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Science for a better world: Private support aids Ruby Scholars in chasing research dreams

Recipients of the Ruby Scholars Graduate Fellows program at West Virginia University are conducting impactful research focused on enhancing public health, ensuring food safety, improving cancer treatment and more. Yet, many of these students may have never found their purpose without opportunities to engage in undergraduate research and private support to help them pursue their passions.

Established in 2011 with a $5 million gift from the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust and a $5 million match from the state’s Research Trust Fund, the Ruby fellowship empowers promising researchers seeking degrees in science and engineering at WVU to engage in discovery.

“I’m a guy from a very small town in West Virginia,” said Christopher Anderson, a 2023 Ruby Scholar. “I didn’t necessarily want to come to college in the first place. I didn’t know that I would get a master’s, and I didn’t know that I was going to pursue a PhD. I think the Ruby fellowship and other fellowships, they really provide a route of entry for some of those people that might have great ideas or a lot of passion for research in West Virginia to give them that outlet to pursue those interests.”

The Ruby fellowship is designed to attract and assist graduate students from across the country to nurture their research talents for the benefit of people in West Virginia and beyond. Each student receives a $34,000 stipend, a $2,000 travel grant and a tuition waiver to allow them to continue their research at WVU.

The Ruby Scholars program builds upon the philanthropic legacy of the Trust’s namesake. Hazel Ruby McQuain was a businesswoman and community benefactor who generously supported WVU for more than 20 years before her passing in 2002, at the age of 93. 

Since the program’s inception, a total of 50 students have received financial support to advance their education at WVU. Roughly a third of those recipients are West Virginia natives seeking to make their home state a better place.

Improving health through wastewater

Christopher AndersonAnderson, of Terra Alta, first came to WVU as an undergraduate student fascinated by architectural design. As he sought on-campus job opportunities that would enhance his education, he was hired by Lian-Shin “Lance” Lin, chair of the Wadsworth Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to assist with research.

The position sparked an interest in environmental engineering, which complemented Anderson’s love for the outdoors. He then took an environmental engineering microbiology course with Assistant Professor Emily Garner that affirmed his passion for environmental science.

Anderson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering from WVU before proceeding with his doctoral studies. He considered leaving academia for industry after completing each degree, but his love for learning and support from others spurred him to continue his studies.

“I can’t express enough how appreciative I am to have the support [from the Ruby fellowship],” Anderson said. “In terms of money, in terms of financially being stable, that’s one thing, but also just there have been a number of times that I have kind of questioned, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Am I good enough to do this?’ and just the confidence that somebody or someone supports me enough to say ‘Hey, we like what you’re doing. We’re glad you’re doing it.’”

Anderson studies antibiotic resistance in wastewater, which complements his father’s work for the Morgantown Utility Board. He has used wastewater-based epidemiology to track infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, in community wastewater to inform public health interventions.

Anderson appreciates the professional development opportunities afforded by the Ruby fellowship funding. In October 2023, he presented his research at the North Carolina Water Health Conference, where he met colleagues from around the world and identified parallels between public health challenges in Appalachia and abroad.

His goal is to lead his own research lab as a faculty member and focus on the Appalachian region.

“It’s an area of the United States that’s often left behind in terms of research, kind of an unintended bias,” Anderson said. “A lot of universities are in these metropolis areas and so the research goes to places in those areas, and as a result, you have some of these rural sociodemographics that get left behind in a way.”

Protecting ecosystems from the ground up

Kinsey ReedFor many budding researchers, the path to finding their purpose is often filled with unexpected turns. Kinsey Reed, of Berkeley Springs, is a lifelong animal lover who dreamed of becoming a veterinarian – until she learned that blood made her squeamish. Now, she studies soil health and its impact on cattle and food systems across the Mountain State.

Reed’s undergraduate studies in animal and nutritional sciences brought her to the Animal Science Research, Education and Outreach Center, where she enjoyed working with cattle and spending time outdoors. The experience prompted her to add applied and environmental microbiology as a second major.

After earning her bachelor’s degree and working on a farm near Pittsburgh for a year, she opted to continue her education at WVU with support from the Ruby fellowship. She appreciated having the freedom to pursue research grants, which not only enrich her studies but also provide funding to farmers across the state.

“The ability to focus efforts on research and grant-writing as a graduate student is pretty indispensable,” Reed said. “A lot of those grants – yes, they help pay for my schooling, but my grants are for farmers doing research on farms in West Virginia, paying those farmers for practices that are good for the environment and continue on after the life of my fellowship, hopefully in perpetuity.”

Reed’s soil research helps ensure that livestock is raised in a healthy environment. She said soil health and conservation efforts are especially needed in West Virginia, where the topography makes the soil vulnerable to erosion. She hopes to continue her work in the Mountain State after completing her doctorate in plant and soil sciences.

“I’d love to stay in West Virginia and continue almost what I’m doing now, but at a bigger scale and help farmers get funds to do practices they’ve been wanting to implement but maybe didn’t have the means or time to do it,” Reed said. “And, along the way, study how those practices affect the environment and the soil microbes and the soil and the cattle and get a big whole-farm picture of what’s going on. There’s so much fun to be had in agricultural science because there’s so many avenues to study.”

Investigating the biology behind cancer

Quinn HopenAs a child growing up in Sutton, Quinn Hopen watched her mother juggle family responsibilities with college coursework in her quest to become an environmental biologist.

“Seeing her go through eight years of college just to get a bachelor’s degree just to give me a better life really inspired me, not only to go to college but to pursue something that I was really interested in,” Hopen said. “And she kind of gave me the idea of science.”

Hopen was interested in medicine when she first came to WVU as an undergraduate student, but she knew patient care wasn’t right for her. Receiving a Bucklew Scholarship offered her the freedom to explore research opportunities, which ultimately helped her find her passion.

“I started doing research pretty early, and I really just had the best faculty, the best professors, and the best classes in the immunology and medical microbiology program, and they opened my eyes to how deep you can get into one singular field, which was immunology for me,” Hopen said. “They really inspired me and made me realize that research is super interesting.”

Hopen honed her research skills in the laboratory of Jennifer Franko, an assistant professor for the School of Dentistry and School of Medicine whose research focuses on sex differences in immune response to different diseases. As a doctoral student in the School of Medicine’s fast-track program in immunology and microbial pathogenesis, Hopen now works with Dr. Brian Boone, assistant professor of surgical oncology, to study sex differences in the body’s immune response to cancer.

She appreciates the financial support from the Ruby Scholars program, which allows her to live comfortably while focusing on her science. She said the fellowship was a deciding factor in her decision to remain in West Virginia to continue her education and research.

“The Ruby fellowship is extremely important in keeping young West Virginians in the state and continuing to provide opportunities for us,” Hopen said. “I think it’s also important to help show other states and other institutions that West Virginia University is one of the best out there. We support amazing research and have amazing patient care. I think, for me, being kind of a representative of the university through the Ruby fellowship and being able to travel to conferences and share my research shows other people that West Virginia is doing great research.”

The gifts to establish the Ruby Scholars Graduate Fellows program were made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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