The UVA Issue: Around Grounds

Looking back on a year at UVA. Photo: Jack Looney Looking back on a year at UVA. Photo: Jack Looney

It’s definitely been a year of change at the University, from the announcement of some major departures to a big reveal to the Rotunda dome’s makeover, but it’s also been a bang-up year for advancement, thanks to research and writing from the faculty. And be sure to check out the other part of our UVA feature, highlighting student achievements in the 2013-2014 academic year.

A father’s secret: Beloved late UVA prof Ernest “Boots” Mead revealed as Seven Society member

For years, Jenny Mead asked her father, the beloved music professor Ernest “Boots” Mead, if he was a member of UVA’s ultra-secretive Seven Society, a philanthropic organization that dates back more than a century and always donates amounts with the number seven.

“I just thought he was so special,” said Mead of her father, who died in February at the age of 95. “He was very involved, not only as chair of the music department, but so involved with the students, and he won all sorts of awards over the course of his career. I thought if anyone is a member of Seven, I bet it’s my father.”

Under her repeated questioning over the years, however, her father would always put her queries to rest. “He would always say, ‘Honey, no, no I’m not,” Mead recalled. “But I never believed him.”

She was right to doubt.

Ernest “Boots” Mead. Photo: Jane Haley
Ernest “Boots” Mead. Photo: Jane Haley

When her father became ill last fall, Mead took over his finances and spent hours poring over paperwork. While most of his files were precisely labeled, she noticed one that bore a three-letter cryptic tag. A peek inside confirmed what she’d long suspected: “Boots” Mead was a Seven.

But even when she gently confronted him with the evidence, he kept mum.

“He looked at me with a sheepish grin and said nothing, just shook his head,” said Mead, who declined to reveal any of the contents of the file or the letters used to label it. “I kept my promise I wouldn’t say anything about it to anyone,” she said.

Even if she had tried to spread the word about his membership before his death, she wouldn’t have had proof. Shortly after her discovery, one of her father’s former students visited him in his Fendall Avenue home. Mead could hear the two whispering behind closed doors.

“I wondered what in the world is going on?” she said. The student—a woman whom Mead declined to identify—left, and when Mead next checked her father’s paperwork, the cryptic file was gone.

As is always the case with the Seven Society, formal confirmation of an individual’s membership comes only after his death, and that was the case for Professor Mead. As hundreds of people paid their respects at his memorial service, a black banner bearing the number seven hung on the wall.

To his daughter, it was just one more symbol of a life well lived.

“I wasn’t shocked,” she said. “I was very proud of him.”—Courteney Stuart

Growing Grounds: Big projects at UVA change dome, dorms, and dining

Driving around Grounds provides ample evidence that the school has big plans for the future. Here are a few of the biggest projects that recently wrapped or are still underway.

The Rotunda

Say goodbye to the round room, at least for a while. UVA’s most famous building, the Rotunda, is about to undergo Phase Two of a massive $50 million renovation that will close the famous structure to the public for two years following graduation weekend on May 17-18. According to UVA spokesperson McGregor McCance, among the many upgrades will be the installation of an underground mechanical room and replacement of the marble capitals. The most visible renovation to the building—replacement of the dome roof—was completed in Phase One, with the exception of painting it white. While some have expressed preference for the exposed copper, McCance says painting is imminent, although no date has been set.

UVA's Rotunda roof, gleaming copper. Photo: Laura Wagner
UVA’s Rotunda roof, gleaming copper. Photo: Laura Wagner

Alderman Road dorms

Newly arriving students in coming years will find posh new dorms along Alderman Road. Construction of the new residence halls began in 2006 and all will be complete in 2015, according to McCance. Three of the new dorms that are part of the $38 million project are already housing students and feature multipurpose gathering spaces, laundry, and lounges on the first floor with upper floors providing bedrooms and additional lounging and study spaces. The fourth dorm will be complete in time to welcome students for the 2015-2016 school year.

Three of the older dorms along Alderman will remain until 2020 to provide “swing space” for students until renovations of the dorms on McCormick Road are complete.

Dining hall

The days of students chowing on mass-produced foods served buffet-style are long gone after a nearly four-year, $33 million renovation of Newcomb Hall that wrapped up earlier this year. In January, Newcomb opened three new dining options—the Fresh Food Company, which seats 1,200, a 36-seat noodle bar called “In the Nood,” and N2Go, which offers take-away service, according to a UVAToday article. Instead of food sitting over warmers for hours, food is now prepared in open kitchens while students wait.

The dining renovations added 20,000 square feet to the building, and spread the first floor out onto Newcomb Plaza, shrinking it by about 25 percent. The main entrance now faces the Central Grounds Parking Garage rather than McCormick Road. Other changes to Newcomb Hall included a complete gutting and renovation of the Newcomb Hall theater, upgrades to a third-floor ballroom, and renovation of the office of the student-run University Judiciary Committee on the fourth floor.—Courteney Stuart

From lab and library to the world

UVA’s faculty does more than teach. They’re constantly uncovering new knowledge about everything from the surface of Mars to the racial makeup of the U.S. Here are some fascinating advancements and awards from the last year.

Otherworldly achievements

Alan Howard has studied planetary geography at UVA since the 1970s, and late last year, his contributions to our understanding of the surface of other worlds were recognized in an unprecedented way. The Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union both presented him with G.K. Gilbert Awards, a prize named for a founding father figure in the field. Howard already had one G.K. Gilbert Award, given to him in 1991 by the Association of American Geographers. No other researcher holds the triptych.

Alan Howard. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Media Relations
Alan Howard. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Media Relations

Howard, like the awards’ famous geologist namesake, applies what we know about Earth’s geologic processes to the massive amount of information we’re now getting about the surface of Mars and some of the moons of the distant gas giants, revealing the hidden histories of flowing liquid on orbiting rocks that might have once looked much more like our own home.

“The nice thing about Mars is that because it pretty much lost all of its atmosphere about 3.5 billion years ago, it’s sort of a time capsule,” he said. “A lot of the very early history of Earth is just present in little fragments of rock that somehow managed to be eroded or transformed over the lifetime of the planet. So that’s one of our motivations for going out to other places. We’re trying to figure out the long-term history of the solar system.”

Finding an upside to fracking

Last fall, UVA engineering researchers got some exposure for a novel proposal to solve the Earth’s carbon dioxide overload problem: Store the greenhouse gas in the cracks opened by fracking.

Assistant professor of engineering Andres Clarens and graduate student Zhiyuan Tao, who published their peer-reviewed paper in the publication Environmental Science and Technology, suggested that the controversial practice of cracking open ancient shale formations to get at methane could offer an opportunity for carbon sequestration. By their calculations, the northeast U.S.’s Marcellus Shale formation alone could store as much as 18 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide—approximately half of what’s expected to be produced by the country’s stationary CO2 sources, like power plants and refineries, between 2018 and 2030.

Academic and industry publications across the world picked up on the paper, and no wonder. It’s an idea that has the potential, as Clarens told the Washington, D.C.-based Chemical & Engineering News, to “close the loop on carbon.”

Your brain in love

Psychology professor James Coan published new findings about human empathy last year that show we don’t just care about the ones we love—in a sense, our brains believe we are them, and they are us.

Coan’s study, which appeared in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, found that when people watched friends get shocked, their brains responded as if the stress was happening to their own bodies. The reaction didn’t happen when they watched strangers under duress, though. The conclusion: Our sense of self is closely tied to the people we care about.

Coan—whose earlier research has found a correlation between spousal hand-holding and significant stress reduction—was one of the speakers at TEDx Charlottesville, a local version of the international idea festival held late last year. In his talk, he put his discoveries about empathy and the self in more meta terms. Expressing empathy and holding hands sends a signal, he said, “and that signal is really something like, ‘I am here with you. I am here with you. I am here with you.’ And what we’ve learned is that with time, with increasing levels of interdependence, that signal grows in strength and gradually transforms into something more like ‘I am you, you are me, and we are here. We are here. We are here.’”

A safer gridiron

Two separate studies this year saw UVA researchers tackling prevention of brain and body injury in contact sports—particularly football.

Richard Kent, deputy director of UVA’s Center for Applied Biomechanics, led testing of thigh pads for the NFL, and found that some thigh pads available to players did nothing to protect from bruising during hits, and others even made injury more likely. Based on the research, the league approved 37 out of 82 tested pads.

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine and Curry School of Education launched a joint study of 130 student-athletes on University and local football, lacrosse, and soccer teams. Participants got baseline MRIs, and have been wearing behind-the-ear patches that measure the impact of blows to the head. The hope is that further scans will reveal new information about how repeated hits affect student athletes’ brains—and how concussions can be avoided.

Going viral

A major finding about HIV replication landed a group of researchers at UVA’s School of Medicine a big grant from the National Institutes of Health last year.

For more than 20 years, husband-and-wife research team David Rekosh and Dr. Marie-Louise Hammarskjold have been studying an HIV gene called Rev, a piece of RNA that regulates the virus’ replication with a special transport pathway different from that of any other retrovirus.

“The virus can change itself much more quickly than the cell, making many, many more copies of itself every day,” said Hammarskjold. “And every time it makes a copy, it’s changing itself, so it’s constantly changing, and it’s outsmarting the immune system.”

Their team’s recent work, published in the Journal of Virology, has led to a greater understanding of how Rev helps HIV avoid detection by the human immune system, and has won them new NIH funding to continue their work. What they found was that Rev levels can differ from patient to patient, and within patients at different stages of the disease. Understanding more about the gene’s expression could tell us how Rev contributes to the persistence of viruses in the body even during treatment.

“We’re trying to understand very fundamental things, and it’s the nature of this kind of research that we don’t know what the payoff is going to be,” Rekosh said. But this kind of basic research is critical, because it lays the groundwork for better future understanding—not just of the virus, disease, or cell process any given scientist is trying to study, but for future problems we don’t even know about yet.

“The reason we had a drug available within 10 years of the discovery of HIV? It had already been developed to treat cancer and it was literally sitting on the shelf,” said Rekosh.

Dialing in on diabetes

Your smartphone can do a lot. But can it regulate your insulin levels? Two School of Medicine researchers reconfigured one so that it could—and it landed them a $3.4 million grant.

Boris Kovatchev, director of UVA’s Center for Diabetes Technology, and Patrick Keith-Hynes turned a phone into an artificial pancreas, using it to run a blood glucose monitor and an insulin pump that could wirelessly talk to each other and a central online “brain” that keeps track of data in real time. The grant from the NIH will help them develop it into a system that could eliminate the need for diabetes patients to prick their fingers and inject themselves multiple times a day.

Mapping race

Weldon Cooper Center demographer Dustin Cable received national attention last summer when he launched the Racial Dot Map, a dynamic, scalable rendering of racial distribution in the U.S.

Dustin Cable. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Media Relations
Dustin Cable. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Media Relations

Cable built on code developed by MIT researchers that translated Census data into a density map, layering in data for race and ethnicity. The result was complex and unexpectedly beautiful.

“What you’re seeing is a combination of 1.2 million individual image files,” Cable said. “As you zoom in and out, it’s creating new images.”

Library collection goes online

An important piece of UVA’s world-renowned Special Collections library is about to get a lot more accessible, thanks to a recent $245,000 grant.

The Michigan-based McGregor Fund donated a collection of rare books on early European exploration of the Americas in 1938, and in November, the organization awarded the grant to allow for many of the texts to be digitized. Some 75,000 pages of text and images—an accounting of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage, an etching of a battle where Mohawk Indians first encountered Europeans—will be available online.—Graelyn Brashear

 All shook up

The last 12 months have seen a spate of resignations and retirement announcements by UVA deans—many of them at the end of their five-year terms—and administrators, prompting a lot of searches for replacements. Here’s who’s on the way out.

Meredith Jung-En Woo, who had held the prestigious position of dean of College of Arts & Sciences since 2008, announced in October that she’d be stepping down this month at the close of her term. She plans to take a sabbatical and then return to the faculty. Duke University English professor Ian Baucom will join the faculty and take the position of dean July 1.

Meredith Woo. Photo: Cade Martin
Meredith Woo. Photo: Cade Martin

Harry Harding, founding dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, is stepping down July 1 at the end of his term. Harding plans to stay on the Batten School faculty and write a book on leadership. Replacing him is Allan Stam, a former Army officer and Michigan professor.

Dr. Steven DeKosky, dean of the School of Medicine, left his position last July. Dr. Nancy E. Dunlap, a pulmonologist who came to UVA from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices in Washington, D.C., took over last May.

Kim Tanzer, dean of the School of Architecture, announced in the fall that she wouldn’t seek reappointment for a second term. Tanzer, who launched two new research centers within the school during her tenure as dean, plans to stay on the faculty.

R. Edward Howell, CEO of the University of Virginia Medical Center, will retire in July after more than 14 years in the position. Howell oversaw major expansions, both within the hospital campus in Charlottesville and in UVA’s wider health care network in Virginia. He told UVAToday in October that he “plans to spend time in the classroom and pursuing family and personal interests.” Of all the leadership shifts, this is the biggest; the medical center accounts for nearly half of the University’s $2.7 billion budget. Last week, UVA announced that Pamela Sutton-Wallace, a Duke University Hospital senior VP, will take over the position in July.

Bob Bruner announced in April that he’ll step down as dean of the Darden School of Business at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year. Bruner has been at the helm at Darden for nearly 10 years, and plans to stay on the faculty.

Mark Crowell, executive director of U.Va. Innovation, announced May 1 that he’ll be leaving before the end of the month. Crowell was hired in 2010 to transform what was then called the Patent Foundation into a top translational research body, shepherding the world of University professors into new—and potentially lucrative—products and businesses. Crowell plans to consult and write in North Carolina, where he worked for many years.—Graelyn Brahsear