Spring Convocation celebrates investments in innovation at Western

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.— From engineering autonomous vehicle technology and augmented reality flight systems to developing a colorectal cancer-fighting virus and coordinating gene drive research to keep mosquitoes from spreading malaria, Western Michigan University is brimming with big ideas in action.

On Friday, April 16, the Office of Research and Innovation's Spring Convocation will celebrate faculty and staff whose work has drawn interest and investments. The event, which is fully virtual this year, begins at 9 a.m. with a Fulbright workshop hosted by Dr. Michelle Metro-Roland. Presentations on award-winning faculty research follow at 10 a.m. before a virtual Faculty Research and Creative Activities Award poster presentation session at 11 a.m. and a noon awards ceremony recognizing 36 faculty and staff members for their external funding accomplishments in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

"External funding is sort of a badge of honor about the quality of your work," says Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, vice president for research and innovation. "It's external recognition of excellence at WMU."

Despite challenges posed by the pandemic and disruption to some in-person lab opportunities, Kinzy says Western's researchers showed incredible resilience.

"Considering the adversity our faculty faced, our research proposal numbers were very consistent with the prior year, and the dollar value of submissions actually went up by 14.5%," she says. "We had incredible compliance with our safety protocols for restarting research and creative scholarship, and that's been extremely successful. I think that's why they're still able to do great work."

Faculty Presentations

Attanayake, Chapleau, Reeves, Bensley, Brown and Kwigizile

Six faculty members were selected to lead presentations and answer questions about their research, including the first three faculty members awarded Presidential Innovation Professorships—an award established to recognize and support individuals who serve as role models of excellence and innovation in their discipline.

"They get three years of support for their work so that they can take risks, try to start new projects and be creative," Kinzy says. "The goal is to stimulate innovation in teaching and research; it's about generating creative new ideas."

Faculty members making presentations include:

  • Dr. Upul Attanayake, Presidential Innovation Professor
    State highway agencies such as the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) are striving to maintain the highest quality integrated transportation services  to boost the economy and improve quality of life. Despite these efforts, the nation's transportation infrastructure is deteriorating; Attanayake aims to find out why. He's studying a field diagnostic technique for detecting alkali-silica reactivity in concrete, which causes concrete bridge components and concrete highway barriers to crack and crumble, and identifying potential treatments to delay the process. As the director of Western's Center of Excellence for Structural Durability, funded by MDOT, Attanayake leads a group of researchers to evaluate materials, design, construction, repair and maintenance of highway structures to improve their durability and prolong service life.

  • Dr. Ann Chapleau, Presidential Innovation Professor
    Current outcomes for mental health treatment are poor, with high rates of disability, chronic disease and premature death, but with a lack of surviving archival records and national data sets on outcomes prior to 1955, when psychotropic medication was first introduced, it is difficult to challenge current medical model practices. Chapleau digitized more than 5,600 Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital patient records stretching from 1945 to 54 to examine lengths of hospital stays and re-hospitalization before medication-focused treatment became routine. Initial conclusions show occupational therapy interventions deserve more attention as a primary modality once again.

  • Dr. Matt Reeves, Presidential Innovation Professor
    Man-made chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been found in high concentrations in soil and water in Michigan and across the nation, posing increased environmental and health risks. Reeves' research involves the fate and transport of PFAS in the environment, with specific detail to interactions between landfills, wastewater treatment plants and releases to the environment; identifying environmental proxies for reconstruction of past contamination; and developing and testing new sampling methods for surface water collection that concentrate PFAS.

  • Dr. Lori Brown's research involves using augmented reality technologies to shape the future of aviation weather training.

    Dr. Robert Bensley
    Bensley secured a patent for The Behavioral Intelligence Framework, a web-based content management system with a number of unique subsystems that allows users to create a "smart system approach" to behavior change interventions. Through the system, intervention developers can tailor lessons to learn from users as they progress through the platform. The ultimate goal is to increase engagement and successfully change intended behaviors. Bensley and his colleagues developed the framework through his work on a multi state-funded system that provides parent-child feeding and adult nutrition behavior change guidance for participants in the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program.

  • Dr. Lori Brown
    Alongside Dr. Geoff Whitehurst, associate professor of aviation, Gregory Ostroy, interactive experience developer in WMUx, and collaborators from Iowa State University, Brown, associate professor of aviation, is working on shaping the future of  aviation weather training with spatial computing and augmented reality (AR) technologies. The research is sponsored by the FAA Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC) program,  which developed an AR application called WeatherXplore to connect digital content to printed weather educational tools and assessments. The project also investigates AR collaborative platforms to allow collaborative holographic education from anywhere in the world using avatars, hand and eye tracking and AR technologies. This work opens a world of exciting new innovative and engaging educational platforms for aviation and other disciplines with limitless potential.

  • Dr. Valerian Kwigizile
    Digital (Dynamic) Message Signs (DMSs), as well as static signs,  are utilized to regulate the flow of traffic by warning and guiding drivers and other road users. MDOT has deployed a number of DMSs along state trunklines. Although a number of studies conducted in other states have attempted to quantify their effectiveness, it is still unclear how design and operational aspects of these DMSs affect driver compliance and reaction to specific messages communicated. This study utilizes traffic operation data collected in the field as well as surveys of road users and simulations to quantify the impact of DMSs on traffic flow in Michigan. It is expected to generate necessary results to allow better allocation of MDOT’s resources by investing in effective sign technologies for traffic flow improvement.

The presentations, as well as the entirety of Spring Convocation, can be viewed online. Kinzy will announce the next class of Presidential Innovation Professors at the awards event. In the meantime, she's excited by the potential for even more innovative excellence on the horizon.

"We're now in the next fiscal year, and we've already seen some really high-profile grants and contracts come in, so the future looks bright," she says.

More information about Spring Convocation is available on the Office of Research and Innovation's webpage.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.