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July 14, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin


Just what do they do at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research?

A dozen participants in the Governor's Fellows Program were able to tour the facility on Thursday, see what researchers are working on and learn what the overall goals of the organization are.

The Governor's Fellows are students who just graduated from college, or are working on graduate degrees, who have been chosen spend the summer in the governor's office, learning how the state government works. Part of the experience is touring areas around Virginia.

On Thursday the group toured the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, including its education center and research facilities. They had lunch and a tour at Martinsville Speedway before heading to the Institute.

Jerry Niles, interim director at the Institute, told them the Institute was created in 2003 as an economic development effort to combat the loss of textile and tobacco industries. He said that the partnership between the state and local governments made the project possible.

"What goes on here is driven by the local needs and supported by the state," Niles said. "Then, when you bring in higher education entities as partners - Virginia Tech, Averett University, Danville Community College - you get even more responsiveness to the community."

Ellen Bass, with the Institute Conference Center, said the center is just one component of what is done at the Institute to help with economic development.

"We are tasked with going outside the area to bring in groups to use our facility," she said. "By doing that, they're staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants; that is how the conference center is trying to help with the economic transformation in Southside."

Bass said the conference rooms have state-of-the-art electronic equipment, allowing teleconferencing and video conferencing, with a touch-panel that controls everything from the blinds and lights to the electronic equipment.

Different size conference, meeting and event rooms are available, as are snacks, meals and banquets through the on-site catering service.

What are they researching?

The research facilities have four main areas they are focused on: agriculture, polymers, robotics and motorsports.

Deborah Morehead, director of communications and public relations, said these areas were chosen because they already had a base in the region.

In agriculture, the Institute's scientists are exploring alternate crops for tobacco on farms in the area. Research studies include switchgrass for biofuels, strawberries, orchids and a type of fir tree that can be grown in this area as a Christmas tree crop.

With automobile racing in both Martinsville and Alton, a state-of-the-art motorsports testing facility was designed. VIPER (Virginia Institute for Performance Engineering & Research) explores way to improve vehicle performance at its main facility at Virginia International Raceway. It also gives students a place to study various aspects of motorsports, including vehicle design and testing.

Polymers are used in many manufacturing facilities, and more than 50 companies that used polymers already existed in the area when the Institute was created. The researcher have created improved products for some of those companies and are currently working on an improved "bullet-proof glass" that is actually made of layers of polymers that could make the final result "ballistic-proof."

In the robotics area - called JOUSTER, for Joint Unmanned Systems Test Experimentation and Research Site - researchers work to create robots that will run on land, air and water and send data back to its base. The topographical data such robots can find could help in planning almost any development project, but could have military use as well. If unmanned robots can be developed to go into the battlefield, returning data about explosives or enemies, lives could be saved.

The Institute also has an educational arm, which offers various training programs for members of the community as well as access to online degree programs through several universities.

To find out more about the Institute's programs and research, visit their Web site at

Contact Denice Thibodeau at or (434) 791-7985.

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