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Missie Smith (left) and Coleman Merenda (right) researched mixed-reality displays in vehicles at the University of Nottingham.

Stronger together

Engineering study abroad programs build on joint research strengths of international partners

For almost 150 years, the Virginia Tech College of Engineering has been educating the leaders of tomorrow and conducting research that is changing lives around the world. 

Engineering faculty members coordinate three International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) programs. Funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, these programs support undergraduate and graduate students conducting research overseas. 

Virginia Tech offers three IRES programs — in the United Kingdom, China, and Australia. Each builds on joint research strengths with an international partner and offers students the unique value of site-specific topics.

The three programs share a tested program design for deepening participants’ global competence. All IRES students participate in preparatory meetings, complete a 10-week research project, and then present their work and reflect on its value upon returning to Virginia Tech. 

Past students have co-authored research publications and accelerated their careers through the global connections they’ve made.


Since 2013, Virginia Tech students have traveled to the University of Nottingham for 10 weeks to conduct research on next-generation electrical power systems. 

This IRES program is led by Nicole Sanderlin, director of global engagement, and Jack Lesko, associate dean of research and graduate studies. It builds on the two universities’ shared research strengths in power electronics, human factors, advanced manufacturing, and materials science. 

Coleman Merenda researched human factors, dimensions of automatic braking, and crash warning systems during his 10 weeks in central England’s Midlands region. “As someone who was accepted into grad school in large part due to my work at Nottingham, I can say that it made a huge difference to me,” Merenda said. 

With mutual designations as Rolls-Royce University Technology Centers, Virginia Tech and the University of Nottingham share a valuable industry research partner in Rolls-Royce. 

As a result, IRES students benefit from unique research opportunities that encompass not only two research universities but also a private-industry partner globally recognized for its engineering leadership.

Since the IRES program started, 30 Virginia Tech students — 19 graduates and 11 undergraduates — have participated. An additional eight graduate students have come to Virginia Tech for reciprocal summer research experiences.

Students in a lab
At the Shandong University – Virginia Tech International Laboratory in Shandong, China, researchers work on unraveling the intricacies of bats’ remarkable sensing and flight skills.


For an engineer inspired by nature, bats are a gold mine, with their acrobatic maneuverability and preternaturally precise sonar systems. China, with its large and diverse bat populations, is an ideal place to study them. 

Participants in the China IRES program explore bat biosonar dynamics through behavioral experiments and analysis of flight and sonic recordings and biomimetic robotics. 

Dom LoPinto, a senior mechanical engineering student, worked side by side with fellow Hokies and Chinese students at the Shandong University – Virginia Tech International Laboratory in Shandong, China, to better understand bats’ sonar systems. 

The lab, founded in 2010 by Rolf Mueller, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology, takes advantage of nearby bat populations to provide a site for collaborative research between the two universities and their collaborators. It also functions as a platform for student and faculty exchange. 

When not analyzing sound reception or modeling flight, LoPinto enjoyed the hospitality of local students, who gave their visitors the inside scoop on the best places to taste the delicious Shandong cuisine.

students in a boat
Melissa Joye gathers samples at Amity Point in Queensland, Australia.


IRES students have been working with faculty at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, since 2018. 

Under the direction of David Knight, associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Education, their research has focused on water and coastal engineering, two topics of increasing relevance for the Commonwealth of Virginia and coastal cities worldwide.

Students conduct research in one of the leading water engineering units in the world and work in some of the finest labs anywhere.

 “I was able to observe Australian culture and begin to understand the impact it has on the work environment. And being overseas pushed me to develop a new confidence to work on global engineering projects with a broad range of people from different backgrounds and cultures,” said Melissa Joye, a civil engineering student who worked on assessing temperature stratification in water supply reservoirs. 

She and other student researchers also joined the larger cohort of Hokies who traveled to Australia and New Zealand with Virginia Tech’s Rising Sophomore Abroad Program.