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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.


4-VA Researchers Support Young Virginians’ Successful Start to Preschool

Experts have long recognized the complex interrelationship of a preschoolers’ attachment to their caregivers and successful adjustment to school.  Without a positive introduction and adaptation to the school setting, preschoolers may fall victim to bullying. Those behaviors can have a significant effect on these young students for years into the future.

For more than a dozen years, preschool peer victimization has been the research focus of Mason’s Dr. Pamela Garner, a Professor of Childhood Studies in the School of Integrative Studies.  Garner recognizes there is much to be understood about creating constructive introductions in the school setting. However, she is also keenly aware of a key flaw in the data used in the benchmark research – it is predominantly limited to students who are economically advantaged.

Garner saw an opportunity to expand knowledge about economic disadvantages by demographics in an existing exhaustive data set of more than 100 Head Start students which included personal interviews, teacher observations, and professional observations of behaviors.  Garner argued that this data could allow a deeper look into prosocial behavior, social problem-solving and friendship-building skills and other forms of peer-related social competence broken out by income level.

Many hurdles existed to analyze the data including access to advanced statistical models and the resources necessary to code and score the data.  Along with those challenges, however, she also saw an opportunity to look closer at the data by collaborating with researchers from other 4-VA institutions. One such researcher, Dr. Julie Dunsmore, a member of the faculty at Virginia Tech, provided a perfect partner for a collaborative research grant.

Several months later, with that grant in hand, Garner identified an undergrad student, Tamera Toney, who was interested in the project and would be able to handle some of the data entry and management responsibilities.  Toney worked on the project during her senior year at Mason.  Garner saw that the 4-VA funding could provide a personal and professional pathway for Toney to enhance her studies. Toney recently graduated and will return in the fall to begin her master’s work in Psychology.

Meanwhile, Garner reached out to Dunsmore.  “I was very familiar with her work, and she was familiar with mine.  We had published something together many years ago, but I’ve been wanting to work with Julie again – she has vast statistical expertise and has done some very sophisticated modeling of data.” The 4-VA grant was just the ticket to enter into this collaboration.

“This 4-VA grant allowed us to take a comprehensive look at the data and ask more complex questions about associations in parenting, peer victimization and school adjustment among low income preschoolers,” says Garner.

“The long-term outcome of this research includes a richer understanding of ways to improve or assess students’ social-behavioral competencies and teacher practices that support them,” explains Garner.  “Over time, we hope this understanding will improve student academic achievement and successful progression through school.”

Garner already sees this grant as a steppingstone to move in two important developments: publication in a major early childhood education journal (one paper has already been submitted and is under review) and, get further external funding to expand data collection and analysis.

The consequences of their work could be dramatic, as positive peer interactions and relationships at this early stage can impact a wide range of consequences much later in life – everything from forming positive health habits to attaining higher education to interactions with the criminal justice system.

Garner, Dunsmore and their teams of students at Mason and Tech agree:  the research was a heavy lift, but they are proud to be part of this important work.  Concludes Garner, “This was great work, and it was great to be able to work with Julie again. I’m confident this will lead to more collaboration – and a growing friendship – between us!”

Janette Muir, Campus Coordinator of 4-VA@Mason, explained, “4-VA was pleased to support this social science research that impacts how we can lift up the youngest citizens in the Commonwealth.  This is a great example of the important impact we can make.”






Three different universities. Three distinctive, informed approaches. One cohesive, robust, and resource-filled final product.

George Mason University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia are each recognized and valued for their unique strengths and assets. Consequently, it’s not surprising to conclude that when these three institutions collaborate on a project, the results are impressive.  Such was the case with a recent 4-VA grant to these top-tier universities for a project entitled “ReSounding the Archives” (RtA).

ReSounding the Archives Lead PI Kelly Schrum

This effort was designed to take full advantage of a distinctive set of circumstances and situations, which combined history, music, and digital humanities with the ability to access music prior to 1924 without copyright restrictions. It all began with Mason’s lead PI Kelly Schrum, Associate Professor in the Higher Education Program at George Mason University and former Director of Educational Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), who identified the genesis of the project during the 100th anniversary of WWI to bring the newly digitized music of that time period to life. “In this project, each institution was able to contribute an integral element: UVA had access to WWI sheet music in their archives and created a research class around the project; Mason had the performers, digital history education specialists, and website developers; and VT contributed sheet music, research, and performers,” says Schrum.

Schrum recalls the early days of the project, “We drew on our connections with Tech and UVA and everyone we discussed the idea with began to get really excited about bringing historical sheet music to life. It started to develop organically based on each institution’s resources and strengths, but we knew we were onto something good when the energy of the project travelled to all potential contributors, from musicians and archivists to librarians and students.”

Jessica Dauterive, a Mason PhD student in History who worked as a Digital History Fellow at RRCHNM, was intimately involved with the project from beginning to end.  Dauterive recounted one of her first interactions with RtA when she emailed Mark Brodsky, Public Services and Reference Archivist at the VT library in response to a post on his blog about WWI sheet music. “I cold emailed him, he didn’t know me at all.”  Dauterive explained the project to him.  “He was all in, immediately!” says Dauterive.

Growing Collaboration

From there, the collaborators went into overdrive: using the telepresence room technology on each campus, students, staff and faculty were able to work together virtually. The groups met three times via the telepresence rooms, beginning with students (ranging from history majors to medical students) who were researching historical sheet from WWI in a class taught by UVA’s Assistant Professor of Music Elizabeth Ozment.  Then, the student performers began to work on their interpretations of each piece of music.  “It really grew from there.  The students were excited to work together.  They were engaged in learning history though music and music through history,” says Schrum.  “Students continued to discuss their pieces in small groups through phone calls and emails.”

Both Schrum and Dauterive concede that even though the energy and enthusiasm were high, the devil is in the collaboration details.  “Getting everything synched between campuses can be a challenge, and even coordinating within our own large institution takes work,” notes Schrum.

The Mason RtA Team

But as the weeks went on, progress was made.  Students researched in the archives and worked to contextualize their pieces as the performers rehearsed and studied the music within its historical context.  And similar to good musical composition, RtA worked to a crescendo.  For the RtA team, that was a spring evening in Charlottesville when the team of researchers, performers (musicians and singers), videographers and archivists, librarians, faculty and more joined together in UVA’s Colonnade Club Garden Room to fully embrace 17 pieces of WWI music.  From “K-K-K Katy” to “Over There” to “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” the Colonnade Room sprang to life — circa 1918.

The evening was a success, with contributors and collaborators enjoying the fruits of their labor.

  • Elizabeth Ozment, whose class of music researchers at UVA provided the first notes for the project, had this to say, “ReSounding the Archives has built bridges between our institutions.  It has brought us together in ways I could never have imagined!  This has been incredible for me to see and hear all this wonderful music.”
  • Linda Monson, Director of the School of Music at Mason said, “It’s been a delight to be able to bring this music to life.  We played a role in 13 of the songs, but this is just the beginning… We are looking forward to continuing to work with UVA and Tech as we move forward on this project.  A huge thank you to all who have been part of this.”
  • Winston Barham, Music Collections Librarian at UVA, summed it up this way, “This has been one of my greatest delights – to work on a project holistically, from music development to website development.”
  • Trudy Becker, Senior Instructor in History at Tech noted, “We all got to do something really exceptional together and we got to immerse ourselves in our special collections library and integrate it into a history lesson.”

And the Beat Goes On

But the project doesn’t end with the researcher’s research and the performer’s performance.  Following the musical presentation, the RtA team began composing the second movement.  Schrum’s vision was to format the collection in such a way that it would provide a lasting, sustainable digital resource for K- 12 teachers throughout the state to promote teaching history through music. Thus, began the development and production of

The website now contains each piece of sheet music featured in the program and includes various entry points for educators, students, and researchers to engage with the sources in a variety of ways: listen to live and studio recordings of each song; view the digitized sheet music; read student essays contextualizing the pieces; and read the transcribed lyrics.  Each piece of music is available with full metadata, and all recordings are also available for download, offered under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 4.0), making them available for use in classrooms, digital projects, or even for re-mixing.

Schrum summed up the project’s contributions, “Sheet music is visually interesting, but it really falls short if it’s not heard.  Millions of pages of sheet music have been digitized, but if you are not a musician, it’s just dots on a page.”

Already the website is attracting hundreds of visitors monthly, with more than one thousand visiting following a posting about the website by the National WWI Museum and Memorial Facebook page.   But both Schrum and Dauterive see much greater things for the website in the future, with Dauterive continuing to make connections and putting guidelines together to allow faculty and teachers to make greater use of the resources. “The website is endlessly extendable,” points out Schrum. They both see an opportunity to expand the project to include Civil War music and political songs.

Extending the Chorus

Dauterive’s presentation to NCPH

The website also provides the opportunity to bring the resources outside of the Commonwealth to a larger audience. For example, the Deschutes Historical Museum in Bend, Oregon has incorporated RtA resources into a WWI exhibit to accompany sheet music they had on display.  Dauterive also made a presentation about the project and the website recently in Hartford, Conn. at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History which had record attendance of almost 1,000 attendees. Dauterive was able to introduce the project to museum and historic site representatives, national park employees, teachers, and historians and discuss how to share history in an engaging way using music.

Schrum (seated) and Dauterive confer on the RtA website

Although all the representatives in the collaboration look forward to continued efforts to bring music and history to life, Dauterive is appreciative of the role she’s already played on the project, “I was lucky to be at Mason at this time and have the funding available to play a part in this – I learned how to be a manage a project with so many moving parts and share and expand my knowledge of music history.  It was a great opportunity for me personally and professionally.”

Schrum sees the project as an example for the larger 4-VA community, noting “Everyone has 20,000 projects in their head.  This 4-VA grant gave us the opportunity to bring this important work to life.  We had these great ideas, but the grant provided us the opportunity to collaborate and make it happen.  This project is a model of what can be done across institutions and disciplines.”


Defining Impact: 4-VA Grant for ENGH 302

One of the mainstays of the 4-VA at Mason program is to identify and grow academic ventures that truly make a difference in higher education – creating cost savings, providing greater access to the educational process, and developing new or more effective pedagogies.

That said, it’s hard to find a more impactful grant than the one supporting ENGH 302:  Advanced Composition.  This grant was provided to help build an OER collection for this celebrated Mason Core class which has an enrollment of almost 7000 students annually, delivered by a rotating group of approximately 65 faculty.

The challenges were plenty facing Catherine E. Saunders — who teaches the 302 course and has served as coordinator over two stages of the 4-VA@Mason grant project — and thirteen English 302 colleagues who served on the project team. As instructors of an advanced composition course offered at only a few American universities, faculty teaching English 302 did not have access to “off the shelf” textbooks appropriate the specific goals of the course.  Instead, most instructors created and/or adapted materials to suit their students’ needs, within an informal culture of sharing, collaboration of various versions of assignments and activities developed within the English 302 instructor community.  Moreover, with a growing number of instructors being hired to serve the expanding ranks of English 302 students, there was danger of losing consistency across sections. Saunders sought to formalize the existing culture of collaboration and ensure that resources developed by experienced instructors are easily available to new instructors.

Saunders and a group of colleagues first applied for and received a 4-VA@Mason grant a year prior.  That grant provided support for the creation of a core collection of OER items – assignments, activities, and other curricular materials created and peer-reviewed by experienced English 302 instructors – that were then made available to new and experienced English 302 instructors via a Blackboard organization.

The Blackboard-based collection was popular with English 302 instructors.  However, follow-up surveys of users revealed room for improvement in design of the collection, as well as a desire for additional resources and a preference for a public-facing collection.  A different platform was needed to make OER developed by the English 302 team more readily available not only to GMU faculty, but also to the wider composition community.  Hence, the team applied for a second 4-VA@Mason grant to finish the work.

Team member Psyche Z. Ready, assisted by Joyce P. Johnston, took the lead in adapting Mason Journals’ iteration of the Open Journal System (OJS) to meet the needs of English 302 OER collection authors, reviewers, and users.  Each item in the new, public-facing collection includes an abstract, instructor’s notes, and creative-commons licensed curricular materials – assignments, activities, and/or background readings – created, adapted, or curated for use in English 302.  The OJS platform eases the review process, and also allows user-friendly features such as keyword searching.

The response from the instructors and students alike has been rewarding for Saunders and her team of developers.  “The students do express appreciation that course materials are free to them and that they are specifically adapted to the goals of the course,” Saunders says.  “They also like that the materials break down larger concepts and assignments into manageable chunks, and that they employ active learning strategies and real-world materials.”

Saunders and Ready have recently brought their project to a larger audience, presenting their work at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference, with plans for other conference presentations in progress.

In addition to Saunders, Ready, and Johnston, the ENGH 302 team included the following faculty members:  Lourdes Fernandez, Virginia Hoy, Sara King, Stephanie Liberatore, Jessica Matthews, Benjamin D. Orlando, Mark Rudnicki and Margaret Scolaro.  Saunders also credits the “invaluable assistance” of Fenwick Library staff, John Warren, Aaron McCollough and especially Andrew Kierig.

To see their site, click here.




Steering World History from Flat to Multi-Dimensional

Teaching a class titled “Introduction to World History” was daunting 25 years ago — developing and navigating a wide-ranging curriculum.  Today, teaching that same class presents all new challenges as the myriad “sources” found by students on the Internet can often send them off course.  That same Internet rabbit hole faced 4-VA OER Course Redesign grantee Dr. Sheri Ann Huerta: Identify appropriate events to form the hefty narrative of the curriculum, research openly-available and credible materials, locate engaging, interactive resources to support each lesson, and organize the results in a user-friendly digital architecture. Untold hours are needed to accurately research the options.

Yet, Huerta saw an opportunity to do something even bigger with her project, noting, “I wanted to create analytical modules that facilitated learning by developing incremental training in the key critical thinking skills, utilized by historians, which also serve to develop savvy consumers of information in our digital age.”

Huerta began her efforts by scanning a wide variety of sources for consideration of inclusion in the course materials — everything from existing textbooks and primary source books to “Films on Demand” and the Adam Matthews databases. She also visited databases of art museums, signed up for appropriate history and teaching pedagogy listservs, and consulted with subject matter experts at Mason — Dr. Jane Hooper and Dr. George Oberle.

“The redesign focuses attention on students developing a personal ‘historical voice’ of world history informed by primary sources rather than relying on the limited story told in textbooks or lecture-test style delivery,” notes Huerta. “By shifting the focus from memorization to interpretation, the course connects well with the goal of applying critical thinking skills. By evaluating sources of information for accuracy and reliability and working more in small groups, students develop a heightened awareness of multiple perspectives and diversity of thought in the classroom—skills that help create informed global citizens.”  Huerta collaborated with GMU’s History Librarian Dr. George Oberle to structure the course to “gradually identify and develop key career-ready skills: evaluation of sources; teamwork and collaboration; written/oral/digital communication of ideas; professional communication; and developing persuasive, evidence-based arguments.”

Not surprisingly, the students greatly appreciated that the redesigned course makes use of eco-friendly digital materials accompanied with a significant drop in the cost of course materials—from $137.50 to $7.00. More importantly, students showed an appreciation for the inclusion of accounts from voices often neglected in broad historical narratives – including women, persons of color, and non-European/non-US American cultural groups.

“This project was multi-faceted and difficult, however with the help of my colleagues and the 4-VA@Mason grant, it was very worthwhile for the course and our students,” concluded Huerta.


Creating Better Chemistry and Delivering Student Savings

An email from Fenwick Library caught the collective eye of the teaching team responsible for delivering CHEM336: Physical Chemistry I Laboratory.  The email referenced the 4-VA at Mason course redesign grants, which are provided to encourage the incorporation of Open Educational Resources (OER) into the curriculum.

LCOS Portraitsead PI Moissa Fayissa, PhD. conjectured that this might just be the path for the team to pursue:  He believed their current text and lab books were subpar and incomplete as a match for their course.  Fayissa saw the need to provide only top-notch materials for this intensive class — which is offered in three sessions in the fall semester and two sessions in the spring semester.  Additionally, Fayissa worried about the cost of their then-current textbook.  At more than $250, this was a high price to ask students to pay.

When Fayissa and his CO-PI Pritha Roy, PhD. received their 4-VA grant, they split up the lesson plans and got to work.  Says FayissaCOS Portraits, “The materials search included looking at printed laboratory manuals and online open resources. When we could not find enough information online for the experiment, we referred to the previous laboratory manual and cited the lab manual as the reference.  The instructions and background materials found online were rewritten to suit our needs.”

While the team did find that locating and utilizing materials without copyright infringement concerns was challenging, they worked with library staff to ensure they were taking the correct approach.  Careful consideration was given to each citing.

Fayissa is pleased with the results, “This process has led to better background materials and better explanations for experiments.  In addition, the students have access to these materials without the expensive textbook, which was an important goal of this project.” Although CHEM 336 is limited to 16 students per class due to lab restrictions, the textbook cost savings in total approximates an impressive $20,000 annually.

The CHEM336 team plans to upload the entire course work into Blackboard and are considering working with the library staff further to publish the materials through Mason Publishing Group so that students can obtain a hard copy of the materials should they prefer.  Fayissa and Roy agree that the final product was worth the effort for the improvement curriculum and cost savings for the students.



Mason Scientists Put Bees Under the Microscope in Groundbreaking Research

As the world has been learning about the precipitous and dangerous decline in bee populations, scientists are scrambling to probe deeper into the “why.”  It’s generally recognized that habitat loss and degradation, increased use of agrochemicals, invasive pathogens, competition from alien species and poor management practices are each contributing factors.  However, what’s not known is the extent and effect of each of these on various species of bees, and, further, the role that the interaction of the species in shared habitats and flower resources plays.  It is supposed that each species will be affected by different degrees, because of differences in bee social organization, foraging and nesting behavior, genetic diversity and other traits, but the hard science is not there. To take a closer look, Dr. Haw Chuan Lim and his Mason team of graduate and undergraduate students armed with a 4-VA2Mason grant are conducting groundbreaking research via their “High Throughput Bee Pathogen Survey.”

In what may be the only study of its kind, the team is in the unique position not only to access, but to develop state-of-the-art research techniques as they closely investigate extracted RNA and DNA from three bee species in Northern Virginia.  Together, they are harnessing the bioinformatics and genomics capabilities at the Mason Sci-Tech campus while developing their own sequence capture probe-set to enable a comprehensive survey of pathogens and micro-parasites. They collaborate closely with Mason’s Rebecca Forkner and UVA’s T’ai Roulston.  Both Forkner and Roulston have many years of experience in pollinator biology, using the Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) program — the sites of the bee collection — and UVA’s Blandy Experimental Farm.

The team is specifically studying three groups of bees found in Northern Virginia – the European honeybee, the bumble bee and the mason bee – (no relation to George Mason University :+)  To do this, they are collecting bees from nine VWL sites in the region, freezing and preserving each specimen using liquid nitrogen, and bringing them to the lab on the Sci-Tech campus, where they store them in a -80C freezer.

When the initial series of specimens was harvested, master’s student David Lambrecht went into overdrive. “I’ve spent many long days and nights in this space,” notes Lambrecht as he removes a bee sample from the freezer.  After freezing each specimen, the students on the project learned how to extract total RNA and total DNA from each specimen. By using techniques such as target sequence capture and polymerase chain reactions, they can then enrich for and sequence a variety of bee pathogens whose genomes are made up of RNA and DNA molecules.

Although the lab work is taxing, Lim notes that they’re making progress, and big progress at that.  “This is the first time ever that a large-scale target enrichment and sequencing of RNA viruses have been implemented for bees in this region. More specifically, the prevalence of viruses is generally unknown for bees in this region.” explains Lim.  “We have had to optimize lab protocols and bioinformatics analytical approaches.”

Collecting the baseline values and knowing the diversity and strain variation of pathogens can provide valuable information for the future of the bees, including:

  • Being able to identify the pathogen responsible if bees in the region show signs for a particular disease. Conversely, it may be found that high prevalence or abundance of certain pathogen will not affect the bees, suggesting that they have developed resistance to the pathogen.
  • Allowing scientists to target pathogens of interest and to conduct in vivo studies of the mechanisms of infection, as well as the immune responses of bees.
  • Knowing whether managed bees (honey bees) are transmitting diseases to native bees will inform management practices, e.g. – keeping apiaries further away from native vegetation.

But while the initial lab work is buzzing away, the field work was thrown for a loop by Mother Nature.  The total bee collections were hampered by the record setting rains in Northern Virginia this past year.

However, the persistent rains have not dampened the spirits of Lim and his team.  They project that their research findings will not only shed light on critical information to help scientists better understand the bee populations and how to manage disease, stress and habitats; Lim also sees many valuable offshoots of this project for use in various upper division biology courses at Mason, and perhaps as a part of the Bioinformatics Concentration.  Adds Lim, “My goal here is to help push along our bioinformatics and genomics program.”

And with the study still underway, Lim is already looking to the conclusion and beyond.  Explains Lim, “Our results will be very relevant to the basic understanding of pollinator ecology, and management and conservation of bee populations.  I foresee future funding from federal grant resources and private conservation organizations. Some of this lab work hasn’t been done before and it’s already opened up more research opportunities.”



… How the bees got to the lab.  A story in pictures:


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