Science & Research

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission


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Shepherd student interning in university president's cancer research lab

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Shepherd University student Adam Hull, a senior biology major from Inwood, is the first recipient of the Robert Louis Katz Medical Research Foundation internship in Shepherd President Mary J.C. Hendrix’s cancer research laboratory at West Virginia University. Hull is spending June and July working in the laboratory with researchers Dr. Richard Seftor, Elisabeth Seftor, and Dr. Naira Margaryan, who have worked with Dr. Hendrix for a number of years.

 “I’m thrilled,” Hull said. “I think this is a really interesting area of research that I’m excited to participate in it.”

 Hull, who hopes to one day conduct his own “preferably breakthrough research,” will have to complete an independent research project that aligns with and supports the overall direction of the lab.

 The Hendrix research team focuses on cancer biology, including the identification of genes responsible for the metastatic phenotype of aggressive cancer cells, including tumor angiogenesis and vasculogenesis, and the effects of anti-cancer agents on tumor cell behavior.

 “We are delighted to host Adam in our laboratory at WVU with the hope that he will share exciting new scientific findings with his Shepherd colleagues when he returns to campus,” said Hendrix.

 The Robert Louis Katz Medical Research Foundation of Chicago was established by James and Ellyn Katz in memory of their son, Robert, to support research for diseases in children.




Maier Institute at Marshall School of Medicine receives Benedum Foundation grant

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Shirley Neitch, director of the Maier Institute and a professor of geriatrics at Marshall.

The Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine’s Maier Institute for Excellence in Prescribing for Elders with Dementia has been awarded a $150,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to study the overuse of benzodiazepines (BZDs)  in geriatric patients, as well as to educate physicians on appropriate prescribing.

The project is in partnership with the Higher Education Policy Commission’s Improving Clinical Outcomes in Geriatrics or ICOG.

 “West Virginia has a significant elderly population and, unfortunately, is also known as one of the states with the worst health outcomes for older patients,” said Shirley Neitch, M.D., director of the Maier Institute and a professor of geriatrics at Marshall. “The preliminary data we have reviewed indicates there is significant prescribing of benzodiazepines in the elderly population, some of which may occur without knowledge of the increased risk of dementia and other illnesses posed by these medications.  These data lay an enormous challenge at the feet of primary care providers in West Virginia and our project is designed to address it directly.”

 Neitch says the funding will allow researchers to identify prescribing issues and then develop techniques to aid physicians in determining appropriate prescribing strategies for the elderly.

 “We know that primary care physicians are dedicating to addressing their patients’ concerns,” Neitch said. “Our goal is to help community physicians with identifying better treatment options.”

 A small chart review in 2015, completed by Neitch and Daphne Hollingsworth, Pharm.D., who, at the time, was a student at the Marshall University School of Pharmacy, showed physicians in the study underestimated the number of patients who’d been prescribed benzodiazepines.

 “This review, albeit very small and at one primary care practice in West Virginia, showed the physicians estimated that 19% of their patients between 65 and 90 years of age had active BZD prescriptions, when in fact, 31.5% did,” Neitch said.

 The study, set to begin at the end of June, will involve gathering data from emergency departments, primary care clinics, and long-term care facilities in West Virginia. 



STEM Speaker Series continues with presentation on brain imagery

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There have been extraordinary advances in understanding the brain, but how do scientists actually study the neurons inside it? The nervous system presents a fundamental challenge: it remains the most elusive, mysterious and maddeningly complex object in the universe. This is according to Carl Schoonover, a Columbia University neuroscientist. In an upcoming talk, titled The Brain Revealed, Schoonover will explain to a West Virginia audience the ingenious tools that let allow insight into the human brain. He will also share the gorgeous imagery they reveal.

 Schoonover’s presentation is part of the popular STEM Speaker Series. The event will take place at the WVSU Capitol Center Theater on Summers Street in downtown Charleston on Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free but, due to space constraints, must be obtained in advance via

  Schoonover is also the author of Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century and has written for The New York Times, Le Figaro and Scientific American. Schoonover will participate in a book signing immediately following his presentation. Copies of the book will be sold by Taylor Books at the event.

 The Chancellor’s STEM Speaker Series is organized by the Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science and Research with support from a federal grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal of the series is to promote the importance of research and the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to all West Virginians.

 The Division of Science and Research directs the EPSCoR program in West Virginia, while also managing other state and federally-funded academic research programs across the state. The program provides strategic leadership for infrastructure advancement and development of competitive research opportunities in STEM disciplines.




WVU professor’s patented system could save lives and make cities more resilient after natural disasters

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Hota GangaRao and Praveen Majjigapu inspect a structure after a WVU lab test.

Fear of the “big one,” a magnitude 8.0 or greater earthquake, has been fodder for cinema and amusement park rides for decades, but the reality could be devastating for communities who are unprepared for that rare rupture or even weaker, but more common, lower-magnitude tremors.

West Virginia University professor Hota GangaRao and Praveen Majjigapu, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering, have developed a system that will increase the strength and endurance of structures in earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other large blasts, helping communities prevent catastrophe. The system is also beneficial for repairing historic or aging structures.

The three-piece system consisting of filler modules – wedge-like parts made to certain specifications – reinforcing dowels and composite materials allows buildings and bridges to resist heavier loads, and provides a significant amount of shock absorption as well as moisture and fire resistance.

“With this system, even if a joint cracks under excessive loads it won’t immediately collapse,” said GangaRao, who is the Maurice A. and Joann Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Constructed Facilities Center in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “By minimizing failures of structures, we can increase the safety and security of communities, prevent costly damage and save lives.”

Additionally, outfitting a building with the system is much more cost-effective and requires less time than traditional methods of retrofitting and yields better results.

“Rehabilitation of old buildings is expensive and labor intensive,” said GangaRao, who is also the director of the Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure. “An affordable solution will allow more buildings to be strengthened.”


The complexity of simplicity

At first glance, a wedge nestled into a joint seems like an easy solution – almost too easy.

“The beauty of the system is its simplicity,” GangaRao said.

But he is quick to point out that there is a substantial scientific method behind the patented system’s design.

In a cavernous lab, GangaRao works with Majjigapu and other team members to fabricate joints that can be tested under extremely heavy loads.

One test consists of two concrete members, a column and a cantilever, which are connected to form a sideways “T.” Then wedges are bonded to the two 90-degree angles on either side of the joint.

The system can work with structures made of various materials, such as concrete, timber and composites. The wedges can also be made of different advanced materials depending on their application.

Aside from material, one of the most important characteristics of the wedge is its shape, which is meant to eliminate high-stress zones in the joint and depends on factors such as load, material and the configuration of the joint.

“In an optimal system, the wedge will have some sort of curve,” GangaRao said. “But it requires a lot of mathematical computation behind the scenes.”

After the wedges are bonded to the joint, team members install steel bars through the wedges and into the concrete to reinforce and lock the pieces into place.

Next the team cuts multiple sheets of composite material – fabric made of carbon or glass fibers bonded with a polymer resin – into a series of puzzle pieces that are wrapped around the concrete, adhered with additional resin and left to cure.

Composite materials are noncorrosive, more durable and cheaper to install than more traditional methods, making them ideal for not only the construction of new structures, but also for the repair of aging structures.

Once the composite has hardened, the totality of dissimilar materials is bonded together and work as a single unit, stronger and more durable.


Testing for failure

GangaRao’s lab is full of impressive structures, and he hopes all of them will fail.

“We are testing this system to the point of failure,” he said. “Right now, we know how a column behaves under stress. We know how a cantilever behaves under stress. But we know little about what happens at the intersection of the two.”

To find this out, Majjigapu attaches a series of gauges to the wrapped structure. Some gauges measure strain, which is the amount of deformation that occurs under load. Some gauges measure tension, which is how much the concrete becomes stretched or elongated.

The basic idea is that concrete is not very good at holding tension, so when there is a lot of it the structure will not be as strong.

Think of a diving board, which is only supported on one end. When you stand on the edge over the water the board bends under your weight. If there is too much weight, the board or the joint – or both – could break.

Without the three-part system, GangaRao’s lab tests have shown failure under a 7-ton load. With the system, the team has been able to apply five to seven times that amount – nearly 50 tons – before failure.


The need for support

Engineers and scientists have developed ways to manage the stress put on aging buildings and bridges as well as those in seismic areas. Over the years, building regulations have tightened as earthquake- and hurricane-prone cities try to minimize fatalities, property damage and insurance claims.

Despite those efforts there are still thousands of structures that lack the appropriate levels of protection necessary to withstand blast-level loads.

“There is a significant need for this type of repair and retrofit around the world,” Majjigapu said.

For example, in 2010 a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people, many of whom could not escape buildings before they collapsed. Countries such as India and Nepal are in seismic zones with old buildings, monuments and transportation infrastructure that may not withstand a high-magnitude quake.

In the United States, The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Santa Monica is hoping to pass the “nation’s most extensive earthquake retrofit plan” to nearly 2,000 vulnerable buildings.

In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card gave the nation’s roads and bridges a D+ as the physical condition and performance of decades-old structures continues to deteriorate.


Plans for the future

GangaRao will continue lab testing, but plans to begin field testing on towers, lattice structures and hydrostructures to record repeated performance of the retrofit in real-world applications.

Ultimately, he knows that the success of the system will rely on cooperation with industry, practicing engineers, construction companies, agencies, departments of transportation, cities, states and countries.

His goal is to provide maximum strength and endurance at very low cost, while also making it quick and easy to outfit buildings and bridges with a new system.

“We have to show people what we are doing at WVU, so they can see the broad range of applications that are possible in addition to the savings in time and cost,” GangaRao said.



Eleven Marshall students receive SURE fellowships

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Eleven undergraduate students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields have been selected by a research proposal evaluation committee to receive Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) fellowships for summer 2017.

SURE is aimed at undergraduates who are interested in performing research in their future careers, according to Dr. Michael Norton, professor of chemistry at Marshall. Norton noted the SURE program, which has supported student research at Marshall since 2005, is funded through the West Virginia Research Challenge Fund, administered by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, Division of Science and Research.

“We want students to know how strongly Marshall and the state of West Virginia support undergraduate research. This is the time when these young minds sharpen their research skills in preparation for graduate school,” Norton said.

Students will receive stipends totaling $4,000 each for their research for a period of ten weeks uninterrupted by classes during the summer. The SURE program, now in its thirteenth year, will begin Monday, May 15, and continue through July 28. The awardees, their projects, their research mentors and research areas are listed below:

  • Dana Sharma, Opioids and Neuron Development, Dr. Richard D. Egleton, Biomedical Sciences
  • Deben Shoup, Modification of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles with Fluorinated Phosphonic Acids, Dr. Rosalynn Quinones, Chemistry
  • Ian Waddell, Assembly of Carbon Nanotubes on Linear Origami Arrays, Dr. Michael Norton, Chemistry
  • Jason Lykins, MonitOR – Operating Site Infection Incidence Monitoring and Analysis, Dr. Paulus Wahjudi, Computer Science
  • Thomas Whitlow, Development of a Novel Cellular and Molecular based Heavy Metal Toxicology Assay using Rtgill-W1 Cell Cultures Exposed to High Concentration of Manganese (II), Dr. Mindy Armstead, Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Kira Owsley, Even-Cycle Decompositions with no Subsystem, Dr. Michael Schroeder, Mathematics
  • Lauren Reasor, Manganese Neurotoxicity in Crayfish, Dr. Brian Antonsen, Biological Sciences
  • Mary Bunten, Investigating the Amino Acid Sites in Cytochrome C Vulnerable to Malondialdehyde (MDA) Modification: A Kinetics Study Focusing on Mass Spectrometry, Menashi Cohenford, Forensic Sciences
  • Patrick Shinn, Test Intelligence: Speeding the Analysis of Load Testing for Ultra-Large-Scale-Software Systems, Dr. Haroon Malik, Computer Science
  • Nick Nolan, Natural Derivatives of Capsaicin Induce Apoptosis and Inhibit Invasion in LAC Cell Lines, Dr. Piyali Dasgupta, Biomedical Sciences
  • Nicole Perry, How increasing manganese concentrations affect the metabolic processes of Chlorella vulgaris, Dr. Derrick Kolling, Chemistry

Learn more about last year’s awardees and their projects by visiting For more information about Marshall’s SURE recipients, contact Norton by e-mail at



FREE EVENT – ASK WVU MEDICINE: Breast to Brain Cancer – Risks and Research

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According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 12 percent of women in America will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. While breast cancer alone is enough to cause a scare, the cancer cells also have the potential to spread to new areas of the body—including the brain.

Hannah Hazard-Jenkins, M.D. and Paul Lockman, Ph.D., doctors who are dedicating their efforts to research and treatment of breast cancer, will share what they have learned about blocking the cancer’s growth, increasing patient survival rates and new treatments.

Discover what they have learned at the upcoming “Ask WVU Medicine” Community Conversation, Tuesday, May 23 at 6 p.m. in Fukushima Auditorium at the WVU Health Sciences Center.

The event is free and open to the public, and parking is readily available. Participants will learn what is happening in clinics on the WVU Medicine campus as well as what is next on the horizon for treatment and research.

Interested participants can register at this link: Or, call Joanna DiStefano at 304-293-5755. Parking is free. Space is limited at events. A live stream link will be provided for those who are interested but can’t make it,



WVU coaches area students to highest award at global robotics championship

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The expertise of West Virginia University, the experience of community mentors and the minds of West Virginia high school students created a winning formula at the world’s largest event for STEM students.

The Mountaineer Area RoboticS, or MARS, team received the Chairman’s Award at the annual FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 29. A team from Australia won the Chairman’s Award at the tandem championship event in Houston, Texas the weekend before. The highest honor given at the championships, the award recognizes the team that the organization thinks “best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.”

The MARS team has 43 students who are either home schooled or hail from Morgantown, University, Preston, Fairmont Senior and Robert C. Byrd high schools. The team is coached by Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Steve Raque, an engineer with Bombardier in Pittsburgh and mentored by WVU faculty, WVU students and community members.

In addition, WVU provides funding, tools and work space in White Hall, the home of WVU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Without WVU, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” said Maggie Raque, a Morgantown High School senior. “Having a neutral workspace allows us to have such a variety of students who come from so many different places, and it allows anyone to be a part of the team.”

FIRST says the robotics competition “combines sports excitement with the rigors of science and technology.” Under strict rules, limited resources and set time limits, teams fundraise, design a brand, collaborate, participate in outreach events, and build and program robots to perform tasks in head-to-head competition. More than 83,000 students on 3,336 teams from 25 countries competed during the 2017 season.

“The students that have the drive and self-motivation to accomplish these very difficult tasks are exactly the kind of students we want at West Virginia University and in society,” said Scime. “Graduates of the MARS program have had a major impact on a number of different WVU programs, including – but not limited to – the highly successful WVU NASA Centennial Robotics team.”

Autumn Baker, a University High School senior, said it took years for the team to hone its strengths.

“You have to make the competition into what you’re best at as a team and just go for it,” said Baker. “For us, it really just comes back to our love for West Virginia and our desire to make it a better place.”

Before studying journalism at WVU this fall, Baker will travel the state to lead robotics camps as an intern for NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility.

Scime, who has coached the team since helping to create it in 2008, said that the enthusiasm of team is motivating.

“I stay involved because these kids restore my passion for teaching,” said Scime. “They show up eager to learn, and are self-motivated and incredibly focused. Every time I work with them, they restore my hope that we can build a society that values creativity, professionalism and diversity.”

MARS will also be inducted into the FIRST Hall of Fame, joining an elite group of teams who are invited to compete in all future FIRST world championships.

The position is hard-earned and demonstrates the resolve and abilities of WVU and West Virginia’s high school students.

“There is a lot of teamwork and problem solving,” said Diane Raque, a team mentor. “Things go wrong. Being able to focus and solve a problem quickly while working together among the different sub-teams are skills applicable to any discipline. We’re not just building robots—we’re building people.”



Marshall School of Medicine explores health care partnership with governments of Saint Martin

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Representatives from Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, Cabell Huntington Hospital and the Observatoire St. Martin/Sint Maarten met this week at the School of Medicine for discussions regarding a health care partnership. 


An innovative partnership designed to deliver state-of-the-art specialty health care via telemedicine has been formed between the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and representatives of St. Martin/Sint Maarten, a Caribbean island composed of two separate countries, French and Dutch.

The meetings, which were held over a three-day period ending Wednesday, May 3, culminated in an agreement to explore several areas of health care delivery and education.

“We are very excited by these discussions with the St. Martin/Sint Maarten delegation, which were initiated by Dr. Mark and Ms. Monica Hatfield, alumni of Marshall who spend time each year on the island,” said Joseph I. Shapiro, M.D., dean of the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. “In many ways, the situation on this island parallels our own in West Virginia in that their base population suffers from health care disparities.”

The island’s resident population is approximately 100,000, although tourism, largely from the United States and Europe, increases these numbers tremendously.

Shapiro went on to say that the school of medicine is interested in providing care both to tourists who require health care interventions during their vacations as well as the native citizens.

“We see this as a way to increase our visibility and relevance within our own country as well as provide humanitarian aid to an underserved population,” Shapiro said.

In addition to telemedicine options, areas of potential collaboration include an enhanced health information technology system, research into disease systems native to the region, public health initiatives like disease prevention and healthful lifestyles, and continuing medical education.

“I applaud Dr. Shapiro and his team for considering potential global opportunities for Marshall,” said Jerome A. Gilbert, Ph.D., president of Marshall University. “In today’s complex world, we must be bold and intentional in our efforts.  While this is a preliminary step for us, I’m eager for this partnership to develop.”

The two representatives visiting Marshall were Louis Jeffry, M.D., a French physician and native of Sint Maarten and Wendy Elie, an administrator. Both Jeffry and Elie work with the Observatoire St. Martin/Sint Maarten, the organization charged with linking the two governments’ health care systems.


Pictured in the photo, left to right: Beth Hammers, Executive Director, Marshall Health; Kevin Fowler, President and Chief Executive Officer, Cabell Huntington Hospital; Jerome Gilbert, Ph.D., President, Marshall University; Louis Jeffry, M.D., Observatoire St. Martin/Sint Maarten; Ali Oliashirazi, M.D., Marshall Orthopaedics; Joseph Shapiro, M.D., Dean, School of Medicine; Wendy Elie, Observatoire St. Martin/Sint Maarten; Juan Sanabria, M.D., Marshall Surgery; and Michael McCarthy, Chief Information Officer, Marshall Health.



Marshall health sciences receives 10K for diabetes and obesity research

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Dr. Holly Cyphert has received a $10,000 grant from the West Virginia IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (WV-INBRE) Chronic Disease Research Program toward her research of evaluating the role of bile acids in diabetes and obesity. Photo by Brian Patton.

Dr. Holly Cyphert of the Marshall University College of Health Professions has received a $10,000 grant from the West Virginia IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (WV-INBRE) Chronic Disease Research Program toward her research of evaluating the role of bile acids in diabetes and obesity.

Cyphert, a faculty member in the college’s Department of Health Sciences, said she will be using patient samples to understand the distribution and concentration of bile acids and how they relate to BMI and other indicators of cardio-metabolic health.

“In regard to bile acids, I have found multiple targets in multiple tissues, such as the liver and pancreas, that could aid in the reversal of diabetes,” Cyphert said. “My Ph.D. work focused on how FGF21 was enhanced with bile acid administration. Here at Marshall, I have data to support the notion that bile acids target insulin signaling in the pancreas.”

Marshall students will have the opportunity to be involved in this research project, and Cyphert said she hopes through their work they will enhance their ability to perform research independently.

“​I will have 2-3 students involved in this project. Some are involved in the blood donation from the study subjects, while others are involved in the analysis of mass spectrometry data,” Cyphert said. “I hope my students will learn the scientific method and new techniques by assisting me with this project. Many students have a preconceived notion as to what research is (or is not). I hope to elaborate on their scientific curiosity and strengthen their ability to perform research on their own.”

Cyphert said she has always been interested in diabetes and obesity research, especially growing up in the state that was once deemed the fattest in the nation.

“Growing up in West Virginia, I have witnessed firsthand the devastation of the disease and have been aiming toward making an impact in the community through the discovery of new therapeutic techniques.”

To learn more about Cyphert’s diabetes and obesity research, contact her at For more information about faculty research in the Department of Health Sciences, visit


Photo: Dr. Holly Cyphert of the Marshall University College of Health Professions has received a $10,000 grant from the West Virginia IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (WV-INBRE) Chronic Disease Research Program toward her research of evaluating the role of bile acids in diabetes and obesity. Photo by Brian Patton, Director of Digital Media Services, Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.



Shepherd undergrad chosen for robotic cybersecurity fellowship at National Institute of Standards and Technology

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Christian Burns will work in cybersecurity with industrial robots this summer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

A Shepherd University computer engineering and computer science major will spend his summer working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Christian Burns, of Hagerstown, Maryland, was chosen for an 11-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) during which he will work in cybersecurity with industrial robots.

“It is a great opportunity and it’s pretty much exactly what I want to do in my career,” Burns said. “I’ve always wanted to do research and development on industrial robots. I just think they’re interesting.”

Burns came to Shepherd in the fall of 2016 from Hagerstown Community College as a transfer student with associates degrees in engineering and computer science. In October, Burns and five other students participated with three faculty members in the 2016 Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges annual Eastern Region conference in Frostburg, Maryland. Burns also competed in this year’s ShepRobo Fest. His team won first place in the firefighting division.

Besides his upcoming fellowship at NIST, Burns has completed three internships, including two at Volvo in Hagerstown.

“That was the first time I’ve seen an assembly line in person that worked on engines. Just watching the robots work together was really interesting to me,” Burns said. “This fellowship is the first experience that gets me into the technical aspect of computer engineering, so I think it’s a really great step forward to what I want to do with my career.”

Burns is assigned a mentor at NIST who will help guide him through the fellowship, which he hopes will help him develop many more skills.

“Doing research and development for robotics systems has become a major career aspiration for me,” he said. “I am excited to learn skills and use software that scientists and engineers use every day in the field I hope to join.”

The NIST SURF program is open to undergraduate students enrolled at U.S. 2- and 4-year institutions majoring in chemistry, computer science, engineering, materials science, fire research, nanotechnology, information technology, mathematics, biology, manufacturing, statistics, or other STEM disciplines. Applicants must be nominated by their college or university. The fellowship offers a stipend and reimbursement for housing and transportation costs.

“Christian has been recognized with several awards and scholarships throughout his academic career,” said Jessica Kump, director of sponsored programs and co-director of the Shepherd Entrepreneurship and Research Corporation. “Shepherd University was proud to nominate Christian for this prestigious fellowship opportunity and we are thrilled to have him representing Shepherd in the NIST SURF program this summer.”