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Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator tackles emerging coastal challenges

chesapeake bay
(© yvonnenavalaney – stock.adobe.com)

Coastal areas are brimming with commerce, people, and economic opportunity — and also a growing number of challenges. Of Virginia’s 8 million people, 60 percent inhabit coastal areas — and that number is increasing even as rising sea levels, poor water quality, and coastal hazards pose a mounting threat to the health, homes, and livelihoods of Virginians and coastal communities around the world.

Tackling the existential challenges facing coastal communities and industries requires sound science. Building on its legacy of research excellence, Virginia Tech is establishing a direct foothold in coastal Virginia to increase capacity to meet that need.

“To achieve our goal of helping coastal Virginia, following Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), we need to have a presence in the form of infrastructure that allows us to co-understand needs, co-develop strategies, and co-implement solutions in close collaboration with our partners,” said Robert Weiss, director of the Center for Coastal Studies and a professor of natural hazards in the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech.

Marking the launch of the newly formed Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator, office and laboratory space in the City of Hampton on Virginia’s coast will bring together the collective potential of innovators from disciplines across the university and its Blacksburg campus.

“The Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator was designed to match challenges that emerge in Virginia’s coastal zone with solutions by facilitating the formation of partnerships of Virginia Tech faculty, researchers, staff, and students with private and public entities,” Weiss said.

The Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator was developed by the Center for Coastal Studies of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in partnership with the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Its mission is to apply Virginia Tech human capital, innovation, and research capacity to emerging issues and opportunities in Virginia’s coastal zone, including Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore, Northern Neck, and Middle Peninsula.

“The Coastal Collaborator will provide the space, infrastructure, and opportunity for faculty to collaborate with local partners and regional marine industries to engage in research on topics ranging from coastal resiliency, environmental quality, sea-level rise, biology, offshore energy, and more,” said Michael Schwarz, lead for the Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator and director of the Virginia Seafood AREC.

Located at 27 West Queens Way in Hampton, Virginia, the leased office and laboratory space will operate under the Coastal Collaborator through the Virginia Seafood AREC with support from the City of Hampton, the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Center for Coastal Studies, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comprising the entire first floor of a multi-tenanted office building, the Coastal Collaborator space includes a welcoming reception area, 15 furnished offices for Virginia Tech experts, a research bench space, and a loading dock area to support waterfront research, monitoring, and testing. Renovations are nearing completion.

A gateway to the coast

A nexus where the Chesapeake Bay flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Hampton Roads has become Virginia Tech’s gateway to emerging social, economic, and environmental dimensions on the coast for research, extension, and education. The establishment of the Coastal Collaborator space marks the continued expansion of Virginia Tech’s footprint in Hampton, a coastal city ripe with revitalization efforts and a rich history entwined with the seafood industry, one of the oldest industries in the United States and one of the commonwealth’s largest.

Virginia Tech first made a splash on the coast in 1975 when the Virginia Seafood AREC, one of 11 Virginia Tech Agricultural Research and Extension Centers (ARECs), was established at the heart of that industry in Hampton. Dedicated to supporting the seafood and aquaculture industry since its inception, Virginia Seafood AREC researchers and extension specialists continue to work with industry and research partners to respond to emerging needs and provide technical guidance to stakeholders in every level of the seafood supply chain.

“This new Coastal Collaborator initiative is a portal that will open the city to all the academic and research talent currently centralized on the University’s campus in Blacksburg,” said Steven Lynch, Senior Business Development Manager with the City of Hampton. “It will expose the public and businesses in the city and region to research and technology developments that will benefit from the close proximity to the coast.”

On a five-minute walk from the Coastal Collaborator in downtown Hampton to the Hampton River waterfront, you will pass a row of restaurants, sea life murals, sites where new retail and apartment space are taking shape, and the Virginia Air and Space Museum. On the water’s edge, tucked between two generations-old seafood companies, you will find the current Virginia Seafood AREC and its new $10 million research facility currently under construction.

Despite the new building with enhanced office, aquaculture, and microbiology lab facilities nearing completion, rapid program growth in the last year saw the research center outgrowing both the current facility and even the capacity of the new one. To accommodate this growth, the center leased offices one floor above the Coastal Collaborator space early in 2021 to house its new and growing Seafood Economic Analysis and Marketing Research Program (SEAMaR).

“The Blacksburg campus is five hours away, but we’re right here on the waterfront along with our stakeholders,” Schwarz said. “By being operated through the Virginia Seafood AREC, the Coastal Collaborator and participating faculty will be able to plug right into the programming, partnerships, and industry relationships forged over the center’s 47 years operating here in Hampton and coastal Virginia.”

Connectivity to local stakeholders, partners, and opportunities is further reinforced by Virginia Tech’s other coastal ARECs in Virginia Beach and on the Eastern Shore.

“We are so pleased to see the rapid expansion of the Virginia Seafood AREC in Hampton energizing initiatives like the Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator,” said Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “As we continue to invest in upgrading our ARECs across the commonwealth, we hope to support more opportunities for collaborative programming to enhance the quality of life for Virginians, which lies at the core of our land-grant mission.”

Bringing the best of Virginia Tech coastal programming

This growth along the coast provides an entry point for the programmatic expansion of coastal initiatives started in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech’s main campus located nearly 300 miles from the coast.

The prospect of a Virginia Tech base mere blocks away from access to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean caught the attention of Dan Stilwell, a professor in the College of Engineering who has helped Virginia Tech’s programming for marine robotics grow over the past twenty years. Faculty in the Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics, directed by Stilwell, develop autonomous underwater vehicles that can survey the ocean floor or glide along the water’s surface. These vehicles require testing in aquatic — ideally marine — environments.

“With a more permanent space in Hampton, we can store equipment without having to carry it to and from Blacksburg, utilize waterfront access to operate our vehicles, and have space to work on and fix things,” Stilwell said. “Everything gets a lot easier.”

Meeting and working with key collaborators will also become more accessible. The Department of Defense is Virginia Tech’s largest source of federal funding, and Eric Paterson, executive director of the Virginia Tech National Security Institute, envisions the addition of university capacity within reach of the coast will present new opportunities for engineers to show prototype development and demonstration to sponsors.

“I see this facility advancing both basic academic and applied research working with government agencies and industry,” Paterson said.

While the Coastal Collaborator resources will be able to support the seafood and other industries already rooted in coastal Virginia, it is also positioned to facilitate the establishment of emerging ones. Hampton has excellent coastal facilities, is close to Richmond and Washington, D.C., and is next door to major military facilities that motivate and fund a lot of the development of marine robotics. These factors all make it an ideal location for a marine robotics economy, explained Stilwell.

“The marine robotics economy in Virginia is very small, but there is great potential for growth,” Stilwell said. “Everything is there; we just have to put it all together. Having one of the top academic programs in the country in this field, we think we can be a major catalyst for economic growth by having a larger presence in Hampton Roads.”

The Center for Coastal Studies, established in 2020, is another exemplar of program growth for coastal initiatives taking place in Blacksburg. Comprising more than 50 junior and senior faculty participants from various scientific disciplines at Virginia Tech, the Center for Coastal Studies fosters transdisciplinary learning and research efforts and engages a diverse set of stakeholders. Representing 22 departments across nine colleges, the center’s affiliates are among those who will be able to tap into resources through the Coastal Collaborator.

In addition to the efforts surrounding the Coastal Collaborator, a recently funded Coastal Resiliency Position, with support from Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Center for Coastal Studies, and Virginia Sea Grant (Go Virginia funded), auspiciously located in the Virginia Seafood AREC SEAMaR office, will further accelerate coastal zone programmatic expansion.

Additional funding for the Coastal Collaborator is being pursued to aid in launching the initiative, identifying community needs and opportunities that maximize return for constituents, and funding an onsite coordinator position to facilitate planning, project management, and collaboration with other universities, stakeholders, and organizations.

“Efforts will help the coastal region of Virginia to address the most pressing challenges of today, but also build resilience and ensure a prosperous future, which is an important goal as a global-land-grant university in the 21st century,” Weiss said.

Once fully operational, the Coastal Collaborator will function as an interdisciplinary professional and academic resource supporting initiatives along the coast. Combined with the research and development capacity across Virginia Tech, the potential impacts to be realized are as wide-ranging and far-reaching as the ocean itself.

For more information about how the Virginia Tech community can begin utilizing this resource, contact Michael Schwarz at [email protected].


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