Tackling Virginia’s Challenges


George Mason University has long been adept at transforming scarce resources into measurable results, and that grit and perseverance are now being rewarded. Thanks to the efforts of two Virginia representatives and two U.S. Senators, Mason now has funding for five separate projects that address some of the state’s most urgent challenges.

U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) secured funding for projects focusing on cybersecurity and on mental health, while U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) championed funding for projects that take on the opioid epidemic and tick-borne illnesses. U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) won funding for a unique tutor-to-teaching program that also combats pandemic-related declines in K-12 learning achievement. All of the funding comes as part of the federal omnibus appropriations bill that President Biden recently signed into law to fund the government through Fiscal Year 2023.

Such funding doesn’t just provide a financial boost. It’s recognition of the university’s reputation as a bold innovator, and a vote of confidence in our ability to push further with research and technologies that can have far-reaching benefits.

Connolly agrees, saying “George Mason University is a pillar of our community, but the effects of its world-class education and world-changing research can be felt throughout the country.”

Read on to find out more about the projects being funded and their anticipated impact on Virginia.

Securing the Nation’s Data

As technology quickly changes, the U.S. government similarly must adapt its systems and policies to ensure that the nation’s data and technology remain secure—and they will soon have a valuable partner in Mason.

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47% of American adults have had their personal information exposed online by cybercriminals.

Mason is a leader in cybersecurity, with a program that is currently ranked No. 9 in the world, and a bachelor’s degree in cyber security engineering that was the first of its kind to be offered in the United States. That pioneering expertise will be put to use via the new Mason Center for Excellence in Government Cybersecurity Risk Management and Resilience, which will be supported by $1 million in federal funding secured by Connolly.

The center will act as a strategic partner in cybersecurity and IT modernization efforts through education and workshops for federal government IT and cybersecurity executives and middle managers. In developing and offering these resources, the center will also leverage Mason’s Institute for Digital Innovation (IDIA), to be housed within the new Fuse building at Mason Square, by leaning on IDIA’s deep interdisciplinary expertise across all facets of cybersecurity research, governance, policy, and education. 

Amarda Shehu, associate vice president of research at IDIA and professor of computer science, will operate the center along with J. P. Auffret, director of research partnerships and grants initiatives in Mason’s School of Business and director of the Center for Assurance Research and Engineering. 

With a 25-year history in government IT leadership and governance education, Mason is uniquely qualified to lead this effort. Connolly expressed optimism about the center, saying, “I can’t wait to see the results in action.”

Addressing Mental Health Care Needs

Of the pandemic’s many lasting effects on society, declining mental health and well-being are among the most critical, and youth are particularly susceptible. Federal statistics show that more than a third of young people in the United States have reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 24. In Virginia alone, 86 children in the state died by suicide in 2020.

Stock image of a person's hand held out, a computer rendered brain hovering atop it. Outlines of puzzle pieces and chemical structures overlap the image.
50.6% increase in emergency department visits during the pandemic for youth suicide risk.

Thanks to nearly $1 million in federal funding won by Connolly, Mason will continue its existing efforts in addressing this mental health crisis through the Saving Lives and Decreasing Health Disparities project. The project aims to train community clinicians to serve diverse, low-income youth and families and provide access to low- to no-cost, culturally sensitive evidence-based assessments that can be easily implemented in community mental health settings.

The project leads—Mason psychology professor Christianne Esposito-Smythers and Psychology Department chair Keith Renshawhope to make a significant impact within the region. “This work is intended to increase the effectiveness of mental health services, reduce the likelihood of life-threatening behavior, and decrease the costs of care for our lowest-income youth and families,” Esposito-Smythers says.

Collaborating to Counter a Crisis

Already a crisis before the pandemic, the opioid epidemic has steadily worsened nationwide, with federal, state, and local officials reporting alarming spikes in drug overdoses.

Stock image of a flatlining heart beat over a semi-visible pile of pills.
80% increase in fatal opioid overdoses in Virginia between 2019 and 2021.

According to the most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health, fatal overdoses in the state from all substances increased by 69 percent between 2019 and 2021; fatal opioid overdoses increased by 80 percent. Nearly three quarters of all Virginia’s drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved fentanyl, an opioid that is more than 50 times more potent than heroin.

Continued isolation from the global pandemic, economic devastation, and disruptions to the drug trade have all fueled the surge. Large numbers of opioid overdose deaths have disproportionately been among those of less privileged socioeconomic status living in rural areas. State statistics also show that the formerly incarcerated who have substance abuse disorder are up to 129 times more susceptible to overdose in the first two weeks following their release.

Mason’s College of Public Health is well positioned to tackle these issues with their expertise in directly supporting health in surrounding communities. Now, with the help of federal funding won by Wexton, researchers at Mason will work to alleviate the substance abuse crisis via the future Empowered Communities Partnership Center.

With the one-time federal investment of $1,037,519, the center aims to coordinate care across systems of support and gather data to develop new models of community care to both prevent opioid overdoses and limit the burden to the state health care system.

Looping in existing Virginia statewide and local criminal justice and public health partners in a collaborative network will be key to the center’s work. There are additionally plans to expand the coordination of care for those with opioid use disorder reentering the community following their release from incarceration.

Mason nursing professor Rebecca Sutter, MSN ’01, DNP ’12, co-director of the Mason and Partners (MAP) Clinics and the Empowered Communities Program, will oversee the center. She emphasizes that Mason’s existing programs and community partnerships are foundational to the center.

“We are building upon our programs to expand our impact,” Sutter says. “This is a partnership center with the local community guiding its work while acting as a learning laboratory for the next generation of public health strategists and leaders.”

Taking on Ticks

Like many parts of the United States, Virginia is experiencing an increase in tick-borne illnesses, with particularly high numbers of confirmed cases in Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, and Rappahannock counties. Left untreated, tick-borne infections can lead to chronic suffering, disability, and even death. Early diagnosis ensures patients receive appropriate treatment, but there is currently a shortage of adequate and accessible testing throughout Virginia.

Stock image of a tick caution sign hung on a tree in the woods.
600 estimated samples tested for tick-borne illness each month at five Virginia clinics.

Mason’s Center for Advanced Testing: Tick-Borne Disease Diagnostic Clinic will soon help change that. The center will use the one-year federal investment of $820,000 secured by Wexton to deploy diagnostic testing—utilizing a suite of unmatched Mason-developed technologies—that will allow for a quicker and more efficient diagnosis.

“Our unique medical technology to diagnose tick-borne diseases began many years ago,” says University Professor Lance Liotta, co-director and medical director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. “Our team is thrilled to expand our clinical trial under this special funding to now offer routine testing for the entire commonwealth.”

Mason’s technology for patient sample self-collection does not require refrigeration, and results are communicated to the requesting physician within 24 hours to enable appropriate therapy to begin immediately. This is a stark improvement from conventional technologies, which typically take 6 to 12 days to process at major diagnostic laboratories. Additionally, only one patient sample is needed to detect signatures derived from all the major known tick-borne pathogens.

“Mason scientists have been leaders in helping to prevent long-term illness and disability from these diseases, which are becoming more common in Virginia and across the country,” Wexton says. “I'm grateful to Mason for their work on this issue.”

Given that Mason officials anticipate seeing 600 samples per month at five clinics, the program promises to have a dramatic impact on the region. It’s an impact that is indicative of Mason’s culture of tackling problems in singular ways that create measurable results.

One Project, Two Goals

Nationwide, one of the pandemic’s most dire effects has been the sharp decline in learning achievement for K–12 students. Additionally, the number of teachers leaving the profession has sharply risen, with about 40 to 50 percent leaving within the first five years of their careers.

Stock image of a teacher pointing at a student out of a group. Many of the students have their hands raised to answer a question.
40% of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

Mason’s Tutors to Teachers program focuses on tackling both problems simultaneously. The program trains student tutors to address the most pressing gaps K–12 children currently face while nurturing those tutors for careers as future teachers. Now, through federal funding secured by Warner and Kaine, the program will have the support to extend its efforts to even more students and future teachers throughout the state.

Currently, Mason and Virginia Community College System students work with in-service teachers and receive training to provide online tutoring services to low-income K–12 children who are showing pandemic-driven learning gaps. The $1.95 million in federal funding will be used to prepare tutors to help K–12 students become self-regulated learners. Additionally, through relevant course work, mentoring experiences, and guidance provided by Mason faculty, student tutors will be empowered to enter the teacher workforce prepared with the skills needed to make a positive impact.

The funding enables Mason to build off an existing partnership with Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria school districts and extend its reach to Prince William County, Franklin City, Frederick County, and Spotsylvania public schools. Plans for expansion include Historically Black Colleges, Native American tribes, and other school districts in Virginia.

Mason’s TEACHERtrack Office administers the program, developed by Mason professors Anastasia Kitsantas and Roberto Pamas, both faculty with Mason’s School of Education.

Priyanka Champaneri, BA ’05, MFA ’10, and John Hollis contributed to this story.