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Mason team joins with Virginia Tech on Concrete Research for Infrastructure Security


While modern weapon makers churn out more powerful artillery creating concern about infrastructure security, civil engineers are working to construct safer and more durably designed buildings to protect society. To that end, one such development is a new form of concrete known as high-performance fiber reinforced concrete (HP-FRC). It is believed that this adaptation of concrete could be critical in the field of protective design specifically regarding ballistic impact.  However, as this material is still new to the industry there is little understanding about just how it can withstand high impact blast loads.

Girum Urgessa

The lack of data regarding how HP-FRC stands up to blasts got Mason’s Associate Professor Girum Urgessa thinking.  Urgessa, teaching in the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering (CEIE) explains, “Here at Mason, we’ve studied the modeling aspect of the penetration mechanics, but our verification capability is limited because of the scarcity of experimental data.”  However, Urgessa saw a perfect match for research collaboration with Eric Jacques, Assistant Professor in the Structural Engineering & Materials Group at Virginia Tech.  There, Jacques can access the Thomas Murray Structures Laboratory, equipped with a large-scale gas-detonation blast simulator.

The collaboration came to fruition via Urgessa’s 4-VA@Mason grant Scaled-testing of Projectile Penetration in Conventional and High-Strength Concrete Targets. In addition to Urgessa and Jacques on the project, Mason faculty member Dhafer Marzougui and graduate student Geoffrey Dilg volunteered their time assisting with post-test computational modeling. Undergraduate student Shima Abdel Monem Awwad also worked on the project. The project team got started, building 15 small-scale fiber-reinforced concrete targets of varying thicknesses. These were built at Tech for ballistic experiments using a light gas gun.

Eric Jacques

Four HP-FRC specimens were subjected to ballistic projectile impact loading, which provided the ability to model/predict projectile penetration depths across a variety of concrete strengths and types. Says Urgessa, “Three out of four initial trials provided us with complete projectile perforation, while the third trial resulted in spalling, penetration, and radial cracking.”  Although they were able to conclude that the Cem-FIL glass fibers helped reduce the effects of the cracking by holding the sections together, they did not stop the projectile from perforating. In the cases where the projectile perforated through the specimen, the fibers had either pulled out of the concrete or ruptured at most crack locations.

“Overall, this experiment proved to be very successful and has given us the opportunity to shed light on a relatively new material and that has a variety of real-world applications,” concluded Urgessa.

Dhafer Marzougui
Shimaa Abdel Monem Awwad
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Mason’s Rosenthal Earns Acclaim for New Book


Dr. Aharona Rosenthal, an adjunct professor teaching Hebrew for 4-VA@Mason Shared Courses has recently released her third book and first historical fiction novel to much acclaim.  Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again has been lauded by the Literary Titans for Best Memoir, earned the Penn Craft Best Historical Fiction Award, was recognized by the International Firebird as the best book on the Holocaust, awarded five stars by The Readers Favorite, and nominated for an Outstanding Creator Award. Rosenthal’s recent interview by Romanian radio show Universul la feminin with Serena Adler generated listener praise for the book detailing her Jewish Romanian family and their lives prior to World War II.

Researched and written over a 12-year period by Rosenthal, Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again is based on her family’s genealogical papers as well as exhaustive document examination from around the world. It follows the story of Rosenthal’s grandmother’s cousin Friddie Stoleru, who was falsely charged with treason and spent the 1930s in prison and forced labor camps. The book recounts the lives of her family members during a time in Europe when discrimination and the persecution of Jewish people was at its peak.

For Rosenthal, the book was a response to her father’s hand-penned request for his daughter to ‘tell the truth’ about the lives of their ancestors. “The response to the book has been tremendous — it has opened a floodgate of people sharing their own family stories,” says Rosenthal.  “For years, these narratives were buried deep.  It was not uncommon that families did not speak of the abuse for generations due to listening devices which were monitored by the Communist Party. Many atrocities have remained a secret.  Where the Lilacs Bloom Once Again has prompted so many to reach out and tell their truth.  I’m honored to have given a voice to so many that were silenced.” Rosenthal expects that sentiment to be heightened following the upcoming publication of her interview with reporter Livius Denis Grigorescu in the leading Romanian newspaper Adevarul.


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Mason and UVA Collaborate to Create Successful Energy-Efficient Desalination Technique


With 97% of the world’s water held by oceans, the effort to develop effective saltwater desalination is a high priority amongst the world’s scientists. Of the current water desalination methods, capacitive deionization (CDI) is the most prevalent, where ions and chemicals are energy-efficiently removed from water by applying a low electrical charge.  It is acknowledged, though, that there is much more to understand about the kinetics of the process which could improve the salt absorption capacity of CDI.

It was this challenge that caught the interest of Assistant Professor Pei Dong in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing. However, she recognized that tackling this topic would be substantially boosted by a 4-VA collaboration incorporating research underway in the lab of Baoxing Xu, in UVA’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.  Xu’s group investigates multiscale/multiphysics modeling and simulations of solid-liquid interactions, especially systems in response to external stimuli such as temperature, electrical, and mechanical fields.  Dong believed that by working together, they could investigate the adsorption process to further identify, design, and synthesize more effective carbon materials for use in the CDI process.

Fast forward through the research (complete with a pandemic and the resulting lab closures) — Dong and her team report that they have indeed synthesized different carbon materials which show a much higher salt adsorption capacity. Dong anticipates that this technique could dramatically lower desalination costs and contribute to the sustainable development goals in Virginia, the US, and beyond.

Along with this successful research outcome, Dong explains that the 4-VA project produced several other beneficial consequences, especially a new collaboration among Mason and UVA faculty and students.  She also notes the journey provided a rich educational experience for students — with a combination of experimental and computational skills allowing them to contribute to future engineering innovation in this emerging field.

That experience was especially true for PhD candidate, Rui He. He oversaw the project in Dong’s lab, administering the tests — including surface area, water contact angle, electrical property, and water desalination.  He also prepared the wood converted carbon and the potassium hydroxide activation. In addition, the team worked together to print a 3D CDI cell and assembled the experimental setup, installing the wood converted carbon into the cell.

“I learned a lot about teamwork,” He explains. “I needed to teach the undergraduates how to run the lab experiments and data analysis as a team, and make sure every step is what we wanted.” He also learned about problem solving, “Sometimes we didn’t get the results we expected, and we needed to find out where things went wrong and fix the problem. For example, the 3D printed CDI cell was a challenge at the beginning because it can’t prevent the leakage of water.  We tried a lot of different designs, and finally got one to work.”

Several of the other Mason students involved in the research were undergraduate Crystal Bowers and PhD candidate Xiaozhou Huang. Pictured in the photo are (left to right): Rui He, Crystal Bowers and Xiaozhou Huang.

Thanks to the project’s success, the research has received wide recognition. The work entitled “Binder-Free Wood Converted Carbon for Enhanced Water Desalination Performance” has been published in the high impact journal Advanced Functional Materials. Rui He won the “Excellent Student Presentation Award” in the 242nd Electrochemical Society Meeting for both his oral presentation and poster. This work has also been presented at Virginia Clean Energy and Catalysis Club 2022 Summit (poster) and the International Mechanical Engineering Congress & Exposition 2022 (oral presentation).

The good work continues, thanks to the initial spark lit by 4-VA@Mason.

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It’s a Dirty Job. But Someone has to do it. Team Van Aken Did.

Environmental engineers, local governments, and public policy leaders confront numerous challenges commonly faced at wastewater treatment facilities – increased usage, managing ebbs and flows (known as feast and famine in the industry) and often older, less effective sedimentation tanks — usually set near a watershed which limits space for additional construction.  Facing these constraints, molecular biologist and Mason Associate Professor Benoit Van Aken wanted to create a team to look carefully at how the use of a newer procedure, the use of aerobic granulation to speed sedimentation, might increase the effectiveness of these plants. When Van Aken learned about the 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants, it spurred him to seek funding which could bring his plan to fruition.

The grant could, Van Aken posited, build a connection between the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC) in Woodbridge, where Van Aken’s lab is located, and the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Laboratory (OWML) in Manassas where the lab of Dr. Zhiwu (Drew) Wang, of Virginia Tech, is located.  Wang’s research focuses on biological engineering for wastewater treatment and the two centers could create a partnership as the OWML is responsible for management of water quality in the Occoquan watershed and the PEREC, located a few miles from the Occoquan Reservoir, is engaged in restoration of Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Wang’s lab is equipped with pilot reactors and could generate bacterial material for the molecular analyses. Van Aken’s lab is equipped for DNA/RNA extraction and analysis, and sequencing library preparation, which could provide the tools to help understand the microbiology and functions of microbial communities developing in wastewater treatment systems.

Importantly, the two labs are located within an easy distance of the Prince William County wastewater treatment facility in Centreville, making it easy for the team to access sludge samples to for the research.

With the 4-VA@Mason grant secured, Van Aken got to work with his team.  Trips were made to the Centreville plant to obtain batches of aerobic granules.  Van Aken initially gave some of the sequencing studies to undergraduate students, but then hired Alison Gomeiz, a chemistry student studying for her master’s degree.  Van Aken met (via Zoom during the pandemic) with Gomeiz regularly to review her tests and consulted with partner Wang frequently to get his input on the testing.  Their goal was to assess what changes in the microbial community composition in aerobic granules compared to conventional microbial flocs.

Van Aken explains, “For more than a century, wastewater treatment has been based on bacterial cells or small cell aggregates dispersed in wastewater — activated sludge. Aerobic granulation exploits the capability of bacterial cells to co-aggregate into large, dense, spherical granules, which present remarkable advantages over dispersed cells for wastewater treatment, which can speed sedimentation and the removal of the biomass from the bottom of the tank.”

Because aerobic granulation has been successfully applied only in sequential batch reactors (SBRs), while most wastewater treatment plants operate in continuous flow reactors (CFRs), it was important to assess what changes happened in both the feast and famine conditions. Aerobic granulation is estimated to have to potential to reduce energy consumption in wastewater treatment by more than 60%.

Essentially, the team identified the changes associated with aerobic granulation.  This provided the ability to predict the functionality of bacteria in the new reactor system that facilitated the aerobic granulation process.  “There is a time where the bacteria received the hard water, that’s the feast conditions, where it receives a lot of nutrients. And we also studied the water when there is not much nutrient available — the famine phase,” says Van Aken.  “We were able to predict when we can reduce the retention time, that means the time it needs for the particle to settle down at the bottom of the tank. That’s a big advantage.”

Their work has already been disseminated in an article for Science Direct however, Van Aken says there is more work to be done. Thanks to the new relationship with the Wang lab, there many more opportunities ahead for this collaborative work.

Benoit Van Aken, Mason
Zhiwu (Drew) Wang, Virginia Tech





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Calls for Proposals: 4-VA@Mason 2023-24 Collaborative Research Grants


Mason faculty interested in piloting a novel research project in conjunction with colleagues at one of the seven other 4-VA schools in Virginia are encouraged to respond to the annual 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grants (CRG) calls for proposals.  These grants, of up to $20,000, are designed to facilitate and support alliances which leverage the strengths of each partner university to improve efficiencies in research and higher education, reduce working in silos, and provide hands-on experiential opportunities for students. The grants encourage the development of baseline research projects in the sciences and humanities which could help fuel future research and funding.

The application link for the proposals is posted on the 4-VA@Mason grants page, which includes associated policies and procedures, as well as examples previous successful proposals.  Applications will be accepted through February 28, 2023, with funding available July 1, 2023.

“Although the 4-VA mission to identify and boost efficiencies in educational design and research was launched in 2010, it is our Collaborative Research Grants — introduced in 2013 — that have really made a difference for Mason and our partner schools,” explains Janette Kenner Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs and Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason. “So many of our awarded pilot research projects have provided a springboard for subsequent, major federal and private grants and boosted research competitiveness at Mason and throughout the collaborative.” Those schools are the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech.  In some cases, additional modest funding is available to co-PIs at the partner schools.

“Through the hundreds of 4-VA Collaborative Research Grants awarded throughout the state in the last ten years, 4-VA has truly made a difference for faculty, students and citizens statewide and beyond,” adds Muir.


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New Lab for Writing and Communication Launched with 4-VA@Mason Catalyst Funds

Even before Mason’s new, bright, and spacious Lab for Writing and Communications held its formal grand opening recently in the Johnson Center, the Lab was already a success.  Writing Center Director Susan Lawrence explained that soon after they finished the last coat of paint on their 20 individual consulting and training rooms, the Lab has been essentially booked solid with students looking for help with myriad writing and communication projects.  “We are busy every hour we’re open,” says Lawrence.

The Lab has been six years in the making — built with the thought of combining what was the previously separate Comm Center and Writing Center. The Communication Center primarily focuses on helping students with speeches and oral presentations and the Writing Center focuses on written projects.

While the result is a winner, the path to its completion included a series of important steps forward, helped in part by 4-VA@Mason.  As Melissa Broeckelman-Post, professor and basic course director of the Communication Department explained to 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator and Vice Provost Academic Affairs Janette Muir at the grand opening, “Without a doubt, 4-VA@Mason can and should take credit for helping get this to the finish line.”

The first step in support of the effort started in 2017-2018 when 4-VA@Mason awarded Broeckelman-Post with a Collaborative Research Grant to undertake a complete redesign of Mason’s COMM 100 and 101 courses, which were facing three challenges: increasing enrollment warranting a cadre of new instructors, reductions in teaching space, and needed revisions in course structure.  The grant provided funds for a serious critical analysis of this important Mason Core course and produced an efficient and effective course redesign.  Moreover, the redesign created cost savings which helped introduce individualized coaching sessions in the then “new” Communication Center where students could meet with student communication coaches to get feedback on outlines, video record and practice presentations, practice interviews, and work on developing group presentations.

The second 4-VA@Mason contribution came in the 2019-2020 academic year, when Brockelman-Post received a second grant for her proposal entitled “Communication Across the Curriculum: Creating Faculty Resources for Building Communication Skills in the Discipline.”  This project resulted in the creation of a robust set of resources to support faculty and student learning, including online tools, individual and small group faculty curriculum consultations, and in-class workshop resources to encourage faculty to embed communication skills development within their disciplinary courses.

Photo: John Boal

The most recent 4-VA@Mason assist, currently underway, is to support a thorough, multi-faceted research study across communication centers at three 4-VA universities – Mason, JMU, and Virginia Tech – to determine best practices for tutor training.  Assessment data will be collected via qualitative interviews with tutors at each of the participating institutions and a nationwide survey of communication center administrators, administrative assistants, and tutors.  The findings will be used to create open-access communication center online training modules for training future communication center tutors at participating institutions.

Jordan Wilkins (Communication Center consultant), Kathleen Rossell (Learning Resource Center Coordinator, INTO Mason) Photo:  John Boal

“Mason’s Lab for Writing and Communication is leading the way nationally in student communication support , and we’re proud that 4-VA@Mason has been a part of this success story,” concluded Muir.


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Effective Communication During Disaster Response: Managing the Minutia

Wenying Ji

While Wenying Ji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering at George Mason University, has previously collaborated with Xinghua Gao (Virginia Tech) and Jundong Li (University of Virginia), he saw a new opportunity to take their research deeper through a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant.  Through a 4-VA grant, Ji hoped, he and his fellow researchers could delve into an analysis of stakeholder communications during disaster response, an important addition to his ongoing research integrating advanced data analytics and complex system modeling to improve the performance of infrastructure systems.

Through the 4-VA program, Ji could receive funding from 4-VA@Mason, while his collaborators at Virginia Tech and UVA could also receive modest financial support from their universities through 4-VA.  Ji’s hopes came true as the 4-VA@Mason Advisory Board saw the potential in the research; thus, all collaborators obtained support from 4-VA.  Ji’s research aimed to model, analyze, and identify effective communication and collaboration patterns that stakeholders utilize in response to disasters.

As Ji explains it, during disaster response, the communication process among agencies is complex due to the involvement of a great number of agencies at different hierarchical levels and sectors–the federal, state, and local level agencies; non-governmental agencies; and private contractors. Ji’s goal was to extract effective communication and collaboration patterns through an analysis of historical disaster response documents and evaluate various possible communication and collaboration patterns that may affect stakeholder response.

Xinghua Gao

Their work began with Gao at Virginia Tech who was able to collect a range of valuable data sources (e.g., situational reports and government-issued guidelines) that document stakeholder interaction processes. The team considered situational reports from natural disasters, including Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and studied the reports documenting a 10-day period.

Jundong Li

That information was sent to Li, who is an expert in graph modeling. From there, the data went to Ji and graduate student Yitong Li. Li performed much of the analysis and gained valuable, practical experience from the research.

The result of their research has produced a quantitative model which evaluates the impact of information flow on the effectiveness of disaster response. Based on the model, a metric was then designed to evaluate the probability of community satisfaction. The designed model and the metric provide governmental stakeholders interpretable insights for evaluating the impact of information flow on their disaster response effectiveness, so that proactive actions can be targeted for enhanced disaster response. The team’s approach promotes inter-organizational collaboration in emergency management by helping stakeholders easily identify effective communication and collaboration patterns.

Yitong Li

Following their successful research, the group produced a journal paper entitled “Robustness of Stakeholder Response Networks for Infrastructure System Protection” for the American Society of Civil Engineers Journal of Management in Engineering, a conference paper and a presentation entitled “Understanding the Dynamics of Information Flow During Disaster Response Using Absorbing Markov Chains” were produced for the Winter Simulation Conference.

Next steps for the team? They plan to submit the proposal to the Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment (HDBE) program, which is an NSF funded grant.  “Thanks to this grant, we hope to take our project to the next level,” says Ji.