Science & Research

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission


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Grant to boost number of behavioral health experts in the region

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Marshall University has been awarded $854,272 from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training Program (BHWET). The university will receive $213,568 each year for the next four years with the aim of increasing the number of behavioral health providers serving underserved populations and people in rural areas.

According to Dr. Marianna Footo Linz, principal investigator of the grant and chairman of Marshall’s psychology department, the program will help fund clinical internships and placements for students in the following behavioral health programs:  Masters in Psychology with Clinical and School emphasis, the Masters in Counseling, and the Psychiatry residency program administered through the university’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. The program will provide opportunities to train students in an integrated health care model.

“I talk to many primary care providers who understand the pressing need to screen for substance use problems but are hesitant to do so when they have nowhere to send people who need treatment,” Dr. Footo Linz said. “We need to build this capacity in our region if we are to impact the crisis at hand.”

“This program will help us provide crucial treatment to individuals who are in need of mental health and addiction services, but who cannot access services due to barriers and gaps in the current system,” said Amy Saunders, director of Marshall’s Wellness Center and a co-principal investigator for the grant. “We know that integrated behavioral health care in primary care is an important, effective model to deliver mental health services in rural areas. Providing funding to enhance behavioral health workforce capacity is a worthwhile investment.”

Students in this program will attend interdisciplinary seminars on various topics, including responding to substance use disorders in primary care, models of integrated behavioral health care in primary care, trauma-informed care and trauma-focused interventions, and Appalachian culture and the unique service needs of individuals in rural and underserved communities.

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WVU research gives self-driving vehicles a boost

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While the future of vehicles may be driverless, West Virginia University is steering the technology in the right direction.

More and more cars being sold today include semi-automated features ranging from self-parking to lane departure to automatic braking, but fully automated vehicles are on the horizon. WVU’s researchers are working to improve vehicle and smart infrastructure technology that underpins their development and their benefit to communities in areas such as safety, energy, traffic, economic opportunity and more.

Tomorrow (Sept. 20), WVU will host an autonomous vehicle forum to discuss the research, development and impact of driverless vehicles, continuing WVU’s commitment to fostering economic development to chart a new course forward for West Virginia. The event is part of Congressman David B. McKinley’s educational series.

Attendees will hear presentations from experts, industry leaders and others on a broad range of topics related to autonomous vehicles. Victor Fragoso, assistant professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, will be one of the panelists. His research is focused on improving the artificial intelligence of autonomous agents, which includes driverless vehicles.

“With autonomous vehicles, the car is essentially a robot – an agent that perceives the world and understands what is happening in it,” Fragoso said. “There is a lot of variability in the world, so we derive algorithms that take that into account and help the vehicle understand the world as robustly as possible so that it can take action.”

Fragoso describes an algorithm as a recipe to solve a problem or task.

And the vehicles of the future need to have the most comprehensive cook book around.

Fragoso is currently working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation that will help self-driving cars “see” better. He is investigating ways in which the vehicle computer can reason about the different objects it detects and its confidence in accurately recognizing those objects.

Cameras onboard self-driving vehicles gather two-dimensional images. His work develops models that use that data to generate three-dimensional reconstructions of the environment that help the vehicle localize itself (or determine where it is in the city).

Fragoso is also working on artificial intelligence capable of adapting itself to a dynamic environment.

He explains that the models he develops predict common patterns, providing the vehicle with information to make decisions such as when to accelerate, turn and brake, but there are always rare events and outliers that have to be taken into account and embedded into the algorithms.

“Vehicles must account for every possible failure, and there are so many variables,” Fragoso said. “That means we must build the algorithms to make them as adaptive as possible. They must account for every possible failure and scenario that could occur, which requires a lot of data and processing. That means it is also important for them to be fast and efficient.”

Kakan Dey, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the connected and automated transportation lab, is working on several projects related to how driverless vehicles can benefit communities.

“The ultimate purpose of these advancements in technology and infrastructure is to serve society’s transportation needs,” Dey said.

One research project he is working on is focused on the shared mobility concept, which seeks ways to provide increased access to transportation for wider spread communities through a service model similar to ride-sharing models like Uber.

Typically, shared mobility is designed for large, urban cities, but Dey is exploring how that model could be implemented in rural communities such as those in West Virginia.

“To develop effective models, we have to find out what are the transportation needs of communities as well as the characteristics of those communities,” Dey said. “Integration with existing transit systems to improve end-to-end service for communities could make things more economically viable and increase the prosperity of the state.”

Dey is also working on a project related to safety implications of autonomous vehicles operating with conventional non-autonomous vehicles.

Both Dey and Fragoso say that one of the biggest challenges for the future of autonomous vehicles is the transition phase of a “mixed” traffic environment that includes both manual and driverless vehicles.

“We have to teach them to live together,” Fragoso said. “From and artificial intelligence perspective, we have to do a lot of reasoning and prediction of what the human driver is going to do so that the driverless vehicle can react.”

Dey says that with hundreds of autonomous vehicles on the road being tested, new state and federal laws and policies are necessary to facilitate the maturation of this new frontier and promote new technologies.

“Although autonomous vehicles may fall in the transportation engineering domain, changing vehicle technology and smart infrastructure is truly interdisciplinary,” Dey said. “There is a huge social component and this paradigm shift will have an impact on nearly all aspects of our lives.”



WVU biochemist goes online to X-ray life-sustaining crystals

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Under conventional magnification, the crystals Aaron Robart grows in his West Virginia Universitylab may look like simple rock salt, but by bombarding them with X-rays, he and his research team can build computational models that reveal the molecules within.

On August 22, Robart, assistant professor of biochemistry in the WVU School of Medicine, used the powerful Advanced Photon Source at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago to zap three types of life-sustaining crystals with X-rays revealing molecular structures that resemble tangles of corkscrew pasta or patterns of daisies.

And he did it without leaving Morgantown, West Virginia.

Robart jokes that before it was possible to control the APS from a distance, he “practically lived in Chicago” so he could visit the facility in person. Because “beam time” at the Advanced Photon Source is scarce and can fall in the middle of the night, being able to remotely manipulate the X-ray beams is no small convenience.

He can control the ultra-bright, high-energy X-ray beams via the Internet to gather data that may drive new treatments for cancers, neurological diseases, stroke, diabetes and other conditions that arise as our cells multiply, age and accumulate wear and tear.

Robart explains that human chromosomes are capped with telomeres – regions that protect chromosomes from deterioration the way that plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces prevent them from fraying.

Normally telomeres shorten as we get older and our chromosomes replicate over and over again, but in the case of diseases such as cancer, telomeres may replenish themselves, making it possible for cancer cells to avert programmed cell death and be, theoretically, immortal.

The Advanced Photon Source is one of the few facilities in the country that can reveal detailed information about these phenomena.

“Instead of smashing particles together, the Advanced Photon Source makes them travel in a large, closed loop that can fit about one and a half football fields inside the circumference,” Robart says. “This produces very strong and incredibly stable X-rays that we use to obtain atomic-level detail of how molecular machines perform the chemical reactions of life.”

Michael Schaller, chair of the department of biochemistry, says that merely observing a crystal under a microscope would not reveal such complexity.

“It is similar to trying to determine what an elephant looks like by bouncing ping-pong balls off of it, removing the elephant, and then trying to determine what it looks like based on where all of the ping-pong balls landed,” he says.

One of the crystals Robart X-rayed with the Advanced Photon Source is an enzyme crucial to liver metabolism. Another is a molecular complex that promotes the healthy breakdown of proteins. The third crystal comprises components of the “spliceosome,” a combination of RNA and protein that guides how pieces of RNA are cut apart and pasted together.

“You can’t fix a machine until you know how it works,” Robart says.

With innovations like the virtual manipulation of the Advanced Photon Source, biochemists at WVU can look far afield for insights into molecular machines while staying close to home.



Gilbert aims to expand undergraduate research program

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Marshall President Jerry Gilbert has set standards for the growth of Marshall University during his initial years as president, focusing partially on expanding Marshall’s undergraduate research program.

Gilbert said support for further research at Marshall developed quickly last year.

“My goal in research probably was the one that was realized more easily and certainly exceeded my expectations the first year,” Gilbert said. “We’ve done a lot of things to sort of rev up our research enterprise, and I think that’s been very successful.”

Gilbert said attracting funding through grants is an important aspect of expanding research endeavors. 

Gilbert said, “When I said the research was successful, last year it was really looking at the dollars, external dollars, that we bring in from research, and it was $23 million when I was here the first year, that is 2015-2016, and then this past year, 16-17, it’s up to $28 million, and I expect that to rise some more this year because we’re becoming better at getting grants.”

Specifically, Gilbert said the undergraduate research program is a focal point and important element of overall research endeavors at Marshall.

“One of our goals for this year is to get students involved in undergraduate research and I’m a very strong proponent of undergraduate research,” Gilbert said. “We’ve actually taken some money out of the budget – $166,000 – and set that aside and said ‘we’re going to devote that to undergraduates so that they can have that money to apply to their research projects.’”

Gilbert said he hopes to increase the prominence of undergraduate research in a range of fields and make funding accessible to undergraduate students.

Gilbert said, “John Maher, the vice president for research, has got a group working on some guidelines that students can apply for money to use to help in whatever their research is – whether it’s in history or sociology or medicine or engineering. There would be dollars available to help students work with professors and do basic and applied research.”

Kayleigh Nerhood, junior biology major, said after working in an on-campus research lab, she’s highly supportive of Gilbert’s effort to promote and fund undergraduate research.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” Nerhood said. “I think it’s really important for undergrads to get involved in research. It gives them a great foundation for whatever they decide to do with the rest of their lives, and it also is a great way to get practical experience with what they’re learning. I’ve learned so much in my time there that I would never have learned in my classes, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Nerhood works with Nadja Spitzer, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Marshall, to study neural stem cells from rats. Nerhood said her research under Spitzer’s leadership has shaped plans for her future career.

“I realized that I do love doing research, and that I’m interested in pursuing a more research-oriented field, rather than being a physician,” Nerhood said. “I’ve learned that science can be frustrating at times, but it’s ultimately a great thing for the world. And when you finally get those results, nothing feels better.”

Nerhood said while their research is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Gilbert’s emphasis on research funding at Marshall is important.

“We can always use extra funding because there’s all sorts of projects you can do,” Nerhood said.

Nerhood said research labs also establish a community of peers and mentors within individual fields of study.

“You get great connections with your lab professors and with other students,” Nerhood said. “My friends in lab are truly my friends. They’re great people and you know we study for classes together, so it’s always nice to meet other people with similar interests. Dr. Spitzer is amazing, and it’s really good practice for the future because you start to learn what all is involved, and you know for sure is this right for me or is this not.”



Marshall School of Medicine student receives fellowship to study in the Republic of the Congo

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Matthew Jeremiah Matson, an M.D./Ph.D. student at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, has been named a 2017 recipient of the Benjamin H. Kean Travel Fellowship in Tropical Medicine by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH).

Matson will travel to the Republic of the Congo in November for a one-month fellowship to pursue his submitted project, “Arboviruses in the Republic of the Congo: Host Ecology and Epidemiology.”  The fellowship is the only medical student award dedicated to nurturing a career path for physician-scientists in tropical medicine.

“The society congratulates this year’s ASTMH Kean Fellows,” said ASTMH President Patricia F. Walker, M.D. “As a society, our goal is to guide these future leaders toward fulfilling careers that help improve the lives of the millions of people who suffer needlessly from tropical diseases.

The ASTMH Kean Travel Fellowship helps make overseas training possible and works to build the ranks of physician-scientists focused on diseases that particularly impact those living in low-income countries.”

According to ASTMH, 21 fellows from 14 medical schools were selected through a highly competitive process.

Matson is a native of Charleston, West Virginia, and did his undergraduate work at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. He also completed a bachelor’s degree in theology from Moore College in Sydney, Australia.

“I am very honored, encouraged and thankful to receive the Kean Fellowship,“ Matson said. “As a student, it’s far too easy to compartmentalize training and career, and thus miss out on all sorts of opportunities for growth because of an instinctual adherence to this false dichotomy. The Kean Fellowship and other similar programs help break these barriers.”

After completing his second year of medical school at Marshall this past spring, Matson began working on his dissertation research through the National Institutes of Health at the NIH/NiAID Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.

His mentor at Marshall, Hongwei Yu, Ph.D., a professor in the department of biomedical sciences, says he’s very excited that Matson has been recognized for his work.

“Jeremiah works very hard in the laboratory and is a well-thought-of medical student,” Yu said. “This fellowship will enable him to gain the firsthand experiences of how an infectious disease starts its cycle, from its native ecology, environment to the first human contact.  This will also motivate a future physician-scientist like him to dedicate his career to fight the infectious disease which impacts all of us in the long run.”

The fellowship is named to honor Benjamin H. Kean, MD, (1912-1993), an internationally acclaimed tropical medicine expert and personal mentor to many of today’s world-renowned tropical medicine experts who were inspired by him as his students in medical school. Kean is also credited with discovering the causes of several diseases, including turista or traveler’s diarrhea.



Marshall to host 6th Cyber Safety Summit for middle-school students and local community

for kids, for kids, News about science and research, Press Releases

The Marshall University Digital Forensics and Information Assurance program will host the 6th annual Cyber Safety Summit for middle-school students and the local community Oct. 23-24 in Huntington.

This year’s event will have two sessions. The first will be tailored for middle-school students and will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday, Oct. 23, at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena. A session for parents and adults will be from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, at Huntington East Middle School. Participants can learn how to prevent cyber bullying, keep themselves and their families safe online, handle the dangers of social media, keep their information and computers safe, and identify scams. They can also find out how and why criminals target them and more.

“We recognize the need for this type of education,” said John Sammons, director of the Digital Forensics and Information Assurance program at Marshall University. “Technology is a huge part of most children’s lives, particularly from middle school going forward. It’s only smart and prudent to give them the awareness and skills to keep themselves safe online.”

“Parents are often far behind the kids when it comes to technology,” Sammons said. “We would like to provide them with as much information as we can to help them protect their children.”

This event is attended by hundreds of students from the Tri-State region each year. It is sponsored by the Digital Forensics and Information Assurance program, the Huntington Police Department, the FBI and the Appalachian Institute of Digital Evidence.

Teachers can register their classes for a field trip to the summit. Reserve seats before Oct. 19 by contacting Sammons at or by calling 304-696-7241.



WVU receives Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award

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For the second consecutive year, West Virginia University’s efforts in diversity and inclusion have been honored with the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education.

The HEED Award recognizes U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. WVU will be featured, along with 79 other recipients, in the November 2017 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

“One of our University’s core values is ‘Appreciation,’ which means we support and value each other’s contributions as we build one WVU,” President Gordon Gee said. “We could not live out that value without being committed to a diverse and inclusive community, involving students, faculty and staff, so it is gratifying that our continuing efforts in those areas are recognized on a national scale.”

David M. Fryson, vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said, “West Virginia University and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is honored to receive this prestigious award acknowledging our continuing efforts to be an ever more diverse and inclusive institution. Our aim is to be a leader in the area of diversity and to engage the entire state of West Virginia in increasing our diversity profile and celebrating the multitudes of our cultures.”

INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine selected WVU because of its innovative efforts in attracting students from underrepresented background in one of America’s least diverse states, the continuing efforts to attract diverse faculty as well as University’s civility initiatives and the landmark work on equity assurance and Title IX enforcement and education.

“The HEED Award process consists of a comprehensive and rigorous application that includes questions relating to the recruitment and retention of students and employees — and best practices for both — continued leadership support for diversity, and other aspects of campus diversity and inclusion,” said Lenore Pearlstein, publisher of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. “We take a holistic approach to reviewing each application in deciding who will be named a HEED Award recipient. Our standards are high, and we look for institutions where diversity and inclusion are woven into the work being accomplished every day across their campus.”



WVU physicists chase new ‘wave’ of condensed matter research

Mountain State Science, News about science and research, Press Releases

Just one year after arriving at West Virginia University, physicist Lian Li is taking physics research to new frontiers.

In collaboration with fellow WVU condensed matter experiment expert Cheng Cen, he is breaking the rules of classical physics in search of a solution to making computers faster than ever.

“The majority of information today is carried by electronic signal. While those voltages or currents are fine for now, we want to think about what we want technology to be doing not just next year but 10 to 20 years from now,” said Cen, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “In the future, we won’t be happy with the current performances of computers and cell phones. We want to push for unthinkable speeds – what will come next.”

Funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation grant, their research team is just one of nine to receive the prestigious award.

“This research is an organic integration of Cen’s expertise in optical characterization of devices and my expertise in physical properties of materials,” said Li, WVU’s Robert L. Carroll Professor of Physics. “We want to take something wonderful and make it useful.”

Photons, or light particles, can transmit data at a much faster rate than traditional electron-based data transfer methods in computers. Li and Cen’s research will disrupt the conventional design of computers by recruiting photons as the data carriers and making them as “tamed” as the electrons.

The biggest obstacle to this goal is the time-reversal symmetry present in most materials. Fundamentally, having a time-reversal symmetry means that the travel of photons must obey reciprocity. That is, if a photon behaves a certain way moving forward, it should behave in the exact same way when traveling backward.

Over the next four years, Li and Cen, working with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee theorists Michael Weinert and George Hanson, will conduct experiments to find the best approach to breaking this reciprocity and time-reversal symmetry in transition metal dichalcogenide monolayers, which are atomically thin semiconductors, to better control and manipulate light in information processing devices.

The team also plans to conduct community education and outreach through programs like Research Experience for Teachers, Science on Tap public lectures and Broaden the Horizon, a STEM education program for middle school girls.



WVU in top 100 public universities

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West Virginia University remains one of the top 100 public universities in rankings published this week by U.S. News and World Report.

WVU is tied for 99th among public universities and tied for 187th among all national universities, which includes private schools which offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs. These colleges also are committed to producing groundbreaking research. The rankings, including ties, are little changed from last year.

In other rankings released this week:

• The College of Business and Economics undergraduate business program is ranked 151st among 494 schools.

• The undergraduate engineering program at the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources was 110 out of 205.

The undergraduate engineering program at the Leonard C. Nelson College of Engineering and Sciences at West Virginia University Institute of Technology was ranked #74.



A novel way to generate funds in support of research

News about science and research

Grant writing is one way to support undergraduate research, but not the only way! In this contribution. Dr. Michael Castellani outlines how his department at a public, comprehensive university has raised over $300,000 to support scholarships and fellowships for its undergraduate students. He describes the process they followed, with some cautionary tales and advice.

When facing tight budgets, undergraduate research can suffer. How can faculty and their departments creatively fund undergraduate research? At Marshall University, the faculty wrote and published a lab manual, the proceeds from which  were donated back to the university in support of student research. Each spring, the Department selects up to two chemistry majors to each receive a $4,000 fellowship to work in the research laboratory of a chemistry faculty member. Funds to support this fellowship come in part from the sales of Chemistry laboratory manuals. How can your department accomplish something similar?

When facing tight budgets, undergraduate research can suffer. How can faculty and their departments creatively fund undergraduate research?

The Strategy

The questions that should be considered include:

  1. How many manuals can be sold each year? Will your bookstore resell used ones or can you negotiate them not doing so?
  2. What will the royalty rate be?
  3. Will you couple it to a fundraising program to your alumni and if so, what is a reasonable expectation of return from them?
  4. When will the funds be used? They can be spent each year or can be used to create an endowment.
  5. For what will the funds be used? Scholarships, fellowships, or equipment and supplies?

While some of the experiments may be completely homegrown, many will come from the literature, with the Journal of Chemical Education, being a major source of ideas.

Direct Revenue

While the revenue generated from the first two points is simple to calculate, determining the royalty rate can be a sticking point. Our Department started with the premise that when we moved from a commercially available manual to one we wrote, every student should benefit. There are many independent publishing houses that will produce a manual that is professional in appearance for only $5-6 a copy, if they are purchased in bulk. At that rate, a hefty royalty (>$10) can be collected and still save every student a good deal of money. One thing to be sure of if you choose to use an outside publisher is to retain both the copyright and the publishing rights. Without the latter, a publisher can block you from publishing your materials and force you to either use them or pay them to purchase back the rights.


“…our department pledged to fund a summer fellowship for five years out of royalties and donate any residual funds to an endowment in exchange for donations to an endowment.”

Always talk to your dean and university foundation before attempting any attempts at fundraising. Never come into conflict with fundraising activities by your administration. The royalties from your sales can be used to leverage donations from alumni. For example, our department pledged to fund a summer fellowship for five years out of royalties and donate any residual funds to an endowment in exchange for donations to an endowment. Several years into this process, we developed a departmental newsletter to include with the solicitation as a way to better connect with our alumni. Typically, requests to alumni for funds that directly benefit students receive higher levels of donation than do funds for equipment. For this reason, after funding our third summer fellowship, we are fundraising for academic year scholarships wherein the student must work in a lab as part of the scholarship. Your ability to solicit funds from alumni may change over time as your administration does.

Never come into conflict with fundraising activities by your administration.

Fundraising Targets

Endowments have the advantage of producing funds well into the future, but there can be a delay in using the money. Another advantage of endowments is donation fatigue. Initially, there can be a surge of giving, but over time, it may drop off. If the money is spent as it comes in, there can be significant swings in how much is available each year. Finally, raising for any departmental endowment provides a hint to prospective big donors to create one on his or her own. Always thank each donor for her or his contribution. For large donors, phone calls or personal meetings are a good idea, always with the knowledge of your foundation.

Endowments typically pay out 4 – 4.5% annually so a $4,000 summer fellowship will require about $100K, while a $1,000 scholarship can be created for only a $25K endowment. Departments with large numbers of students or wealthy, generous alumni may find the former goal relatively easy to attain, while departments at smaller institutions may find the scholarship a better target.

The Manual

Have as many people contribute labs as possible to foster the idea of a communal responsibility and benefit, but one or two people need to be editors. This job is more work than most people realize at the outset. For example, an attractive manual requires that all of the labs must be formatted the same way. While some of the experiments may be completely homegrown, many will come from the literature, with the Journal of Chemical Education, being a major source of ideas. When our department approached that journal for permission to charge royalties for labs based on its articles (with the proviso all funds were to be donated back to the university), it was granted. We also have each contributing faculty member sign a form waiving their rights to the royalties.

The Royalties

Plan for how they will be dispersed. Will an individual receive the check and donate it? If so, are their tax liabilities? We have the royalty checks made out directly to our Foundation. If you go that route, make sure your department receives credit because some Foundations do not track such deposits as donations (because the check comes from a company which isn’t making a donation).

~Michael Castellani ( Dr. Castellani is a Professor of Chemistry at Marshall University.  His research interests include the synthesis, reactivity, and physical properties of transition metal organometallic radical complexes as well as the effects large ligands have on the structure and properties of organotransition metal complexes.  He is a member of CUR and a Chemistry Councilor