Science & Research

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission




WVU engineering students win best poster awards at prestigious international biometrics conference

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Doctoral students from West Virginia University’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources captured best poster awards at the International Joint Conference on Biometrics held October 1-4, in Denver, Colorado.

Naman Kohli and Daksha Yadav, doctoral students in computer science, received a best poster award for their paper titled, “Synthetic Iris Presentation Attack Using iDCGAN.” Commercial iris recognition systems find it difficult to discriminate between synthetically generated iris images and real iris images. Kohli and Yadav’s research proposes a solution to this challenging problem by developing a novel algorithm to generate realistic looking synthetic iris images using a new framework called iris deep convolutional generative adversarial network.

Shruti Nagpal and Maneet Singh, WVU visiting research scholars from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology at Delhi, also received a best poster award. Their paper, “Gender and Ethnicity Classification of Iris Images Using Deep Class Encoder,” focuses on using a novel supervised deep class-encoder algorithm to predict gender and ethnicity by analyzing iris images. The use of gender and ethnicity as a soft biometric trait improves the iris recognition performance, reduces the computational time and results in faster processing.

The award-winning biometric research was conducted at the Intelligent Forensics, Biometrics and Security lab at WVU. The lab, led by Afzel Noore, professor and associate chair of academics for the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, conducts research on a variety of research topics related to the identity management using biometrics and security.

“As iris biometric technology permeates many devices and applications, cybersecurity and privacy are of paramount importance,” Noore said. “The research performed by these students explores integrating user-specific soft biometric attributes to develop new iris recognition algorithms. Synthetically generated iris images will be valuable in developing new algorithms to detect and mitigate iris spoofing attacks or cyberattacks.

“I am extremely pleased that the international community of leading biometrics researchers and professionals have recognized the quality and creativity of research performed by our students.”

Mayank Vatsa and Richa Singh, associate professors at IIIT-Delhi and adjunct associate professors at WVU, collaborated on the two recognized papers.



LIGO and Virgo make first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars

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For the first time, scientists have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in space and time—from the spectacular collision of two neutron stars. Light from the collision was also observed by telescopes, marking the first time that a cosmic event has been viewed in both gravitational waves and light.

This new field of gravitational-wave astronomy is providing opportunities to understand the universe in ways that cannot be achieved with traditional telescopes alone, and scientists believe this event will become one of the most studied astrophysical events in history.

The new discovery was made using the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, called LIGO; the Europe-based Virgo detector; and some 70 ground- and space-based observatories.

The observations have given astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to probe a collision of two neutron stars. For example, observations made by the U.S. Gemini Observatory, the European Very Large Telescope, and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal signatures of recently synthesized material, including gold and platinum, suggesting a resolution to a decades-long debate about how most of the elements heavier than iron are produced.

The LIGO-Virgo results are published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; additional papers from the LIGO and Virgo collaborations and the astronomical community have been submitted or accepted for publication in various journals.

Discovery from collaboration

Some 1,500 scientists in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration work together to operate the detectors and to process and understand the gravitational-wave data they capture.

Two West Virginia University researchers have been part of the international collaboration since before the first detection of gravitational waves, a discovery for which three of the original founders of LIGO were recently awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Sean McWilliams, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, Zachariah Etienne, assistant professor of mathematics, and their team of students and postdocs in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences focus on the analysis of gravitational-wave detections.

Their work focuses on modeling the sources of gravitational waves and using these models to measure characteristics of the sources based on the details contained in their gravitational-wave signals.

Etienne will deliver a talk on gravitational waves, the significance of the discovery and WVU’s work as part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy Colloquium Series on October 31 at 3:30 p.m. in room G09 of White Hall. The talk is open to the public and will be geared to both scientific and non-scientific audiences.

“These dense, massive neutron stars spiraled around each other with increasing speed, ripping each other apart in their collision,” said Etienne. “This incredible observation and our analysis provide a means to understand extreme matter inside neutron stars.”

With the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists had opened a new window to the universe, different from any existing way of gaining understanding.

“This new event bridges a gap,” said McWilliams. “It connects extreme gravity to extreme matter and electromagnetic energy so that events like this can act as a Rosetta stone for testing our understanding of how all three interact with one another.”

Etienne is principal investigator and McWilliams is co-principal investigator of an NSF-funded program to speed up data analysis, so that deeper insights into gravitational wave observations can be provided in weeks instead of months or years.

Together with Caleb Devine, a math alumnus; David Buch, an Honors College undergraduate from Beckley; Tyler Knowles, a math graduate student; and Serdar Bilgili, a physics and astronomy graduate student; Etienne and McWilliams sped up the codes that predict what the signal would look like coming from sources with different characteristics. McWilliams also contributed to the development of some of the models themselves.

“We were able to speed up parts of the data analysis by about a factor of 100,” said Etienne. “This helps to ensure timely dissemination of important results related to gravitational-wave discoveries to the scientific community.”

In addition, McWilliams, Paul Baker, physics and astronomy postdoctoral researcher; Belinda Cheeseboro, physics and astronomy graduate student; and Amber Lenon, physics and astronomy graduate student; worked to improve the tools used for “unmodeled searches,” in which scientists looked for anything unusual in the data.

“For this cosmic event, those types of tools are important for telling scientists how consistent the data is with our predictions, and therefore with general relativity itself,” said McWilliams.

For instance, scientists don’t know what happens at the end of these events, since the colliding neutron stars can immediately make a black hole, they can wait a while before collapsing into a black hole, or they can make a single stable gigantic neutron star.

“Unfortunately, we aren’t sensitive enough yet to detect any signal after the collision that would tell us exactly what happened, but the ‘unmodeled methods’ allow us to set limits on what could have happened,” said McWilliams.

A cosmic pairing

Neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known to exist and are formed when massive stars explode in supernovae. A neutron star is less than 20 miles in diameter and is so dense that a teaspoon of neutron star material has a mass of about a billion tons.

As these neutron stars spiraled together, they emitted gravitational waves that were detectable for roughly 100 seconds; when they collided, a flash of light in the form of gamma rays was emitted and seen on Earth about two seconds after the gravitational waves.

The characteristic “chirps” of binary black holes discovered last year lasted a fraction of a second in the LIGO detector’s sensitive band, but the new detection’s chirp lasted much longer and was seen through the entire sensitive frequency range of LIGO — coincidentally about the same range of frequencies as the sound waves that fall within the human audible range.

In the days and weeks following the smashup, other forms of light, or electromagnetic radiation—including X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were detected.

A stellar sign

The gravitational signal, named GW170817, was first detected on Aug. 17 at 8:41 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time; the detection was made by the two identical LIGO detectors, located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana.

The information provided by the third detector, Virgo, situated near Pisa, Italy, enabled an improvement in localizing the cosmic event.

LIGO’s real-time data analysis software caught a strong signal of gravitational waves from space in one of the two LIGO detectors. At nearly the same time, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor on NASA’s Fermi space telescope had detected a burst of gamma rays.

LIGO-Virgo analysis software put the two signals together and saw it was highly unlikely to be a chance coincidence, and another automated LIGO analysis indicated that there was a coincident gravitational wave signal in the other LIGO detector.

The LIGO data indicated that two astrophysical objects located at a relatively close distance of about 130 million light-years from Earth had been spiraling toward each other.

The data showed that the objects were not as massive as the binary black holes that LIGO and Virgo had detected in 2016. Instead, these inspiraling objects were estimated to be in a range from around 1.1 to 1.6 times the mass of the sun, in the mass range of neutron stars and too light to be black holes.

Theorists have predicted that when neutron stars collide, they should give off gravitational waves and gamma rays, along with powerful jets that emit light across the electromagnetic spectrum.

The gamma-ray burst detected by Fermi is what’s called a short gamma-ray burst; the new observations confirm that at least some short gamma-ray bursts are generated by the merging of neutron stars—something that was only theorized before.

But while one mystery appears to be solved, new mysteries have emerged that will yield new insights for years to come.

A fireball and an afterglow

Approximately 130 million years ago, two neutron stars were in their final moments of orbiting each other, separated only by about 200 miles and gathering speed while closing the distance between them.

As the stars spiraled faster and closer together, they stretched and distorted the surrounding space-time, giving off energy in the form of powerful gravitational waves, before smashing into each other.

At the moment of collision, the bulk of the two neutron stars merged into one ultra-dense object, emitting a “fireball” of gamma rays. The initial gamma-ray measurements, combined with the gravitational-wave detection, also provide confirmation for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light.

Theorists have predicted that what follows the initial fireball is a “kilonova” — a phenomenon by which the material that is left over from the neutron star collision, which glows with light, is blown out of the immediate region and far out into space. The new light-based observations show that heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created in these collisions and subsequently distributed throughout the universe.

In the weeks and months ahead, telescopes around the world will continue to observe the afterglow of the neutron star merger and gather further evidence about various stages of the merger, its interaction with its surroundings, and the processes that produce the heaviest elements in the universe.

“It is tremendously exciting to experience a rare event that transforms our understanding of the workings of the universe,” says France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, which funds LIGO.

“This discovery realizes a long-standing goal many of us have had, that is, to simultaneously observe rare cosmic events using both traditional as well as gravitational-wave observatories. Only through NSF’s four-decade investment in gravitational-wave observatories, coupled with telescopes that observe from radio to gamma-ray wavelengths, are we able to expand our opportunities to detect new cosmic phenomena and piece together a fresh narrative of the physics of stars in their death throes.”

More about the LIGO-Virgo collaborations

LIGO is funded by the National Science Foundation, and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project.

More than 1,200 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian collaboration OzGrav. Additional partners are listed at

The Virgo collaboration is funded by the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Italy and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. Virgo consists of more than 280 physicists and engineers belonging to 20 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the University of Valencia; and the European Gravitational Observatory, EGO, the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, funded by CNRS, INFN, and Nikhef.



WVU awarded grant to develop critical mineral reserves

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With a national reputation as a leader in rare earth extraction research, West Virginia University is poised to take another step in developing a domestic supply of rare earth minerals that are critical to national defense and U.S. economic security.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory has announced a $644,000 research grant to WVU to continue its research supporting DOE’s ongoing program to recover rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. Since February 2016, the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU has led $5.6 million in research across four projects under that program, including $4.46 million in federal and $1.13 million in industry funds. The team’s research includes a current project to build a pilot scale processing plant on the WVU Evansdale campus

The newly-awarded grant will allow the WRI team to develop processes for upstream extraction, at the point of discharge, where operators are required to treat AMD, or “orange water,” the most familiar and abundant pollutant in West Virginia waters.

“This would further improve the economics of REE recovery by producing a purified product at the mine, dramatically reducing transportation and waste handling costs,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, WRI’s Director and the project’s Principal Investigator. In addition, by offering the potential to integrate rare earth extraction and mine-side AMD remediation systems, the technology creates an economic asset that can be leveraged to improve those systems.

Ziemkiewicz will work with WVU co-investigators Lance Lin, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources; Harry Finklea, professor emeritus of Chemistry, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences; and Aaron Noble, associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. The feedstocks produced by Lin and Finklea will be processed at the WVU pilot plant. The final product is expected to reach purity levels approaching 90 percent, effectively extracting from AMD a valuable and marketable commodity without having to ship the product for further processing.

WRI’s research is moving toward commercializing a process for recovering valuable rare earth elements from AMD. Currently, China controls about 98 percent of the world market for these minerals.

The WRI team received seed funding last year through WVU’s O’Brien Energy Research Fund to identify novel methods for recovering critical minerals. Ziemkiewicz pointed to this as an example of how to use seed funding to build strong, nationally competitive teams of scientists around emerging energy topics of national importance. The WVU Energy Institute administers a portion of the O’Brien gift to seed energy-related research at WVU, including six seed grants last year and an additional $250,000 slated for award by the end of this year.

Albert O’Brien was a WVU alumnus with a degree in chemistry who passed away in 1992. He was the founder and President of United Resins of Pittsgrove, New Jersey. “The generation of a reserve of critical minerals from coal mining pollution,” noted John Adams, Assistant Director for Business Operations at the WVU Energy Institute, “is just one example of how the estate of Albert O’Brien is having a real and critical impact on the state and national economies by promoting the work of WVU scientists.”



WVU opens new inhalation facility, $1.7 million NIH grant investigates effects of inhaled particles on health

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Sunscreen spray, a necessary defense against the risks associated with sun exposure, can present a risk of its own. The reflective nanoparticles that protect your skin can also be inhaled, making it harder for the smallest blood vessels in the body to dilate and contract in response to cells’ needs. We encounter risks such as these every day, in common activities, and the cumulative toll on our health may be at a tipping point.

West Virginia University’s new Inhalation Facility will be the home for research and collaborations that measure, identify and discover how the particles we breathe affect our health. Timothy Nurkiewicz, a microvascular physiologist in the School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, is the director of the new lab.

Making space for discovery
The facility provides researchers with real-time monitoring capabilities, while the many types of respirable particles it can accommodate during simultaneous experiments make it a standout internationally.

It will also enable upcoming research into how nanomaterials and other inhalable particles from things like e-cigarettes, auto emissions and the aerosols released during 3-D printing may impact our health.

“Usually labs will be able to do nanomaterial exposures or emissions exposures or smoking exposures, but in reality, people are exposed to a variety of toxicants,” said Nurkiewicz.

WVU’s new facility, in which researchers could model anything humans are exposed to, is rare. Such measurements can identify the most beneficial and least hazardous advanced materials and nanomaterials. For example, carbon nanotubes could strengthen bone-fusion materials. Other nanomaterials could coat surgical mesh to keep the immune system from attacking it, or help cancer drugs kill tumors without laying waste to healthy cells in the process.

Nurkiewicz also directs WVU’s newly formed Toxicology Working Group, which strengthens collaborations between WVU’s campuses, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healthand industry partners.

Nurkiewicz’s vision for the Inhalation Facility and Toxicology Working Group is to center the inhalation toxicology map on WVU.

He explains that properly identifying exposure and dose is critical, but frequently it is not done with the necessary scientific rigor because it is difficult, expensive and demanding in terms of expertise.

“There are fewer and fewer groups that make these measurements because of the complexity and the cost,” he said. “WVU’s ability to do that at a time when there are always new toxicants being released is an ability few others have. This is a unique time and place to do this type of research, and it is WVU’s moment to go first and make discoveries.”

Investigating how inhaled particles influence pregnancy
Nurkiewicz will also conduct research in the lab, including a new five-year, $1.7 million award from the National Institutes of Health to explore how inhalation exposure to nanoparticles affects pregnant women. The project focuses on two inhaled nanomaterials: titanium dioxide and carbon nanotubes, which are present in sunscreen, cosmetics, paints, filters, electronics and surface coatings.

Nurkiewicz’s research shows that inhaling nanoparticles during pregnancy may cause a “hostile gestational environment” that could impair healthy uterine microvascular development and stunt fetal growth.

He and his team will make complex atmospheres of the two nanoparticles to replicate what humans breathe with animal models. Their goal is to determine how much of these substances can be inhaled by a pregnant woman, for how long and at what point in gestation before fetal development is jeopardized.

Collaborating with researchers from across WVU—including specialists in exercise physiology, chemistry, stroke, and agriculture sciences—Nurkiewicz will pursue answers to questions ranging from when exposure has the greatest impact, to how the placenta can provide protection, to how exposure affects risk of future disease and if effects can be reversed.

The research project will also explore the possibility that maternal nanomaterial exposures early in pregnancy may alter the developing embryo’s genes in ways that influence its risk for adult cardiovascular disease and health sensitivities such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

There is an ongoing joke that when a toxicologist takes the stage, the audience groans because they will have to hear another doomsday presentation, but Nurkiewicz says that the real-life impact of the research is what drives scientists in the field.

“We do this so that we can use these products – clinical tools and drugs that make us healthier, protect us and make our lives better.”



WVU’s Project Lead The Way training builds foundation for students to reach national conference

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Students from Spring Valley High School in Huntington and their instructor, James Coble, have been selected to present at the national Project Lead The Way Summit Oct. 22-25 in Orlando, Florida.

PLTW is a nonprofit organization that provides science, technology, engineering and math curriculum and professional development opportunities to K-12 teachers. West Virginia Universityhas been an affiliate of the program since 2006.

The Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources facilitates training sessions for teachers like Coble, who are interested in offering the PLTW engineering curriculum at their schools.

“PLTW is not only an organization that prides itself on preparing students for the global economy through innovative STEM curriculum; it’s also a way of teaching,” said Coble. “It demands that classrooms be student-led and focused on an activity-, project- and problem-based learning model that challenges and excites students to push further.”

Coble and his PLTW engineering students were one of only 18 groups nationwide selected to present at the Summit, where they will demonstrate how the PLTW curriculum helped them participate in the Big Hearts Give Tiny Homes Initiative, a project sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Education  that developed from a local tragedy.

In the summer of 2016, southern West Virginia was hit with devastating flooding that caused many residents to lose their possessions and their homes. Like many members in the community, Coble’s students were disturbed by the fact that so many families were left without a place to call home and were eager to help.

“The students at our school felt charged to help these families have something as close to home as they possibly could for the holidays and they put the design process in motion,” said Coble.

Utilizing the skills they had learned through the PLTW engineering curriculum, the students developed and produced a floor plan and 3-D model of a tiny home using CAD design software. Their design, which featured a sleeping area for a minimum of two people as well as a fully functional kitchen, became a school-wide effort after receiving numerous material and monetary donations from local businesses and the community.

The school’s carpentry and industrial electric class used the PLTW students’ model to construct a move-in ready, 162-square-foot home that they were able to donate to a family in need within the community.

“The people in West Virginia really care about each other,” Coble said. “It was an incredible opportunity for our students to see how the skills they learned through the PLTW engineering curriculum could be applied through a meaningful real world event, especially one that hit so close to home.”

In addition to sharing their success story at the national level, Coble and his students will explain the importance of having access to hands-on experiences during the PLTW West Virginia State Conference hosted by WVU Nov. 13.

“WVU hosts the state conference each fall as a way to show our support for PLTW programs throughout the state and to showcase their success stories,” said Ali Anderson, curricular outreach program coordinator. “James has been a strong partner with WVU in growing PLTW awareness and participation across the state. Brining his students to the conference to display their amazing work at the expo will serve as an additional way to increase participation and visibility of PLTW in West Virginia.”

“WVU’s continued support of these programs is essential as it allow students to gain real marketable skills while in high school,” said Coble. “Students leave these programs with the creativity to dream, confidence to achieve and tools to follow through. They learn to look at the world not through a microscope but with a much wider lens, which is the key to being successful in this day and age.”



Marshall School of Medicine announces five-year program to improve access to diabetes care in West Virginia

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The Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine today launched a new program, Care Coordination of High Risk Diabetes Patients, thanks to a $1.5 million grant over five years from the Merck Foundation.

Marshall is one of eight program grantees supported through the new $16 million, five-year Merck Foundation initiative, Bridging the Gap: Reducing Disparities in Diabetes Care, to help mobilize community-based partners and improve diabetes care for vulnerable and underserved populations in the United States.  The program works with rural health centers and rural hospitals to improve outcomes and reduce costs for people who are most affected by diabetes.  A key component is community health workers who work with people in their community and homes to manage their condition.

Principal Investigator Richard Crespo, Ph.D., a professor in the department of family and community health and longtime diabetes researcher, says the funding will bolster efforts to treat diabetes and its related complications in patients throughout West Virginia.

“People in Appalachia experience lower access to health care, have higher rates of chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke and diabetes,” Crespo said.   “In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled a 644 county area as the diabetes belt. More than one-third of the diabetes belt counties are in central and southern Appalachia.”

Promoting health equity among people with diabetes requires a comprehensive approach that brings together high-quality health services with resources drawn from outside of the health system. Collaboration across multiple sectors can address the many factors that influence health, such as access to healthy foods, and safe options for physical activity, housing, and education.

“Dr. Crespo’s work in rural parts of West Virginia continues to be very important,” said Joseph I. Shapiro, M.D., dean of the Marshall School of Medicine. “We are seeing real change through his efforts and those of his team under the direction of Dr. Steve Petrany, our chair of the department of family and community health.”

“We need to look beyond the usual health care solutions to address the growing burden of diabetes, especially among vulnerable populations in the United States,” says Julie L. Gerberding, chief patient officer, Merck and chief executive officer, Merck Foundation. “Through Bridging the Gap, we are pleased to bring together these eight diverse organizations, and look forward to leveraging their expertise to help more people effectively manage their diabetes and improve their overall health.”

Additional program grantees include: Alameda County Public Health Department (Oakland, California); Clearwater Valley Hospital and Clinics (Orofino, Idaho); La Clínica del Pueblo (Washington, D.C.); Minneapolis Health Department (Minneapolis, Minnesota); Providence St. Joseph Health (Renton, Washington); Trenton Health Team (Trenton, New Jersey); and Western Maryland Health System (Cumberland, Maryland).

The University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois) will serve as the national program office for Bridging the Gap, and in this capacity will support the program efforts of the grantee organizations and provide leadership in building a national public-private partnership to help reduce disparities in diabetes care.

For more information, visit



Startup Weekend Huntington kicks off Nov. 3

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Marshall University and the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) will host Startup Weekend Huntington, a 54-hour event allowing future entrepreneurs to gain experience toward creating their own startup businesses.

This weekend-long event will kick off 6:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 3, and run through 4 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 5, at RCBI’s main office, located at 1050 4th Ave. in Huntington.

Attendees of the event will form teams consisting of those who specialize in varying fields, from entrepreneurship to business to coding and more. Each team will be asked to create a company while receiving tips from the community’s best mentors, investors and businessmen and women. Presentations of the final products will be presented to a panel of experienced judges, and the top three groups will receive prizes.

Tickets can be purchased online through Eventbrite beginning at $10:

Startup Weekend Huntington is sponsored by Marshall University’s Lewis College of Business, the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism and RCBI. To learn more, visit or contact Glen Midkiff at or Bryan Shaw at



W.Va. State University to Receive Nearly $2.5 Million in HBCU Masters Funding

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Funds will be used to support graduate education in STEM fields
INSTITUTE, W.Va. – West Virginia State University (WVSU) will receive nearly $2.5 million in federal funding over the next six years to support graduate education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) through the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Masters Program.
Funds will be distributed annually in the amount of $416,666 beginning in fiscal year 2018 through 2023 and will be used to support WVSU’s master’s degree in Biotechnology.
 “The restoration of HBCU Masters funding will significantly impact West Virginia’s economy and society,” said WVSU Vice President for Research and Public Service Dr. Orlando F. McMeans. “This will translate into West Virginia State’s continued tradition of graduating highly competent, successful students who will go on to careers as scientists, physicians, dentists and other STEM occupations.”
Initially funded in 2008 through the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Opportunity Act, the HBCU Masters program was created to improve graduate education opportunities at the master’s level in mathematics, engineering, physical or natural sciences, computer science, information technology, nursing, allied health and other scientific disciplines where African-American students are underrepresented. The program was cut in 2015, only to be reinstated for the coming fiscal year.
WVSU’s Master of Science in Biotechnology program provides cross-disciplinary education and training in 21st century concepts, preparing students for careers in a variety of industries. Biotechnology is, in essence, technology based on biology and harnesses molecular and cellular processes for product development and the advancement of technology. The program was among the University’s first master’s degree offerings when it gained university status in 2004.


Marshall divers studying native mussels in Ohio River

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Imagine jumping into the Ohio River, the cool end-of-summer water covering your head, and then descending to the bottom, staying there and searching in the dark through the muck, sand, rocks and submerged trees for freshwater mussels for an hour.

Graduate student Mitchell Kriege is finishing a research project in the Marshall University environmental sciences program. He and a team of researchers, led by Associate Professor Tom Jones, have been diving in the river and then completing surveys of the freshwater mussels they find on the river bottom.

On a recent September Saturday morning, the group met at the university and drove the boat to a remote ramp on the Ohio. It’s difficult to call what the team does diving. They are underwater for an hour breathing compressed air, but they don’t wear fins, and they don’t swim. They crawl along on the bottom, fanning away silt and mud, feeling for mussels.

They find mussels with common names, like black sandshell, three-horn wartyback, pimpleback, washboard, three-ridge, deertoe and sheepnose (which is listed as an endangered species on the federal register.) Zebra mussels, an invasive species they don’t study but that are often attached to the mussels they are looking for, have a razor-sharp edge that causes fine cuts on their hands.

According to Kriege, the eastern United States is the hot spot for mussel diversity in the world.

“We are the equivalent of the Amazon rainforest, but for mussels. It is important to study them because they are so heavily imperiled,” he said.

“This project will be the first time we have a statistically defendable estimate of the mussels in the Greenup Pool, or anywhere in the Ohio River to my knowledge,” Jones said. “More species of mussels are federally listed than any other taxonomic group by percentage. Some authors cite almost 70 percent of mussel species have some federal protection due to rarity.”

The research project includes 20 randomly chosen locations on the river. At each location, the team lays out 100-meter-long weighted lines from the bank toward the middle of the river. A diver then enters the water and collects every mussel to be found in a 1-meter-wide swath along that line, placing them in mesh bags.

These swaths are called transects. Every 10 meters, the diver clips off the bag and begins a new one. When finished with the dive, the diver has surveyed a 100 square meters of river bottom.

At each location, they make six transects, each one 100 meters downriver from the previous one. For his master’s degree thesis, Kriege will produce maps showing the locations and dispersal of the various types of mussels in the river.

Jones explained freshwater mussels filter bacteria, fungi, protozoan and algae from the water column.

“In essence, they clean our drinking water for us. They also alter their substrates by movement and provide food to other species, both by being eaten and by producing pseudo-feces that bugs and fishes consume,” he said.

Healthy mussels on the river bottom aren’t just a nice thing to have. They benefit everyone.

“Each mussel filters anywhere from 5 to 20 gallons of water per day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If one mussel filters 10 gallons of water a day, that’s 3,650 gallons a year. When you get to talking about populations in the millions, you begin to realize how much money mussels are saving the taxpayers,” Kriege said. “Mussels not only clean the water we drink, they act as food for a wide array of organisms — muskrats, fish, etc., and their dead shells act as homes for many macroinvertebrates, fish and aquatic eggs.”

After each dive, the crew brings the 100-meter line to the surface with the mesh bags attached. They carefully measure and identify each mussel and record its statistics, before returning it to the river, where it can continue growing.

Before they are returned to the river, though, the zebra mussels are pulled loose. Zebra mussels attach themselves to just about anything underwater, including other larger mussels, and can kill them in the process. Removing the zebra mussels gives the native mussels a better chance at survival. Kriege explained that they do this for the mussels caught in the survey since they were dislodged from the bottom in the first place.

“This project has opened up my mind to the incredible number of mussels present in the Ohio River. There are literally hundreds of millions of individuals in our pool with 25-plus species. However, it has also opened my eyes to the sad truth of the incredible habitats and wide array of species we lost when the river was dammed and heavily polluted. About half of the sites we surveyed were heavily impacted by humans and nearly devoid of mussels. Historically their numbers would have easily been in the billions in just a short section or river.”

Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit or contact him at



RCBI lands major award to boost regional aerospace sector

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The Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) at Marshall University has been awarded $500,000 by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to establish an aerospace proof-of-concept and training center in Cabell and Wayne counties.

RCBI AERO will work to create dozens of jobs in the aerospace industry and spur more than $1 million in private investment, according to RCBI Director & CEO Charlotte Weber. AERO is just RCBI’s latest initiative to boost economic development and job creation by diversifying the state’s economy.

“This grant is a major step in launching a regional aerospace manufacturing industry in southern West Virginia,” said Weber. “Our area’s existing infrastructure, available workforce and strategic partnerships make us an ideal recipient of this Regional Innovation Strategies award from the EDA.”

A 2016 feasibility study commissioned by the Huntington Area Development Council (HADCO) confirmed that Cabell and Wayne counties are well positioned to support and expand the region’s aerospace industry. The study cited assets such as Tri-State Regional Airport, the 95-acre Tri-State Aeroplex industrial and business development site near the airport, RCBI, supportive leadership in a variety of public and private organizations and the existence of established aerospace manufacturers such as Level 1 Fasteners and Star Technologies, both of Huntington, and Carbon Fiber Composites of Ona.

RCBI will partner with the West Virginia Development Office, Marshall University Research Corporation, Marshall’s Lewis College of Business, the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, HADCO, the Wayne County Economic Development Authority and Region 2 Workforce Investment Board to deliver a broad base of client services that include:

  • Access to advanced technology and expertise
  • Market research, evaluation and business planning
  • Technology transfer services (copyright, trademark, patent and intellectual properties protection)
  • Connections to contracting and supply chain opportunities, both public and private
  • Links to private investment partners
  • Workforce training to meet specific industry demands

RCBI is one of 42 Regional Innovation Strategies awardees nationwide – and the only one in West Virginia – announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Commerce. This is only the second such award in the Mountain State and the first for southern West Virginia.

“These projects will enable entrepreneurs in communities across the United States to start new businesses, manufacture innovative products, and export them throughout the world – increasing America’s global competitiveness,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

To learn more about RCBI AERO, contact RCBI at 304.781.1625 or visit