired June 30, 2006. He served as board rector for two years.

Lutz is chair of Troutman Sanders' Financial Institutions Practice Group, which represents national banks, state banks, thrifts, credit unions, securities firms, insurance companies, and related financial services providers domestically and internationally. He also serves as faculty for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants National School of Banking at the University of Virginia and is a member of the board of directors for the Salvation Army.

Lutz has been a member of the board since 2000 and has chaired the board's Finance and Audit Committee for the past four years. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and received his Juris Doctorate degree from the College of William & Mary.

Lawson, also an alumnus of Virginia Tech, is the president and chief executive officer of the largest construction company based in Virginia with nearly 400 people. Under his leadership, W.M. Jordan Co. has achieved annual revenues exceeding $360 million. The company has been ranked in Engineering News Record's Top 400 Contractors in the U.S. for the past 25 years.

Lawson has been a member of the board since 2002 and has served as chair of its Buildings and Grounds Committee for the past two years. He received the Ernst and Young Virginia Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2004, the Lenora Mathews Lifetime Achievement Award from the Volunteer Hampton Roads in 2003, and the United Way Volunteer of the Year Award in 1997. The new Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech has been named after Lawson and his college classmate, Ross Myers.

The Board of Visitors is the governing body of Virginia Tech. The board is composed of 14 members, 13 of which are appointed by the governor and the 14th member is the president of the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who serves ex-officio. The term of office is four years.

To learn more about the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, go to

Virginia Tech researchers demonstrate that light guides flight of migratory birds
by Susan Trulove

Songbirds use multiple sources of directional cues to guide their seasonal migrations, including the Sun, star patterns, the earth's magnetic field, and sky polarized light patterns. To avoid navigational errors as cue availability changes with time of day and weather conditions, however, these "compass" systems must be calibrated to a common reference. Experiments over the last 30 years have failed to resolve the fundamental question of how migratory birds integrate multiple sources of directional information into a coherent navigational system.

migratory birds

Last autumn, Rachel Muheim, a postdoctoral associate in biology professor John Phillips' lab at Virginia Tech, captured Savannah sparrows in the Yukon before they headed south. She was able to demonstrate that the birds calibrate their magnetic compass based on polarized light patterns at sunset and sunrise.

The research appears in the Aug. 11, 2006, issue of Science, in the article, "Polarized Light Cues Underlie Compass Calibration in Migratory Songbirds," by Muheim, Phillips, and Suzanne Akesson. Muheim did her Ph.D. work at Lund University in Sweden with Akesson, who made the Alaska trip possible.

Polarized light is light that oscillates in one plane relative to the direction of propagation. At sunrise and sunset, there is a band of intense polarized light 90 degrees from the sun that passes directly overhead through the zenith and intersects the horizon 90 degrees to the right and left of the sun. Just as the sun location changes with latitude and the time of year, however, so does the alignment of the band of polarized light.

Muheim and Phillips argue that migratory songbirds average the intersections of the polarization band with the horizon at sunrise and sunset to find the north-south meridian (geographic north-south axis), providing a reference that is independent of time of year (and latitude). The birds then use this geographic reference to calibrate their other compass systems.

In other words, polarized light, the Sun and stars, and the geomagnetic field are all directional cues for migration, but polarized light appears to provide the primary reference system used to calibrate the other compass systems, said Phillips.

Previous research had suggested a much more confusing picture, however.

Migratory birds are born with an innate magnetic compass preference that coincides with their species' migratory direction. Previous research suggested that before the migration period, songbirds are able to recalibrate the magnetic compass when exposed to a "conflict" between magnetic and celestial (including polarized light) cues, but during migration it appeared that the reverse was true -- the magnetic field was used as the primary reference for calibrating the bird's other compass systems.

But experiments with birds during migration were not consistent. In a few instances, the birds did recalibrate the magnetic compass. When Muheim and Phillips did a literature review, they noticed a difference between the experiments of the few scientists who saw migratory birds recalibrate their compass and of those whose birds failed to recalibrate.

"It is important how you do the experiments. It turns out that the part of the sky that matters is just above the horizon," said Phillips. "In cue conflict experiments carried out before migration, birds were usually housed in outdoor aviaries in a rotated magnetic field, where they had a view of the whole sky, including the horizon. Once migration starts, however, scientists usually exposed birds in "funnel cages." After exposure to the cue conflict, the birds' directional preferences could be recorded; songbirds in migratory condition leave tracks or scratches on the sides of the funnel as they attempt to take flight in the migratory direction.

migratory birds

A problem arises, however, because funnels block the lower 20 degrees of the sky. The birds only recalibrated their magnetic compass in two of the 30 or so experiments where the birds were exposed to the cue conflict with a view of the horizon. In the only two experiments (out of the 30 or so) carried out during migration where birds were exposed to the cue conflict with a view of the horizon, they did recalibrate their magnetic compass (i.e., previously observed only in experiments carried out prior to migration)."

Muheim's experiments proved that seeing polarized light cues near the horizon was the critical factor.

"Once the right hypothesis came along, it all fit," said Phillips.

The research provides support for an observation Phillips had published 20 years ago to determine how homing pigeons navigate. There was a theory that wind-borne odors provide pigeons with information about the locations of odor sources, which could then be used to determine their position relative to the home loft when they were released at an unfamiliar site. The birds were housed in a loft with a "pinwheel" arrangement of deflector panels attached to the four screened walls of the loft to rotate direction of the wind. Pigeons housed in the so-called "deflector lofts" showed the predicted (clockwise or counterclockwise) deflection of homeward orientation when released at a distant site. It turned out, however, that the panels influenced the distribution of polarized light patterns at sunset and sunrise, and it was the altered polarization patterns, rather than olfactory cues, that produced the directional biases. Moreover, the effect appeared to result from recalibration of the sun compass. Phillips published the research in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (1988, volume 131). "I've felt ever since that this was the key to understanding the integration of compass information in migratory birds," he said.

Learn more about Phillips' research at

The future in their own words: Five students win thousand dollar awards
by Jenna Lazenby
Invent the Future scholarship winners
"Invent the Future" scholarship winners
Computer scientist Allan Kay might have said it best: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

However, Virginia Tech wanted to see what "Invent the Future"--the new tagline adopted last January by the university--meant to incoming freshman.

In February, President Charles W. Steger announced the "Invent the Future" Essay Scholarship contest as part of the university's new branding initiative. All incoming Fall 2006 freshmen were invited to interpret the new university tagline "Invent the Future" in a 250-word essay. A judging panel selected the top five essays from nearly 300 entries; each winner received a $1,000 scholarship.

Here are the five winners and excerpts from their essays:

Hao Luu, a general engineering major in the College of Engineering:
"[In 2020], everyone chants Ut Prosim, given that the goal now is to not improve life at the Earth's expense but to use what nature gives and to channel this to help the world. This is the sole way that ... the world and dreams still survive."

Jamie Smith, a general engineering major in the College of Engineering:
"The advancement of others in itself is inventing the future. The installment of curiosity and knowledge will in turn make a better tomorrow. I see a vision of change through the overall betterment of society, one person at a time. Inventing the future is not about building skyscrapers that touch the sky but creating sparks of hope in those who need it most."

Nathanial Lynch, a general engineering major in the College of Engineering:
"To invent the future is to develop a revolutionary new idea that dramatically differs from the past ... Thomas Edison invented the future when he developed the incandescent light bulb, for it dramatically altered lifestyles. The Wright brothers invented the future when their "Wright Flyer" took flight, with incalculable consequences on travel, trade, and war throughout the 20th century. The future holds a continued march of progress, as history consistently shows. Few could have predicted the consequences of the light bulb or the airplane."

Jennifer Blair Soldan, mathematics major in the College of Science:
"Even the quietest student can have an impact on the future if he merely makes a difference in the lives of those around him, either by words, deeds, or simply a willingness to listen. An encouraging word to a discouraged artist may make the difference in the discovery of the next Monet, and the praise of a particularly good speaker on the debate team may be the spark the next great politician needs."

Katherine Wooten, an environmental science major in the College of Science:
"Humanity relies on fresh water more than any other resource and I want to help solve problems pertaining to the protection and maintenance of drinking water. I plan to pursue a master's degree so that I can excel in environmental science ... By becoming an environmental leader, I will help to preserve and protect the health and beauty of America."

"'Invent the Future' captures the broad notions that education and the creation of knowledge can invent a bright future for all of us, and these students embody that spirit of discovery," said J. Christopher Clough, director of marketing and strategic planning at Virginia Tech and coordinator of the scholarship. "The winning essays reflect this sentiment, the bold spirit of Virginia Tech, and what the university hopes to instill in the student body."

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