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Because it is a seaport and military center, Hampton Roads may be more susceptible than many other regions of the United States to international plagues and terrorism. That was the bad news delivered by presenters Wednesday at Research Expo 2006: Global Challenges, Local Solutions. The good news is that academic researchers are putting significant effort into assessing and neutralizing global threats and an impressive amount of that research is done locally.

The Research Expo, sponsored by Old Dominion University, Norfolk State University and Eastern Virginia Medical School, drew about 1,200 people to activities spread over seven hours at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. The exposition showcases the research, scholarship and creativity of faculty and students at the local institutions.

This was the third year for the event and the first in which EVMS participated.

ODU president Roseann Runte, the originator of the event, said the exposition proves that people are wrong when they say we in "Hampton Roads will never get our act together, that we are a community of communities." She thanked the participating researchers-both faculty members and students-because their work "is what will change the world and keep our country strong."

"The Expo has made it very clear that there is a wealth of research expertise in this community," added Harry T. Lester, president of EVMS. "I am confident that new ideas, new partnerships and, perhaps, new investments will grow out of it."

The interim NSU president, Alvin Schexnider, said, for him, the event proves "that there is still such a thing as collegiality."

Avian flu, terrorism and ecological threats were major topics of local experts who participated in four panel discussions during the afternoon. Infectious diseases was the topic of the keynote speaker, Dr. Peter Doherty, the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine. He is now a professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a researcher at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

Doherty explained why a new outbreak of avian flu might be much more deadly worldwide than SARS and infamous viruses and why it may show that "science can't solve every problem." His historical review of infectious diseases put the avian flu threat into perspective. The past century's deadliest flu outbreaks have involved viruses transmitted by birds, he said.

At a panel discussion titled "Emerging Infectious Diseases," Dr. Edward Oldfield, EVMS professor of internal medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Disease, took his audience through a step-by-step explanation of how very close human contact with birds seems to have launched the latest avian flu threat in China, and how migratory birds are spreading the disease. Health care professionals, vaccine makers and hospitals do not have the "surge capacity" to handle the worst case "pandemic scenario," he said.

Both Doherty and Oldfield, however, said the swift and effective worldwide response to the SARS outbreak in 2002-03 offers some evidence that the medical profession and national governments will respond well to a mounting avian flu threat. "Human beings cooperate well and deal very effectively with severe, acute threats," Doherty said.

Studies involving drug resistant malaria were discussed by Roland Cooper, ODU assistant professor of biological sciences and a presenter on the infectious diseases panel. Potential illnesses that can be caused by contaminated ships' ballast water were explained by Fred Dobbs, ODU associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, during the "Chesapeake Bay: Waters in Turmoil" panel a panel discussion.

Globalization itself was dissected as a potential threat to our lifestyles in other of the exposition's panel discussions, which brought together researchers from the three institutions, as well as private and public enterprises. The panel discussions were organized by Joseph Rule, ODU associate dean of sciences.

Booming global trade, according to presenters for "Globalization and Its Impact on Hampton Roads," brings more and more merchant ships to Hampton Roads, which is good for the economy in many ways, but can present numerous security threats and other problems. Wayne Tally, ODU professor and eminent scholar of business and public administration, delivered assessments of local port operations for this discussion and also for another panel discussion titled "Homeland Security." If projections that Hampton Roads container cargo will double by 2020 hold true, he said, port congestion will result and trucks and trains trying to move the cargo through the region could greatly worsen motor vehicle traffic congestion.

Perhaps the most frightening presentation of any panelist came from Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center. He told of flying machines no larger than a bird and small underwater robotic devices that could carry terrorist weapons from well offshore to targets in the United States. "In less than 10 days, 10 people with $10,000 could cause enough chaos to take down the U.S. government," he warned. He said he is especially fearful of small groups of terrorists, perhaps only a lone terrorist. "If you feel safe going into the future, I dare to say you may not know enough," he said.

Denise Baken, director of bio-defense programs for Virginia's Institute for Defense and Homeland Security in Northern Virginia and another "Homeland Security" panelist, noted the various reasons that the Norfolk area could be a target of terrorists. But then she outlined ways governments, groups and individuals can prepare for terrorist emergencies. The problems are real, she added, "but am I saying go hide under a chair? No!" She called for localities to take responsibility for most of the preparedness.

For the most part, however, Research Expo 2006 was more about "local solutions" than "global challenges."

"The event certainly met our expectations, and I think also the expectations of the outside representatives (of business, industry and agencies) who participated for the first time this year," said Mohammad Karim, ODU vice president for research. Karim also praised the collaborative nature of an event that brings together researchers, who, although neighbors, are seldom in a position to chat with each other. Kate Ferguson, ODU director of research development in Karim's office, was the overall chair of Research Expo 2006.

Patrick Hatcher, the Batten Chair in Physical Sciences, who only joined the ODU faculty early this year after serving on the faculties of Ohio State and Penn State universities, said as he left the event that he was "very impressed." He had the opportunity to meet potential collaborators from EVMS and from the Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics, he said, "and I thought the student posters" detailing their research "were excellent."

There were about 400 posters and demonstrations, most from faculty at the sponsoring institutions. But 160 were from undergraduate and graduate students.
Philip Langlais, the ODU vice provost for graduate studies, was in charge of the 40 judges who evaluated student posters. "This was clearly a banner year for student posters," he said. "The quality and quantity was way up."

This article was posted on: April 6, 2006

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