On the web

Virginia Tech Magazine's online feature, "On the Web," gives Web-savvy readers more news and stories about some of the exciting things happening at the university today. "On the Web" will be updated with Web-only content on a quarterly basis.

by Lynn Nystrom

Francis Quek, director of the Center for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering's Department of Computer Science, has received a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study embodiment awareness, mathematics discourse, and the blind.

Quek uses the term "embodiment awareness" to convey the way in which a listener accesses and comprehends communications. This area of research is grounded in psycholinguistic theories that are based, in part, on the fact that when we speak, our embodied behavior of gesture, gaze, posture, and facial expression become part of the communicative process.

Francis QuekFrancis Quek

"Our brain is designed to function within a body," Quek said. "True communication includes the underlying mental imagery, which relates to what is said, as well as what is displayed."

Gestures help reveal the major points of accompanying words and help the listener focus on important elements of a conversation.

The NSF project also focuses on math discourse and education for blind students, who Quek says typically lag one-to-three years behind their sighted fellow students in math. Mathematical reasoning is rich in spatial imagery revealed in gestures, which have the capacity to create images that serve as "objects of contemplation." When a graphic or illustration is available for math instruction, the lessons usually include gestures of spatial reference to the graphic.

Research with individuals who are blind suggests that they have remarkable capacity for visual imagery, memory, and conceptualization and are able to access graphical content through tactile image technology.

However, Quek believes that lack of visual access to the embodiment of the instructor makes mastery of the material more difficult for blind students. He proposes to remedy this problem by giving blind students the use of tactile devices that can provide elements of embodiment awareness.

"How do you keep the student in communication with the teacher?" Quek asked. "One thing we can do is to build a series of devices that will send images to blind students and make the images into something they can feel."

He has assembled a multidisciplinary team that includes Virginia Tech researchers in the fields of computer science, psychology, education, and disabilities research and services.

The team will perform a series of perception and action experiments to test how well the embodiment devices work. They will then perform a second series of experiments with blind and sighted students in mathematics instruction, captured on video. They also will run pre- and post-tests to assess the quality and quantity of imagistic content and to determine the correlation, if any, between these and the formation of math concepts.

Quek said the project should have significant direct impact on inclusive mathematics instruction at all grade levels for visually impaired students. "Providing a sense of embodiment awareness to students who are blind has not yet been studied," he said, "and it has the potential for empowering such students."

Quek also predicts that understanding the channels for embodiment awareness will affect the design of future distance learning systems and will provide insights on how best to provide embodiment cues to students in Internet-based instruction.

by Karen Gilbert
Virginia Tech has been awarded $805,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create an interdisciplinary center for space research in the College of Engineering. Wayne Scales, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, and Joseph Wang, associate professor in aerospace and ocean engineering, are the leaders of this new initiative for Virginia Tech.

The space science research program will begin with the hiring of a new faculty member in electrical and computer engineering with expertise in ground-based and/or space-based science instrument development. The faculty member will develop research and teaching programs specifically in radio science, upper atmospheric physics, and aeronomy that complement Virginia Tech's existing efforts in these scientific areas.


Virginia Tech has two faculty members with research efforts in theoretical studies and numerical modeling of upper atmospheric space physics and space environmental effects. Adding a new faculty member to this effort will provide a critical mass of faculty working in the space science area, greatly strengthening existing research efforts.

Plans also are underway for the creation of a space science instrument laboratory. With this new facility, Virginia Tech will be able to compete much more effectively for funding in space science and future space exploration missions, significantly increasing research opportunities in both space science and space technology at Virginia Tech.

The new space science program also will support Virginia Tech's nationally known programs in wireless telecommunications, power systems engineering, remote sensing, advanced space propulsion, and spacecraft dynamics and control--all of which utilize space science. This effort will be complemented by the creation of a Ph.D. specialization in space science in electrical and computer engineering and aerospace and ocean engineering, which will increase the number of graduate students available to conduct research in space science.

Several new courses will be developed in collaboration with the new faculty member in order to have a clearly defined space science track within electrical and computer engineering and aerospace and ocean engineering. The new courses being planned include Fundamentals of Space Science, Numerical Methods for Space Physics, Space Science Instrumentation, and Spacecraft Environment Interactions.

This initiative is well timed and strongly supported by the College of Engineering and the university given the recent affiliation with the National Institute of Aerospace, a consortium of universities established in 2002 to develop excellence in research and education in a spectrum of aerospace related areas of study, including space science. Other member universities include Georgia Tech, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, North Carolina State, Hampton University, and North Carolina A&T State.

To further support the new program, Virginia Tech has long-standing relationships with the Space Plasma Physics Branch at the Naval Research Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Langley Research Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The relatively close proximity of the university to a number of these leading government space science research laboratories will help strengthen new collaborative efforts in space science.

by Susan Felker
Gravity Golf

Gravity Golf®, an innovative approach to teaching golf to beginners and helping experienced golfers make dramatic improvements to their game, will be taught at Virginia Tech next semester under the sponsorship of Continuing and Professional Education.

The semester-long course, which makes use of body mass rather than muscle, will be offered in four sessions from Aug. 29 to Nov. 30: Mondays and Wednesdays, 3 to 4 p.m.; Mondays and Wednesdays, 4 to 5 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3 to 4 p.m.; and Tuesdays and Thursdays, 4 to 5 p.m. A second course in the spring semester will be taught from Jan. 23 to April 26, 2006.

David Lee, who played on the Professional Golf Association Tour until a wrist injury sidelined him in 1977, developed Gravity Golf® after years of research into the physics and body mechanics of effectively and safely playing golf. The apparently effortless swings of such golf greats as Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino prompted him to examine and refine the techniques that ultimately became Gravity Golf®.

Lee's system trains beginners so rapidly that many become entry-level professionals in as little as a year. He has developed specially designed drills that help activate the brain hierarchy to use the same mechanisms that people employ while learning to walk or ride a bicycle. These exercises in perfect swing mechanics enable students to bypass the trial-and-error methods that have made the learning process slow and often painful for generations of would-be golfers.

"I believe the method Lee has developed could be applied with great benefit to all levels of golfers, and I am happy to give it my personal endorsement and support," Nicklaus said. "It certainly has revealed things to me about my own swing that I had not previously been aware of."

Closer to home, James F. Wolfe, president of the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, was a student in a pilot course here last spring. "I have found Lee's ingenious Gravity Golf® approach to teaching and learning the essence of golf swing mechanics to be both intellectually fascinating and physically effective," Wolfe said. "Because of the unique neurophysiological and biomechanical components of this methodology, it would seem that there are a number of possibilities for collaborative research projects in areas ranging from biomechanical investigations to sports medicine clinical studies."

Tuition is $995 for the course, with financial assistance available through the Virginia Tech Financial Aid Office to qualified participants. Contact Tony Sutphin for financial aid assistance by calling (540) 231-9555 or by e-mailing sutphint@vt.edu.

Students will earn 2.4 Continuing Education Units upon successful completion of the course. They also earn a five-year discount that enables them to purchase golf equipment from major manufacturers at wholesale prices with potential savings on the purchase of a set of pro-line clubs that are greater than the Gravity Golf® tuition costs.

One of the leading golf instructors in the country, Lee has golf schools in Palm Springs, Calif.; Brookville, Fla.; and Hot Springs, Ark., the latter at his own 64-acre training complex.

For more information, visit Tech's Gravity Golf® course website at http://www.conted.vt.edu/gravitygolf/ or contact Wanda McAlexander at (540) 231-5242 or wandamc@vt.edu.


Approximately 80 people attended the Virginia Tech Service-Learning Center's 10th Anniversary Gala in April to celebrate the center's work in bridging university and community by helping faculty and students put knowledge to work through community service.

The event marked the formal beginning of the center's Student Success Endowed Fund, founded by Rachel Parker-Gwin and Louis Gwin, former Virginia Tech faculty and current supporters of the center. The fund will provide scholarships and financial support to outstanding students who have made community service a part of their educational experience. Lucinda Roy, chair of the English Department, was on hand to present the first student awards.

The Service-Learning Center is a division of Outreach and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, and Service-Learning is an experiential program incorporating community service into course work to teach class concepts through civic participation.

During the spring semester, more than 500 students from classes in a variety of disciplines at Virginia Tech took an active role working at non-profit agencies and schools and on community projects across the New River Valley and in Roanoke. The Service-Learning Center facilitates and supports these student experiences.

For the past decade, the center has worked to be a catalyst for community and university partnerships that strengthen local communities and enhance students' academic and civic education to add breadth and depth to their classroom experiences. Students devote their semesters to projects such as working with senior-adult programs, tutoring and mentoring, providing staffing assistance to non-profits, and collecting and delivering household items to families in need.

Service-Learning also has assisted in the creation of various programs, such as "Crossing the Border," which pairs Spanish students with new immigrant Latino families. Other Service-Learning programs include the Literacy Corps and VTOPS, which provide support to local school programs, and the Hometown Corps program, in which students work on community improvement projects in various rural towns and counties throughout the area.

For more information, visit the Service-Learning Center online at http://www.vtserves.vt.edu/dd/home.asp.

by Susan Trulove
Rahul Kulkarni, assistant professor of physics at Virginia Tech, has been awarded a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities to continue his research on quorum sensing in bacteria. He is modeling the sequence of events that initiate activity, such as virulence, by a bacteria colony once it has reached a critical size.

The Powe award provides seed money of $5,000 to faculty members who are in the first two years of their tenure track as an investment in promising achievements in an important area. The institution matches the award.

Much like a legislative body, some bacteria need a quorum, the presence of a critical number of individuals, before they can engage in particular activities. Typically these are activities that are only productive when carried out in unison by a community of bacteria.

The example often given is bioluminescence. Scientists noticed that once a population or colony of particular bacteria reached a certain size, the colony began to emit light. "Now many people realize that other important activities also depend upon a quorum, such as biofilm formation, releasing toxins, or becoming a virulent invader," Kulkarni said.


While Kulkarni works with Vibrio cholerae as a model bacteria, quorum sensing appears to be a universal process in bacteria. So what he learns about the communication process known as quorum sensing could one day help scientists prevent a broad range of diseases caused by bacteria that are human pathogens.

How do bacteria know how many are present? Each bacterium releases a small molecule, called an autoinducer. Each bacterium also has receptors--proteins on its cell surface--to sense autoinducers. As the amount of autoinducer reaches a critical level, the bacteria know they have a quorum because a change is initiated in the receptor protein, which then causes a series of further changes within each bacterium.

Kulkarni is looking at the network of genes involved in this process. Working with a group at Princeton University and at Virginia Tech, "we are trying to understand how changes in the environment are integrated and result in changes in behavior," he said.

What was not known until recently is a crucial missing link in the network in each bacterium that results in the ability to change behavior. Just before he came to Virginia Tech in August 2004, Kulkarni and his collaborators at Princeton solved the mystery. Using bioinformatics and modeling, Kulkarni drafted theoretical predictions for the missing regulatory element, which were confirmed experimentally by his colleagues at Princeton.

"We showed that the crucial missing element was a group of genes called small RNAs. ("The small RNA chaperone Hfq and multiple small RNAs control quorum sensing in Vibrio harveyi and Vibrio cholerae," by D.H. Lenz, K.C. Mok, B.N. Lilley, R.V. Kulkarni, N.S. Wingreen, and B.L. Bassler, published in Cell, July 9, 2004). As it turns out, quorum sensing is a hot topic in biology, and small RNAs is another hot topic. The convergence of these topics is exciting, and it has resulted in several additional questions," Kulkarni said.

He will address these questions in his Powe-funded research. "We are asking, what are the environmental signals, apart from quorum sensing, that are integrated by the small RNAs to initiate changes in behavior. An example might be the amount of nutrients in the environment. Another question is why are there multiple RNAs. The sensing and communication circuit functions even if some of the RNAs are removed--in fact, even if there is only one small RNA. Modeling the circuit will be crucial in understanding how it functions and integrates signals from multiple inputs," Kulkarni said.

A third question is how the circuit regulates important biological processes, such as biofilm formation and virulence. "Biofilms make bacteria resistant to antibiotics, so preventing the formation of biofilms or short-circuiting bacteria's ability to become virulent by disturbing their communication network so they remain harmless is an alternative strategy to controlling disease," he said.

Kulkarni will continue his collaboration with the Princeton University group on V. cholerae and will collaborate with Virginia Tech Biology Professor Ann Stevens, whose group is working on V. fischeri, the bacteria that causes luminescence and whose genome has recently been sequenced ("Complete genome sequence of Vibrio fischeri: A symbiotic bacterium with pathogenic congeners," by E. G. Ruby, M. Urbanowski, J. Campbell, A. Dunn, M. Faini, R. Gunsalus, P. Lostroh, C. Lupp, J. McCann, D. Millikan, A. Schaefer, E. Stabb, A. Stevens, K. Visick, C. Whistler, and E. P. Greenberg, published Feb. 22, 2005, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science).

Kulkarni received his master's degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and his Ph.D. in physics from Ohio State University. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, and a postdoctoral research scientist at the NEC Laboratories America Inc. in Princeton, N.J.