WVU to help STEM graduates invest in Mountain State’s environmental health | WVU Today


This photo was taken as dense smoke from wildfires burning in Canada migrated south, affecting air quality in the U.S. in June 2023. WVU researchers will mentor recent graduates in pursuing STEM-based careers that address environmental health concerns.
(WVU Photo/David Malecki)

West Virginia faces no shortage of environmental health concerns, but many STEM students who could help leave the state after graduation.

To foster a continuing interest in their chosen fields, West Virginia University is collaborating with other state universities to establish One Health West Virginia, a network connecting research mentors with postbaccalaureate mentees who will acquire training and experience to pursue STEM-based careers and address environmental health issues in the state.

With the aid of a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Charlene Kelly, of the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, will work with WVU colleagues as well as researchers from West Virginia State University and Marshall University on One Health WV.

According to Kelly, teaching associate professor of forest resources management and plant and soil sciences, the project considers the health of the environment integral to the health of humans.

“We’re thinking about soils and animals and anything humans interact with that can impact us, and the areas that we’ve coalesced around are water use and quality, environmental contamination, and biological correlates of disease,” she said.

Tim Driscoll, associate professor in the Department of Biology, has joined Kelly on the project and works in the areas of tick-borne disease and wastewater surveillance of disease.

“It has great potential to enable new graduates to work on an exciting variety of science research projects,” Driscoll said. “It will also establish new relationships between academic partners, government agencies and private employers, both local and national. We hope these relationships will act as a sustainable pipeline for West Virginia-based, long-term job opportunities in STEM-related fields.”

The program will begin August 2024 with its first cohort of mentees. There will be 10 mentees per year for three years and they’ll work with faculty mentors on issues including water quality around legacy surface mine lands and urban runoff, biological response to contaminants such as lead and silver nanoparticles, and antibiotic resistance in the environment. Mentees, who will work in full-time, 12-month paid positions, will acquire training in cutting edge scientific equipment, ethical and safe research conduct, effective experimental design, scientific writing and communication. Applications will be available March 2024.

Mentors will also offer students coaching on whatever they need to undertake their unique research opportunities. This will include grant writing, resume writing and computing.

Kelly said it can be difficult for recent STEM grads to find their first job, especially without a graduate level degree. Thus, many leave the field. She said this effort will provide a path forward for students who may be interested in graduate school but aren’t sure if they can afford it or how to proceed.

“We address all these different areas of study that are impacting human health, and it’s not just one student taking on and completing an individual project. It’s a collaborative network. They’ll learn from each other and bounce ideas off each other, creating this hive of knowledge amongst themselves. It’s not just us teaching them — they’re working together to go out and do their own thing.”

Additionally, mentors will lead experiential trips on which students will connect with professionals in their chosen fields. These “off-ramp opportunities” will provide contact points, whether in industry, science or grad school.

The program is open to students on a national level, and project leaders anticipate most students will come from smaller universities where opportunities for undergraduate research are limited.  

“The call from NSF encouraged us to target those underserved populations,” Kelly said.

Researchers said they believe the program is important in West Virginia because of the state’s history of extraction and other industrial operations that have affected the environment. This includes air and water quality, soil health and forest health.

Kelly recalled the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill along Kanawha County’s Elk River and the 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

“Those are big events that caused health concerns, but other contaminants occur in the environment, such as the ‘forever chemicals’ in the waterways. There are counties in West Virginia that have some of the highest levels in the nation of these potentially carcinogenic chemicals.”

In addition to environmental contaminants, the rural nature of West Virginia makes it difficult to engender the idea that environmental health influences human health. Opportunities for protecting human health — including access to health care — are diminished in rural areas.

“All of those things coalesce in the state of West Virginia,” Kelly said. “It amplified this idea that we can all come together to address each of those concerns. West Virginia could use this support and plug into creating professionals that are knowledgeable in this One Health arena.”

She anticipates the project’s ripple effects will be far-reaching, for both state residents and mentees.

“This will be transformative for these 30 individuals,” she said. “An entrepreneurial person might take this experience and go into education or health sciences or environmental quality, then those can all build out into different communities as well. One individual will have an impact on those 30 students, who in turn have impacts on their communities. It’s our hope these students will remain in West Virginia or locally and have an impact on the One Health endeavor in the state.” 

The following WVU faculty will serve as mentors: Emily Garner, civil and environmental engineering; Brent Murry, Carol Arantes and Greg Dahle, forestry and natural resources; Jennifer Gallagher and Rita Rio, biology; Dorothy Vesper, geology; and Matt Kasson, plant and soil sciences. Also joining the project are co-principal investigators Amir Hass, West Virginia State University, and Nadja Spitzer, Marshall University.



MEDIA CONTACT: Laura Roberts
Research Writer
WVU Research Communications
304-215-1019; [email protected]

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