The 2023 class of Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholars includes 10 students — top row, from top left, Ian Bird, Nathaniel Dunbar, Paola Perez-Vega, Mia Sebastian, Tiffany Strange, bottom row, from left Madison Taylor, Teagan Kuzniar, Adrianne Shimer, Madison Branham and Lucy Thompson — dedicated to bettering West Virginia. (WVU Graphic

Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholarship honors 10 students striving to better West Virginia

Ten students with a shared goal of bettering the Mountain State have been awarded the Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholarship to help them continue graduate study in their chosen fields.

The scholarship program, administered by the West Virginia University Office of Graduate Education and Life, honors the legacy of its late namesake — Hazel Ruby McQuain, a businesswoman and benefactor devoted to community development in Morgantown and the surrounding area.

Students chosen for the scholarship receive up to three years of financial support applied to the cost of a graduate degree program at any accredited institution of higher education within the United States. Recipients must be committed to scholarly study or professional work with the potential to address the greatest needs of West Virginia and its residents.

This year’s honorees include Ian Bird, Nathaniel Dunbar, Paola Perez-Vega, Mia Sebastian, Tiffany Strange, Madison Taylor, Teagan Kuzniar, Adrianne Shimer, Madison Branham and Lucy Thompson.

All 10 recipients have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to service that complements their studies, which target environmental issues, health and well-being challenges and other pressing problems facing West Virginia communities.

“The Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholarship is reserved for West Virginia college students who are among the very best,” said B.J. Davisson, executive vice president and chief development officer for the WVU Foundation. “These 10 students have shown the rugged determination and thirst for knowledge necessary to make a difference in the world. I know Mrs. McQuain would be very proud of their achievements and the bright future that lies ahead for each.”

Ian Bird

Ian Bird, of Charles Town, received his bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from WVU, where he became closely acquainted with the social, economic and environmental impact of unremediated mines and saw the need for improved remediation techniques.

“My research will focus on the reclamation of abandoned mine lands through the treatment of acid mine drainage and extraction of rare earth elements,” Bird said. “This would enable a more cost-effective approach to the cleanup of the estimated $3 billion of reclamation liability in West Virginia alone.”

Bird will remain at WVU to complete his master’s degree in the same field. He will continue to volunteer with the Mountaineer Area Rescue Group, a local search and rescue team, assisting in search and rescue operations throughout the region.

Nathaniel Dunbar

Nathaniel Dunbar, of Union, has been surrounded by community service and volunteer work his entire life. His passion for carpentry, construction and helping others led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at WVU.

“I would like to thank my friends and family who’ve supported me, most importantly my aunts, and I would also like to show my gratitude to my mentor, Dr. Roger Chen, who has helped me along the way,” Dunbar said. “I am proud to be a civil engineer, and I look forward to continuing my education so I can give back to my community. Thank you so much for this opportunity. It genuinely means a lot.”

Dunbar is engaged on campus as a volunteer for the University, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the recently elected president of Chi Epsilon, the civil engineering honor society. He will remain at WVU as he completes his master’s degree in civil engineering.

Paola Perez-Vega

Paola Perez-Vega was born in Puerto Rico and calls the state of West Virginia home.  She completed her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at WVU. She said the program fostered growth in many aspects of her life and challenged her in a way she felt no other major ever could.

During her time at WVU, Paola Perez-Vega worked with her Hispanic community and participated in research. Her research focus is on tackling the growing problem of perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals.” 

Her goal is to remove these substances from West Virginia’s drinking water sources while preventing further exposure. Perez-Vega will continue her educational journey and research at WVU, pursuing a master’s degree in chemical engineering to help better the health of her fellow Mountaineers and the state.

Mia Sebastian

Mia Sebastian, of Leesburg, Virginia, has strived “to make the best better” since the age of 8. Heavily influenced by the principles of 4-H — head, heart, hands and health — and community service, Sebastian wants to uphold the values she learned to impact the future for the better.

“4-H has left an immeasurable mark on my life and I believe it has the power to help so many others,” Sebastian said. “I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and all those who helped me achieve it, as it is aiding me in accomplishing the first steps towards my goals.”

Sebastian received her bachelor’s degrees in criminology and psychology from WVU, where she plans to continue her education by pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She hopes to reduce recidivism and incarceration in West Virginia as a prison psychologist and 4-H supporter.

Tiffany Strange

Tiffany Strange, originally from Newport, Tennessee, is a nontraditional student who worked as a professional pastry chef since she moved to Morgantown 12 years ago. Her focus changed to education when she started working with several nonprofit organizations focused on feeding children and experienced firsthand the impact food insecurity can have on individuals and communities.

“I believe the field of nutrition and dietetics can make a meaningful difference by providing proactive solutions to address these issues,” Strange said. “Education is one of the most powerful tools in a dietician’s toolkit on an individual or per-family level, but my childhood in rural Appalachia taught me that there are systemic factors at play as well.”

Strange earned an associate degree from Rel Maples Culinary Institute and a bachelor’s degree from WVU in human nutrition and foods. She will continue her education by pursuing a master’s degree in nutritional and food sciences at WVU.

Madison Taylor

Madison Taylor, of Beckley, started her educational journey aspiring to be a nurse or a physician to keep people safe and promote wellness. However, it was not until she took an epidemiology course that she discovered a passion for public health.

“My educational and volunteer experiences have provided me with valuable knowledge that I can apply in my future career to decrease common health disparities and improve overall public health in West Virginia,” Taylor said. “I believe that if these areas are targeted in the Appalachian communities and the proper information and resources are provided, then the overall public health would significantly increase.”

Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in health science from Concord University. She plans to continue her research and education by earning a Master of Public Health at WVU.

Teagan Kuzniar

Teagan Kuzniar, of Morgantown, has been actively involved in environmental research and advocacy work for years. She recognized the importance of taking action after realizing that climate research without change is meaningless for Appalachians suffering the consequences of activities that exploit the environment.

“While attending WVU, I gained an immense wealth of knowledge that allowed me to directly pursue a PhD in soil science,” Kuzniar said. “Many different departments and programs at WVU, such as the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences, the Office of Undergraduate Research and the ASPIRE Office, have helped me to develop as a lifelong student. I am incredibly grateful for every opportunity that WVU and the state of West Virginia have given me.”

Kuzniar earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental microbiology from WVU. She will continue her education — and grow as a researcher and environmental advocate — at North Carolina State University. Kuzniar wants her work to create change by strengthening the connection between environmental research and government legislation.

Adrianne Shimer

As the daughter of a public school teacher, Adrianne Shimer of Calhoun County, was led toward a career in the education system at an early age. Yet, she did not find her calling to work with children until she served as a summer mentor to low-income students in her hometown. 

“I am immensely proud to be a native of West Virginia,” Shimer said. “Despite countless hardships and a lack of resources, West Virginians remain resilient, hardworking and loyal to one another. I am very grateful for the opportunity to continue my education and help find solutions to the challenges that negatively impact our state. After completing my graduate program, I plan to return to West Virginia to begin my career.” 

Shimer received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from WVU. Following graduation, she worked as a psychometrist at the WVU Medicine Children’s Neurodevelopmental Center, where she assisted a team of psychologists and neuropsychologists to assess children and adolescents with a wide range of neurological concerns.

Shimer will continue her education at the University of Kentucky, where she plans to earn a master’s degree in educational psychology and an education specialist degree in school psychology.

Madison Branham

West Virginia may be known for its mountains, whitewater rafting and skiing, but Beckley native Madison Branham believes its best asset is a sense of community. Growing up, Branham witnessed how willing people were to help her family, and she is eager to return that kindness by making a positive impact on West Virginia.

“Throughout my life, I have had so many people supporting me in my personal and academic journeys,” Branham said. “I hope I can return the favor to fellow West Virginians and help future generations succeed like I have.”

Branham received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marshall University, where she will return to complete her Master of Business Administration. Branham said she hopes to help small businesses in the state and empower students and change-makers to innovate ways to help West Virginia prosper.

Lucy Thompson

Lucy Thompson, of Morgantown, is deeply connected to the land and people of the state. She received her bachelor’s degrees in geography and environmental studies from Ohio University.

Thompson is interested in the intersection of gender, environmental justice and rural culture. She explored this interest during her undergraduate years through research on motherhood and environmental justice activism in central Appalachia. She also worked to creatively address issues of housing and sustainability in Appalachia.

“Growing up in West Virginia and focusing on the state through my research, I have a deep and lasting commitment to the people and environments in the state,” Thompson said. “I believe that West Virginia is an extremely special place, and I hope that my work will both uplift West Virginians and show others how amazing the state is.”

Thompson is proud to have completed her education in Appalachia so far and is excited to continue to do so in a new area. She will further her education at Pennsylvania State University, pursuing a doctorate in geography.

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