Earlier this year, as COVID-19 began to upend the way we live and work, Virginia Tech’s alumni engagement team was hard at work joining forces with LINK + LICENSE + LAUNCH. The goal? To deepen relationships amoung alumni and with Virginia Tech as they advance in their careers and companies.

That vision was largely inspired by Hokies themselves. According to Gwen Harrington, a new Director on the team, “At every networking event we hosted, I saw firsthand how something powerful happens when alumni get together. They’d leave with new convictions and connections, fired up for a cause, ready to get to work. So we asked ourselves, ‘what would happen if we were more intentional around topics that matter to alumni and industry?’”   

Integrating with LINK + LICENSE + LAUNCH was an intuitive next step and the perfect place to stand up a new platform called Aluminate (aˈlo͞oməˌnāt), specifically designed to advance alumni and industry efforts in the world by bringing them together first.

The new effort launched on June 24 with a live web event: Predictive Analytics Meets Pandemic. As topics like data analytics, epidemiology, and community health have become household topics, the event drew interest from over 350 Hokies, and the guest speakers included faculty from Virginia Tech’s College of Science, as well as industry speakers.  After a brief update from Brandy Salmon on Virginia Tech’s new Innovation Campus, Lauren Childs, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, kicked off and moderated a robust panelist discussion.


Predictive Analytics Meets Pandemic web event


Ron Fricker, a professor in the Department of Statistics, shared about his experience publishing his new book–Monitoring the Health of Populations by Tracking Disease Outbreaks: Saving Humanity from the Next Plague–quite literally as coronavirus cases began to spike worldwide. “I’ve been working in this area of Biocare [and disease] surveillance for the past 20 years,” Fricker said, “and until now most of that work has really been hypothetical. What if a pandemic were to occur? How would we detect it? So I spent 20 years thinking about it and here it is. And in that sense, this is surreal.”   

Alexandra Hanlon, Director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science in Roanoke, highlighted the meaningful ways the Center is modeling social distancing behaviors over time, as well as partnering with industry and domain partners to examine the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, social service disruption, and on pregnant women. A major goal of that work is to identify predictors of health outcomes and learn about the efficacy of interventions like telehealth. When asked about the Center’s focus, Hanlon shared, “For longer-term projects, we really seek to work with folks from study design through data acquisition and data analysis, through dissemination.”

Dr. Alan Lattimer, Senior Data Scientist at the D.C.-based company Socially Determined, discussed how the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a nationwide case study in the ways that social vulnerabilities –like economic distress, housing instability, and transportation barriers–impact health both today and over the long-term. He also shared a story about the way that Virginia Tech stepped up to partner with industry when the much-loved annual Data Fest competition was canceled due to COVID-19.  

Using data sets that Socially Determined already had on hand from the State of Maryland, Mark Embree, head of the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics (CMDA) program and a professor of mathematics, emailed students letting them know that in two weeks a newly fashioned team data competition would be held: “The COVID-19 Social Data Project at VT,” sponsored by Socially Determined. The teams explored issues such as: where should lawmakers direct resources to have the greatest effect; the impact of a nursing home’s transportation capabilities to get patients to hospitals; which specific counties should be prioritized for economic stimulus to get the most impact?

Here, panelist Sadaf Rohani chimed in. As one of the graduate students on the winning team, she explained the intense weekend she spent with her friends pouring over data and crafting the story they wanted to tell. “I definitely came away from that experience with more appreciation for what epidemiologists, statisticians, and health care analysts worldwide are doing, because it is very difficult to separate the signal from the noise and analyze all this data and come out with meaningful conclusions.”  

The beauty in the project is that it created a win not only for the students, but also contributed to solving a real-world, present-day issue. According to Lattimer, “We’re actually taking many of those ideas [from students in the competition] and using them to influence how we think about the problem in our industry. So to us, having the university as a partner is invaluable.”

As that perfectly encapsulates our mission with Aluminate, we’ll close with that.