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4-VA@Mason Computing Team Gets Ahead of the Game


While some professors worry that they are two steps behind technology, scholars in Mason’s Department of Computer Science pride themselves on staying two steps ahead.  However, that wasn’t enough for Associate Professor Bo Han, who wanted to deepen the educational experience for students.

When Han’s proposal “Innovating Point Cloud Processing for Networked Systems” was approved for pilot funding by 4-VA@Mason, he brought together co-PI Felix Xiaozhu Lin, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science in the UVA School of Engineering, specialists from the University of Minnesota (UM), the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), and graduate and undergraduate students taking his new class.

It was an “all-hands-on-deck” project with each of the team members tackling a variety of challenges, resulting in the delivery of a product they dubbed DeepMix, a mobility-aware, lightweight, and hybrid 3D object detection framework. A unique feature of DeepMix is that it fully utilizes the mobility of headsets to fine-tune detection results and boosts detection precision. In fact, when Han’s team implemented a prototype of DeepMix on Microsoft HoloLens and evaluated its performance through both extensive controlled experiments and a user study with more than 30 participants, DeepMix not only improved detection accuracy by 9.1 to 37.3% but significantly boosted detection accuracy in mobile scenarios.

Han credits the success of this project to his collaboration with partners at UVA, UM, NJIT, and especially his students.  These include graduate students Nan Wu, who led the design and implementation of point cloud super-resolution for 3D object detection; along with Ruizhi Cheng and Puqi Zhou, who worked on the implementation and evaluation of gaze-assisted motion prediction for point cloud streaming. Undergraduate student Jing Wang also participated in the project, handling the implementation of the back-end system for image-based localization to improve the accuracy of pose estimation and motion prediction for point cloud streaming.

Pictured: Nan Wu presenting one of the project’s resultant published papers at the Association for Computing Machinery HotMobile 2022 workshop.

“This project was high intensity, multi-faceted, and challenging, but thanks to our 4-VA@Mason grant we were able to develop a great team and produce concrete results,” says Han.  “Now, we want to move our technology to the next level and build interactive holographic communication systems for truly immersive remote collaboration based on mixed reality.




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Providing Support for Student Activists: Advocating for Advocates


Student activism is credited with bringing positive change for political, environmental, economic, and social causes on college campuses. It is recognized, however, that students’ time devoted to organizing and engaging for their cause while balancing coursework and college life can result in burnout. Long overlooked, Mason’s School of Integrative Studies Professor Cher Weixia Chen saw the need to identify and address the stress facing student activists.

Chen wanted to explore the conceptualizations, symptoms, and remedies associated with activists and identify intervention tools for improving their well-being. To attend to the needs of these community members, Chen applied for and received a 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grant “Understanding & Supporting the Well-Being of College-Level Social Justice & Human Rights Advocates/Activists in the State of Virginia.” Chen’s colleagues included Graziella Pagliarulo McCarron, Assistant Professor, School of Integrative Studies, at Mason; Steve Grande, Director of the Office of Community Service-Learning at James Madison University (JMU); and Melody Porter, Director of Office of Community Engagement at the College of William & Mary (WM). They worked together to develop a multi-pronged approach to tackling this issue. Volunteering their work on the project were Taimi Castle, Professor of Justice Studies and director of the JMU Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence, and Lisa Porter, Associate Professor of Sociology at JMU.

After intensive training, the student researchers were able to recruit student activists, conduct interviews, analyze data, and begin preparing a manuscript under the guidance of the faculty team. Student researchers on the project included Kendall Cage, Mireya Campuzano, and Rafaela Lucioni at Mason, Cristal Badu from WM, and Brenda Goodson from JMU.

The team’s initial task was to learn what college student activists face through in-depth personal interviews. Explains Chen, “We found that burnout is prevalent among student activists. They experienced anxiety, panic, depression, hopelessness, or guilt – feeling physically and mentally exhausted. They felt pressure to keep laboring, advocating, organizing, and marching despite their own needs or limits. The difficulty in balancing school, family, and activism and the lack of perceived support for activist work and/or training to do the work at the institutional level all contributed to their burnout.”

With the preliminary findings, faculty and student researchers then designed and organized a Fall 2022 workshop titled “Renewal and Resilience: A Community of Student Activists,” which featured student activists fighting for food security, prison reform, racial justice, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and gun control at Mason, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Following the student activist panel, Castle presented “Regenerating the Self,” encouraging participants to assess their well-being with the help of a self-care workbook. Participants were also encouraged to create their own maintenance plans to help in times of stress. Lisa Porter concluded the program by sharing an interview with Crimson Solano, a community leader of Harrisonburg-based Comité Salvadoreño Paisanos Unidos, a pro-immigrant policy advocate group.

Now, the team is in dissemination mode. The project was featured at  They are developing a virtual community with the Human Rights and Global Justice Initiative for student activists, which is under construction in conjunction with Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth. They have also submitted a book proposal on the well-being of student activists and are in the process of identifying external grants to expand this research further.

“This 4-VA@Mason grant helped us take a big step forward to take care of student leaders on our college campuses in Virginia. Without them, positive steps toward change are in peril,” says Chen. “It helped us take a critical look at where we can go from here. There is much more to be done.”

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Best Practices for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Identified and Shared Statewide


Effective teaching is a cornerstone of Virginia higher education. To attain that critical bar, it is essential that successful teaching strategies are created and maintained, and that they meet students’ needs.  This necessitates classroom-based research — known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Faculty-focused SoTL research achieves multiple objectives including identifying best practices in educational strategies for a specific field and promoting a university’s overall teaching excellence.

While SoTL is crucial to gain a greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom, very few faculty are prepared to conduct such research independently. Thus, support for SoTL frequently falls to campus Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs). CTLs are generally small and tasked with a wide range of faculty assistance, so identifying appropriate SoTL strategies presents a time and resource challenge.

This dilemma faced the Stearns Center at Mason as well as three other 4-VA schools — Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia.  Each wanted to address the SoTL gap. The solution was recognized via a 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant, allowing the schools to work together to create sustainable SoTL programming.  The goal was to create or refine plans for engaging and supporting faculty in SoTL at their specific institutions, to develop and investigate the impact of cross-institutional support programming for faculty developers, and ultimately improve the research competitiveness of faculty at each institution. Although not part of the 4-VA partnership, the prospect of such work also attracted the attention of faculty at Mary Washington University who were interested in joining the effort.

Led by the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning Director, Shelley Reid, with key support from Mason graduate assistant Sophia Abbot, the team represented a state-wide effort, including Ed Brantmeier, Interim Executive Director/Assistant Director of the Center for Faculty Innovation (JMU); Dayna Henry Assistant Director of the Scholarship Area at the Center for Faculty Innovation (JMU); Kim Case, Director of Faculty Success (VCU); Kim Filer, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Development/Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (VT); Lindsay Wheeler, Assistant Director of STEM Education Initiatives at the Center for Teaching Excellence and Jessica Taggart, Postdoctoral Research Associate (UVA);  and Melissa Wells, Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow of the Center for Teaching (Mary Washington). “Through our 4-VA@Mason grant, as well as the Complementary Grants at our 4-VA partner schools, we saw an opportunity to help CTLs avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ in a key area of faculty support,” explained Reid. “SoTL is a growth area for CTLs, and this grant provided an opportunity to design that growth intentionally and collaboratively—and then to share the model with other CTLs nationally.”

Together, the group researched and built effective support structures for SoTL training. As a “community of practice,” the group met regularly to exchange strategies already in use and constructed additional strategies and resources for both CTL leaders and faculty. Next, they developed and presented workshops for national and local audiences to guide other CTL leaders in building collaborative structures. At these workshops, attendees learned about evidence-based models, common SoTL support programming across institution types, and received peer feedback on their plans. Presentations were made at the Professional & Organizational Development in Higher Education Network Conference, the International Consortium for Educational Development, the Innovations in Teaching and Learning Conference (Mason), the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy (VT), and an online workshop for SCHEV (VCU).

Next, the team created online resources, an open access trove of tools for SoTL developers, including a Taxonomy of common language and organizational structure for understanding a variety of SoTL program models — organized by program type with a detailed description of each model. It also includes examples to further support readers’ envisioning of program possibilities. Further, visitors can access a strategic plan worksheet, which guides SoTL developers through the details of their aspirational and future plans in the context of their institution and provides a venue to receive peer feedback on specific aspects of their plan.

The group continues to spread the word about effective SoTL practices through the following publications:

  • International Journal of Academic Development Impact of a Regional Community of Practice for Academic Developers Engaged in Institution-Level Support for SoTL (Lukes, Abbot, Henry, Wells, Baum, Case, Brantmeier, & Wheeler)
  • To Improve the Academy Strategic Planning Tools for Educational Developers Supporting SoTL Cultures and Programs at their Institutions (Lukes, Abbot, Wheeler, Henry, Case, Wells, Brantmeier)
  • New Directions for Teaching and Learning Examining a Regional Educational Developer Community of Practice for Advancing Institutional Cultures of SoTL Engagement (Abbot, Lukes, Baum, Case, Henry, Brantmeier, Wheeler)

“Our team members have been particularly excited about the positive reception of the collaborative model through the well-attended national workshops. We’re looking forward to the conversations that are made possible through the multiple publications that will increase our audience and enable other CTLs to build their own collaborations.” concludes Reid.

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Communication Across the Curriculum: Developing Faculty Resources to Enhance Student Success

Communication competency is recognized as one of the most important skills for a successful college and professional career. To support this outcome, writing courses have long been a requirement in higher education to bolster communication proficiency.  More recently, additional efforts have been developed to provide students with a larger framework, including the creation of Communication Centers on college campuses — rising from a grassroots movement in the 1980s to a more defined role in the early 2000s.

Today, colleges recognize the need for further multiple, scaffolded opportunities to practice language and presentation skills throughout a student’s academic lifespan. This includes learning oral and written skills found within their chosen career track. Such an approach, known as communication across the curriculum (CxC), enhances opportunities for students to both strengthen their communication abilities and to employ in-depth content area specifics.  Regrettably, however, many subject matter faculty feel ill-equipped and unsupported in their efforts to integrate communication into course curricula, expressing a need for more teaching assistance to provide student feedback on a range of communication skills — presentations, team projects, interpersonal skills — within the course framework.


Mason’s Melissa Broeckelman-Post, Professor and the Basic Course Director in the Department of Communication saw a need to intervene.  This thinking was shared by Broeckelman-Post’s colleagues at two other 4-VA partner schools — Virginia Tech’s Director of Undergraduate Programs and Senior Instructor in the School of Communication Brandi Quesenberry, and JMU’s Associate Professor in the School of Communication Studies and Basic Course Director Timothy Ball. They had connected at previous conferences and were sharing ideas on CxC but saw a 4-VA grant as an opportunity to concretely collaborate on scholarship that would be helpful for all institutions.

Together, they wanted to look more closely at what would be needed to develop a CxC program at each of their schools.  It was the 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant that allowed them to begin this important work.

“We knew that faculty members would greatly benefit with tools and techniques to provide their students feedback on the range of communication skills within their disciplines, including oral, written, team building, intercultural, and leadership,” explains Broeckelman-Post. “The first step in our plan was to reach out to Stephanie Norander, Executive Director of one of the nation’s leading CxC programs at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to ensure that we utilize the best practices in building resources that will be effective for faculty on our campuses.”


From there, Broeckelman-Post, Quesenberry and Ball, assembled a team of graduate students at Mason, (Adebanke Adebayo, Aayushi Hingle, Lane Schwager, Shannon Taylor Heflin, Briana Stewart, and Sammi Tuckerman Munson) Virginia Tech (Emma Baumgardner) and JMU (Selim Njeim).  Their goal was to create a robust set of flexible tools to support faculty and student learning, including online resources, individual and small group faculty curriculum consultations, and in-class workshops to help faculty embed communication skills development within their disciplinary courses that can be shared across the institutions.

Before they began, the CxC team needed a greater understanding of just what faculty in a variety of disciplines perceived as important communication skills and what they believed to be helpful for their courses.  Three research question were developed:

  • RQ1: How do faculty across disciplines perceive and value communication?
  • RQ2: What types of support do faculty across disciplines need to incorporate communication assignments in their classes?
  • RQ3: What are the most important communication skills employers across disciplines are seeking?

Faculty at all three universities were invited to join in an online study, with 232 accepting the offer. Participants represented a wide range of departments, including the social sciences, engineering and computing, health and human services, business and interdisciplinary or unspecified areas. Through the survey, a greater insight as to what aspects of communication that were important to faculty and for student’s careers was established. Notes Quesenberry, “While the results pointed us to the development of concrete communications packages, we were struck by the fact that 93.2% of all faculty identified communication as “extremely important” or “very important” to their major’s discipline.”  The CxC team knew that their work was needed.

A comprehensive overview of the faculty research survey was recently published in Communication Education, with all team members who contributed to the research component of the project receiving authorship credit. Another goal of the project was to create a website with communication resources for faculty across disciplines.  This robust site is now populated with a broad variety of tools to assist faculty to aid students with a range of projects including designing oral presentations, presentation performance and delivery, adapting presentations for audiences, and interviews:

The findings were shared at two different presentations at the National Communication Association annual convention.  They now plan presentations at additional local conferences including Mason’s Innovations in Teaching and Learning.


“Thanks to this collaboration, we were able to develop some important tools to build effective CxC programs at all three of our universities,” notes Ball.  “That’s a win for Virginia’s faculty and students.”


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Five 4-VA Schools Collaborate to Better Understand the History of Higher Education


The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education lists the History of Higher Education as an important core course that provides students the opportunity to bridge practice and theory. However, the class is rarely taught by historians and often lacks a focus on the historical thinking, research, and digital literacy skills necessary for a clear-eyed understanding of the higher education landscape.

This dilemma was on the mind of historian Kelly Schrum, Professor, Higher Education Program, and Affiliated Faculty in the Department of History and Art History at Mason.  It also concerned her colleague in the Higher Education Program at Virginia Tech, Assistant Professor, Chase Catalano. Together, via an initial 4-VA Collaborative Research Grant in 2020-2021, they wanted to integrate those missing skills into the class with the hope of increasing research opportunities and creating a valuable open educational resource (OER).

The project, launched during the pandemic, consisted of students at Mason and VT working together and in parallel to learn about the history of higher education while developing historical thinking and research skills.

The project was a great success. “The student-created asynchronous learning activity assignment worked very well, and fostered a true collaboration across our institutions,” said Schrum. In addition to the learning activity assignments, students and faculty contributed to a website,; piloted a primary source learning activity in two different higher education graduate courses during Fall 2020; and expanded the project to a third course in Spring 2021.

Schrum, Catalano, and Sophia Abbot, a doctoral student at Mason, grew this work into a larger research project on teaching and learning the history of higher education. Thirty-five students agreed to share their work for analysis and 24 were interviewed after completing the course. The survey and interview data made clear that students appreciated the value and relevance of studying the history of higher education for both their curricular and professional goals. One student explained, “We were able to take what we learned in the course and apply it to the project in a way that was very effortless, and that really helped me think about history in a different way.”

The group presented their initial findings at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy in February 2021 which were very well received. They then began talking with colleagues around the commonwealth at William & Mary, James Madison University, and Old Dominion University. Their shared interest in improving history of higher education courses prompted Schrum to apply for an extension and expansion of the Collaborative Research Grant. Schrum’s co-PIs at the partner schools requested 4-VA Complementary Grants at their institutions allowing continued work together with a wider lens.

The expansion grant enlarged the initial team to include Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education Ben Boone of W&M; Art Dean, Executive Director for Access and Inclusion, JMU; Kim Bullington, ODU’s Adjunct Assistant Professor, Educational Foundations and Leadership; and ODU’s Director of Community Outreach & Engagement, Bill Nuckols.

In addition to Abbot, key Mason student scholars on the project included graduate students Allison Loughry and Alicia Ellis, and undergrads Sodaba Azamy and Kelly Tcheou. These students contributed to research, website development, and publications.

The 4-VA extension grant had four key components: 1) collaborate with 4-VA institutions to improve teaching and learning about the history of higher education, and to teach a shared digital assignment;2) expand OER resources on the history of higher education in the United States to provide primary sources, secondary sources, and a database of college and university archives; 3) conduct research on how the history of higher education is taught nationally; and 4) conduct Scholarship of Teaching and Learning research on how students learn historical thinking skills and digital skills as they create asynchronous learning activities on this subject.

With the expansion grant in hand, the Mason, Tech, W&M, and JMU faculty members taught the shared assignment in Fall 2021. Students also explored asynchronous primary source learning activities created by students at all four institutions. ODU taught the shared assignment in Summer 2022. Students at ODU explored primary source learning activities created by students at the other institutions and then developed additional resources which will be shared across institutions in future semesters. Between the five institutions, more than 100 students built individual asynchronous primary source learning activities. Selected activities are publicly available at

Sophia Abbot

Explains Abbot, “I developed countless skills while collaborating on this project: from deepening my own understanding of the history of higher education and the value of primary sources, to engaging students in authentic, student-driven, project-based assignments. I’ve been inspired by the historical research students have done through this cross-institutional assignment, especially on Virginia institutions—uncovering stories that are rarely told in commonly assigned texts and expanding their understanding of the colleges and universities within which they operate,”

Each school contributed OER materials for the website. In addition to primary and secondary sources, the website now contains a database of institutional archives with digitized content, including yearbooks. Thanks to the two undergraduate research assistants, Azamy and Tcheo, over 700 institutional archives were cataloged on the site, including 48 Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), 24 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and 15 women’s colleges. Additionally, the list includes 63 community colleges which is especially important given the lack of attention to these institutions historically.

Azamy and Tcheo have also reviewed and analyzed 70 course syllabi submitted by History of Higher Education instructors across the U.S. They prepared a summary report of common readings and course topics. Their findings supported several academic articles now underway addressing how these courses are typically structured and taught. Their work, along with that of Loughry, also supported a grant proposal submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Institute for Higher Education Faculty program.

The team credits the 4-VA grant for allowing members to do the diligent research necessary to create these important resources.

“This 4-VA project fostered meaningful and lasting collaboration across five Virginia institutions. While each university approached the history of higher education course from its own perspective, we were able to work together on a shared assignment that allowed for a rich learning experience among faculty and students across campuses. The results speak for themselves!” – Kelly Schrum, Professor, Higher Education Program, Affiliated Faculty, History and Art History, Mason


“I sincerely appreciated having an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across the state for this 4-VA project. Through our conversations and research, I developed new pedagogical approaches that benefited students and deepened my thinking about the history of higher education.”
– Chase Catalano, Assistant Professor, Higher Education, VT


“We really enjoyed being part of this effort to expand student research on the history of higher education. Everyone came away from this project with a deeper understanding of how important it is to develop critical thinking skills and to look beyond our own institutions.”
– Ben Boone, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education, W&M


“The website, which holds a treasure trove of student research and engagement from a wide range of institutions, will be invaluable as we move ahead in studying the complex and influential histories of American higher education.”
– Art Dean, Executive Director for Access, and Inclusion, JMU



“When this asynchronous learning project was first introduced to the students, they were thrilled at the thought of not having to write a 20-page paper, however in the end, they did more work doing research on their chosen subject. They enjoyed this project because it allowed them a space for research and reflection, and it taught them how to create an interactive learning environment in an asynchronous environment. Being able to evaluate and participate in the projects created by other students in other universities across Virginia also taught them about their peers’ projects, too.”
– Kim Bullington, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Educational Foundations and Leadership, ODU


Scholarly Conference Presentations

Catalano, C. & Hernandez, R. (2022, March). Why do we teach history? Instructor and student perspectives. ACPA-College Student Educators Conference, St. Louis, MO, United States.

Schrum, K., Abbot, S., & Catalano, C. (2022, January 6-9). History of Higher Education: Students Making Sense of Primary Sources by Designing Asynchronous Learning Activities [Poster]. American Historical Association, New Orleans, LA, United States.

Abbot, S., Schrum, K., & Catalano, C. (2021, November 13-15). Teaching Historical Thinking to Higher Education Graduate Students [Poster]. Southern Association for College Student Affairs, Norfolk, VA, United States.

Abbot, S., Schrum, K., Hernandez, R., Fong, W. L., & Loughry, A. (2021, October 26-29). Designing Digital Activities for Authentic Learning [Panel, Virtual]. International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference.

Schrum, K. & Abbot, S. (2021, September 20-24). On-Demand: Engaging students online through a peer-to-peer asynchronous teaching assignment [On-Demand Presentation, Virtual]. Innovations in Teaching and Learning, Fairfax, VA, United States.

Abbot, S. (2021, September 20-24). SoTL Showcase [Panel, Virtual]. Innovations in Teaching and Learning, Fairfax, VA, United States.

Abbot, S., Schrum, K., & Catalano, C. (2021, February 3-5). Graduate Students Learning and Teaching History through Asynchronous Activities [Poster session, virtual]. Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy, Blacksburg, VA, United States.


Catalano, D., Schrum, K., Fay, E., & Abbot, S. (forthcoming, 2023). ‘I can learn from the past’: Making the history of higher education relevant through social justice education pedagogy. The History Teacher.

Loughry, A., Abbot, S., Schrum, K., & Catalano, D. (forthcoming 2023). Developing digital skills through a student-facilitated asynchronous learning activity. The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.

Schrum, K., Abbot, S., Loughry, A., & Catalano, D. (forthcoming 2024). “I wanted to know!”: Engaging learners in the history of higher education through an authentic digital assessment. The History Teacher.

Schrum, K, Abbot, S., Fay, E., Loughry, A., & Catalano, C. (in process). Teaching historical thinking through the history of higher education.

External Funding

“Unpacking the History of Higher Education in the United States.” (under review)
National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Institute for Higher Education Faculty proposal.

Provost’s Graduate Student Travel Grant (January 2022)
American Historical Association Travel Grant (January 2022)
Southern Association of College Student Affairs Travel Grant (November 2021)






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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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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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4-VA@Mason Funds Development of Higher Education Community of Practice for Robotic Process Automation

Although Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a relatively new software technology used to automate tasks and business processes, has been implemented predominantly in government and the private sector, it is relatively untapped in higher education.  Thanks to a 4-VA@Mason grant, that will soon change for Virginia colleges and universities. The RPA Initiative at Mason’s Schar School will be leading the charge with the development of a Community of Practice (CoP) for higher education institutions throughout the state.

Through this software automation, colleges can reduce mundane and tedious work of administrative staff and increase quality assurance.  The VA Academic RPA CoP will help institutions of higher learning become familiar with the software automation and provide opportunities to collaborate across the commonwealth to enhance student experiences. The CoP will be a collaborative effort among all Virginia schools of higher education to also overcome the technical, management, and operational challenges that arise in designing and deploying effective RPA programs and initiatives. This includes important initiatives like designing common standards for credentialing, ensuring privacy and security, and designing common performance metrics to gauge RPA’s institutional impact to increase effectiveness and efficiency.

“Bringing innovative thinking to our academic partners across the commonwealth is the hallmark of 4-VA. We believe that the Academic RPA CoP will deliver important resources which will not only save money for participating institutions, but also create a higher level of quality control,” says Janette Muir, Vice Provost, Academic Affairs, and 4-VA@Mason Campus Coordinator.

The technology is already employed at three 4-VA schools — at George Mason for Vendor Management, at William and Mary for Student Engagement and at Virginia Commonwealth University for Grant Management — with great success. At Mason, RPA technology reduced the vendor management process from 15-20 hours per week to just minutes, saving employees valuable time and increasing productivity. Additionally, the software digital automation reduced human error rates to zero and increased data entry accuracy to 100%.

The RPA Initiative envisions that the technology could be employed in a wide variety of departments, including Admissions, Student Services and Athletics. “We are eager to launch this pioneering project and look forward to helping determine how RPA can aid the academic sector through knowledge sharing, webinars, speakers, “best practices,” and updates on programs which could be automated to reduce repetitive work done today by academic personnel,” said Dr. David Rehr, Co-founder of the RPA Initiative.

For more information and to get involved, visit