Two outstanding female faculty researchers and two graduate students have been awarded West Virginia University’s first Women in Science and Engineering Awards.

The WVU Women in Science and Engineering Award supports faculty initiatives and student scholarships. The WiSE Giving Circle brings together alumnae and friends who seek to impact the field of science by encouraging and mentoring young women in their pursuit of professional careers within the National Science Foundation-funded STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math. The giving circle is an internal program that was developed simultaneously with WVU’s National Science Foundation ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant, which seeks to “increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.”

“Mikel “Mickey Holcomb, assistant professor of physics and Jennifer Weidhaas, assistant professor of civil engineering will receive $3,750 to pursue their research. Kathleen Burke and Mary Kylee Underwood, both graduate students in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, will receive $1,250 to support their work.

“Through the WiSE program, the philanthropic community has endorsed WVU’s commitment to advancing women in the STEM fields,” said Provost Michele Wheatly. “Private/public partnerships like this will be necessary for WVU to achieve the goals of the 2020 Strategic Plan.

Holcomb, formerly at the University of California at Berkeley, joined the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics in 2009. Her funds will support research that examines a certain class of materials called multiferroics. These materials can exchange magnetic fields with electric fields or vice versa. The materials’ properties show promising device applications, allowing us to make smaller components, particularly for computers.

One of the recent goals of computing is to create something called nonvolatile memory devices. Conventional random access memory computer chips store information as long as electricity flows through them. Once power is turned off, the information is lost unless it has been copied to a hard drive. Unlike conventional RAM technologies, by not requiring continuous electricity, a nonvolatile memory would allow you to turn on and off your computer instantly without having to wait for loading and do this in an energy-efficient manner.

“Magnetic fields are difficult to localize to these increasingly small domains,” Holcomb said. “This issue limits the cell size of traditional MRAM to about 90 nanometers, which does not compete against current technology. Yet, what if there was a material that did not require these large magnetic fields? What if one could electrically control the magnetic direction? This scheme would then have the potential to be energy efficient and scalable. Magnetoelectric materials (multiferroics) provide this ability.”

Weidhass is a member of the Environmental/Hydrotechnical group in the WVU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She has experience working in academia, industry and governmental agencies. Her research focus includes biological, chemical and physical environmental engineering approaches, including water/wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and emerging contaminants remediation, water quality modeling and bacterial source tracking of contaminants. She will use her award to purchase a benchtop, refrigerated microcentrifuge for her research laboratory.

“This refrigerated microcentrifuge will be invaluable in the generation of data in my research area, environmental biotechnology,” Weidhaas said. “The equipment will be used to generate the final set of replicate data required for a manuscript to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. I look forward to publication of the research, which will serve as a concrete outcome from the use of the award dollars.”

Burke will use her funds to attend the Hereditary Disease Foundation’s conference in Boston in the summer of 2012. There she will have the opportunity to deliver a seminar on her results related to the study of the cause of Huntington’s Disease.

The long-term goal of her research in Justin Legleiter’s lab in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry is to understand the biophysical properties and molecular mechanisms that contribute to the pathology of nanoscale self-assembled macromolecules in neurodegenerative diseases, like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

“These funds will give me an excellent networking opportunity,” Burke said.

“By demonstrating the importance of techniques that I have become proficient in, specifically in atomic force microscopy, I hope to establish myself as a viable candidate for a postdoctoral position.”

Underwood plans to continue graduate research, begun as an undergraduate in the lab of James Lewis, on delafossites, a family of oxides that have promise for use as catalysts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Increasing the visible light photo-activity of an oxide would make it an optimum candidate for the photo-catalysis of carbon dioxide into usable products such as methane. This could provide a reduction in carbon dioxide fossil-fuel power plants.

“This research is the beginning of what will be presented as my Ph.D. dissertation in the course of the next three years,” Underwood said. “The expected outcome of this work includes at least three scientific papers in the next two years, collaborative experience with experimental scientists and multiple conference presentations.”

The 2011-2012 WiSE Awards are funded by WiSE annual membership and donations, The Hall-de Graaf Endowment for Women in Science & Engineering, The Research Trust Fund Hall – de Graaf Science & Engineering Fund and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

To learn more about the WiSE Giving Circle, contact Bonnie Fisher, director of development in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences or visit

To learn more about the NSF ADVANCE grant or the WVU ADVANCE Center at WVU visit



CONTACT: Rebecca Herod; Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
304.293.7405, ext 5251;

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