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Inaugural Airlie Research Projects Reflect Property’s History, Spirit

The projects include a dissertation workshop and research on the intersection of technology and nature.

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Airlie includes a working farm, hotel, events space, and conference center.

Airlie has for decades served as a gathering place for the exchange of ideas. 

Since the 1950s, AU’s 300-acre property in Warrenton, Virginia, has welcomed changemaking researchers searching for answers to society’s most pressing questions and hosted history-making conferences, including the inaugural NAACP leadership conference in 1962. Seven years later, the seed for Earth Day was planted at Airlie.  

In the spirit of building on what Life magazine once called an “island of thought,” AU selected two research projects from dozens of proposals in December for scholarship and programming at Airlie. The $18.8 million property, which includes a working farm, hotel, and conference center, was given to AU in 2016 as one of the earliest gifts to the Change Can’t Wait campaign. 

The projects include a dissertation workshop and research on the intersection of technology and nature and come from collaboration between the Office of Research and the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies. 

“Both projects honor the historic mission of Airlie and American University, demonstrate a holistic approach to using the space, and emphasize what is uniquely Airlie,” said Diana Burley, vice provost for research and innovation. “We are looking forward to the collaboration with both groups as we continue to integrate Airlie into the fabric of this university.” 

A proposal from SOC professor Maya Livio and CAS professor JP Merz, who met at the University of Colorado, ties directly to the environmental legacy of Airlie, which has served as the site for wildlife research using radio collaring and ultralight aircraft. Livio and Merz will examine how digital technologies help researchers analyze, understand, and communicate with the environment. 

The two will travel to Airlie in early 2023 to set up camera traps, microphones, and sensors to capture wildlife sights and sounds, particularly those of migratory birds. The data will illuminate the convergence of technology and conservation and help develop ways to tell impactful environmental stories. Livio and Merz plan to produce a short film and host an online symposium at the conclusion of the project. 

“This seemed like an opportunity to situate our environmental work in a place that has a unique history,” Livio said. “It was a great match.” 

The other proposal selected, from SIS professor Victoria Kiechel, establishes a writing retreat for multi-disciplinary doctoral candidates in the post-research dissertation stage. Kiechel selected five students—she hopes to add another one or two—for the weeklong, distraction-free getaway during spring break. The students’ work is focused on education, public health, peace building, environmental issues, and social justice movements. 

Students will participate in workshops and daily advising sessions that will create a collegial atmosphere that helps students build camaraderie as they work through similar challenges. “I hope this is just the beginning,” she said. “This workshop is meant to be very outcomes-oriented. I hope it will have an impact on [students’] work and on their lives.”