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Virginia Bioinformatics Institute joins nation’s leading science organizations at the USA Science & Engineering Festival


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 21, 2010 – Researchers from the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech will travel to the nation’s capital with the goal of engaging attendees at the country’s first science and engineering festival in an experiment.

Willing attendees will be given wristbands to pass along to others, simulating how a virus or bacteria can spread through casual contact.  These contacts will be tracked by a computer and used to create a simulation of how infections spread.  This interactive activity will turn visitors into “agents,” just like those in computer models used to demonstrate how infections spread through a population and identify the best ways to stop an epidemic before it even starts. In addition, the institute will provide a hands-on activity showcasing researchers’ efforts to improve crop production.

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute is an official partner of the first USA Science & Engineering Festival – a giant science party featuring two weeks of free events in Washington, D.C., that will culminate with a two-day Science Expo on the National Mall on Oct. 23-24. 

The institute will join more than 350 of the nation’s leading science and engineering organizations participating in the event. The expo, which is free to the public, will include exhibits spanning aerospace, green energy, medicine, biology, climatology, robotics, nanotechnology, botany, neuroscience, genetics, and many other scientific disciplines.

“We are pleased to be joining the best of American science at the USA Science & Engineering Festival,” said Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Executive Director Harold “Skip” Garner. “One of our missions at the institute is to encourage future generations to pursue careers in the sciences and help prepare the scientists of tomorrow for the changing landscape of science and technology. This event provides the perfect environment for sharing our work with budding researchers. We intend to peak their interest in science by having them actually ‘do science’ at the festival.”

Virginia Bioinformatics Institute faculty members and graduate research assistants will travel to the nation’s capital to host a dynamic exhibit designed to showcase the institute’s cutting-edge research. The institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory will provide an interactive activity demonstrating how a virus is tracked as it spreads through a population. Visitors to the booth will receive several wristbands with barcodes – one to keep and others to distribute. Each person receiving a wristband will be instructed to return to the exhibit, where the barcode will be scanned to reveal the original owner of the wristband and the amount of time it has been traveling through the crowd at the Expo.

“The purpose of the activity is to show how casual contact – represented by presenting another person with a wristband – can lead to the spread of infectious disease, since each person with an wristband will signify an infected person,” explains Stephen Eubank, deputy director of the institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory. “This demonstrates an integral part of our research to determine how infectious diseases travel through large populations – the effects of social contacts. This information helps us develop computer simulations to estimate how a particular disease might spread and how different intervention strategies could help control proliferation.”

When those participating in the activity return to the expo exhibit, they will have an opportunity to talk to Eubank and other Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory researchers about their efforts to predict the response of populations to a disease outbreak and view actual simulations developed by the group demonstrating how a disease would spread through cities like Chicago, Ill.

The work of Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Professor Andy Pereira involving environmental sustainability will also be featured at the exhibit. His research group will show those in attendance how genetic variation in nature in the form of mutants is being employed to select useful plants that are drought stress resistant or that produce biofuels efficiently. These plant prototypes provide needed solutions to environmental problems such as increasing water scarcity and global warming. Pereira will be on hand to answer questions about his research, which focuses on using a combined bioinformatic and systems biology approach to pinpoint genes that may be modified in some way to improve crop adaptability.

According to Kristy Collins, a senior research associate in the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute's education and outreach group who is leading the institute’s participation in the festival, “Our goal is to bring some of our best science from the Virginia Tech campus to Washington, D.C. We want to provide children with the opportunity to interact with several of our researchers who are making important discoveries that may one day impact their lives.”

Expo attendees can continue learning about the institute by visiting a website designed specifically for those that visited exhibit. The site will feature information about the institute’s research projects, including the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory’s work to track viruses, as well provide visitors the opportunity to enter a contest to win prizes, such as plush toy microbes.

The USA Science & Engineering Festival, which will be the country’s first national science festival aims to reignite the interest of our nation’s youth in the sciences. This is major opportunity for the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute’s education and outreach group, which engages over 5,000 students of all ages in its activities annually.

A university-level Research Institute of Virginia Tech, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute was established in 2000 with an emphasis on informatics of complex interacting systems scaling the microbiome to the entire globe. It helps solve challenges posed to human health, security, and sustainability. Headquartered at the Blacksburg campus, the institute occupies 154,600 square feet in research facilities, including state-of-the-art core laboratory and high-performance computing facilities, as well as research offices in the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Va.