Three WVU graduates are part of the National Science Foundation’s 2022 Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind made up of an elite group of researchers from across the United States, and will continue their work in Morgantown. (WVU Photo)

WVU alums earn prestigious NSF fellowships to give back to the Mountain State with research

In this post-commencement season, three West Virginia University alums are making plans to help West Virginia with research work focused on a range of issues.

Madison Haddix from Morgantown, Trevor Smith from Appalachia, Pa., and Hannah Petronek from Wheeling are part of the National Science Foundation’s 2022 Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind made up of an elite group of researchers from across the United States.

Each will receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and access to a wide range of professional development opportunities while pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at WVU with individual focuses on drinking water, swarm robotics and fungal diversity.

“Conducting research as undergraduate students was a transformative experience for Maddie, Trevor and Hannah,” Amy Cyphert, director of the ASPIRE Office, said. “Receiving this prestigious fellowship will allow them to remain working alongside several of WVU’s most talented researchers in engineering and plant pathology.”

For Haddix, a 2021 graduate with a bachelor’s in civil engineering from the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, this is an opportunity to continue water quality research, a topic she discovered a passion for in high school.

“I took this class that was AP human geography, and in that class we learned about people’s struggles with water access around the world,” she said. “That’s really what got me interested in water issues to begin with.”

As an undergraduate student, Haddix spent two years working on a project studying acid mine drainage and phosphate runoff in agriculture with Lian-Shin Lin, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

She then transitioned to working alongside Emily Garner, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and focusing more on the microbiology side of water research.

Now as she pursues a master’s degree with Garner as her research mentor, Haddix seeks to understand the different physical, chemical and microbiological parameters that affect bacteria in drinking water distribution systems.

“Drinking water changes from the treatment plant to your tap,” she said. “We want to understand what factors are driving the type and amount of bacteria present in drinking water, and we will especially be focusing on any potentially pathogenic bacteria.”

Hailing from a rural area, Smith attended a high school with limited access to technology. At home, however, he grew up with a father who, as an aerospace engineer and WVU alumnus, fostered a deep appreciation for computers and robotics.

While pursuing his dual degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Smith connected with Yu Gu, associate professor and adviser for the University Rover Challenge Team.

Not only did he utilize his skills to build competition robots year after year, but he gained a research mentor.

“His mentality is always the best way to learn something is to do it,” Smith said. “I really resonate with this style.”

When he begins graduate school in the fall, Smith will focus his research on the benefits of computational swarm robotics.

“There are two ways to solve problems. You can solve either one complex problem or a bunch of simple problems,” he said. “For robotics, instead of designing one complex robot that performs a highly skilled maneuver, you can design a bunch of simple robots that do simple things and collectively emerge to solve the complex problem.”

In other words, picture 20 Roombas instead of one Mars rover to explore an area by simply moving away from each other.

According to Smith, swarm robotics is more robust, more adaptable to different environments and provides greater opportunity to complete tasks.

“I propose that swarm robotics can do everything that conventional robotics can, just with a shift in understanding of the problem,” he said.

For Petronek, a first-generation college student, a love for research began the summer before her freshman year with an internship at the Green Bank Observatory through the First2 Network.

While the research wasn’t in her intended field, it provided insight into doing research as a scientist and the confidence to pursue research opportunities her first semester on campus.

As a biochemistry major, she worked with faculty in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design on research projects pertaining to soil science, plant science and soil microbiology.

During her senior year, she connected with Matt Kasson, associate professor of forest pathology and mycology, and found a lab where she felt at home.

“I was a little wary because I didn’t really know what plant pathology was, but I think Matt’s enthusiasm helped me really, really fell in love with the topic and I really, really fell in love with fungi versus just working with bacteria,” Petronek said.

Petronek will work to better understand and describe fungi affecting high-elevation tree species and notable species like ash, red spruce and sugar maple. She noted these typically weaker forest pathogens are becoming more aggressive as winters get warmer.

Students interested in applying for this Fellowship or other nationally competitive scholarships should reach out to the ASPIRE Office by email at ASPIRE@mail.wvu.edu.

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