Two West Virginia University assistant professors have received a vote of confidence about their future academic careers as they are among this year’s recipients of a prestigious grant from Oak Ridge Associated Universities, the WVU Office of Research and National Research Center for Coal and Energy.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Stephen Valentine and Assistant Professor of Resource Economics Wesley Burnett each have received a $10,000 grant as a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award winner. The awards, now in their 23nd year, are named for Powe, who served as the Oak Ridge Associated Universities councilor from Mississippi State University until his death in 1996.
Stephen Valentine, dedicated to human health
Valentine is interested in the fundamental causes of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“My own family has been touched by dementia,” he said. “Brain disease causes a lot of stress for the entire family. The costs of care are a serious problem not only for families but for society as a whole.”
The Powe award funding will allow him to test ideas for a new instrument for “seeing” the structures of large molecules, namely proteins, in the human body and how they change shape to produce other molecules that are the building blocks of disease-causing plaques that form in the brain.
Before coming to WVU, Valentine helped to commercialize the Ion Mobility Spectrometer-Mass Spectrometer. The device allows scientists to identify various biological protein ions by creating peaks on a chart, a sort of code of the protein that helps scientists understand the shape of the molecule. But important details are missing from the code produced by the device alone.
The new device he wants to create, called an Overtone Mobility Spectrometer-Mass Spectrometer, will extend the ability of IMS-MS to provide more detailed sets of peaks, filling in missing pieces of the code.
“We hope to be able to identify differences in the mobility of protein ions to distinguish normal protein structures from ones that could be causing disease,” Valentine said. “Like HD makes television seem more lifelike, OMS-MS will allow us to ‘see’ the proteins more clearly.”
Valentine brings to WVU six years of experience in the private sector, three as vice president of science and technology at Predictive Physiology and Medicine Inc. and three as a senior scientist at Beyond Genomics, Inc.
“Fundamental science is very important to me, but so is applied science that leads to commercialization,” he said. “Commercialization is one of the biggest ways that science can help society. It can provide a valuable return on the taxpayers’ investment back to the public.”
“The university environment provides a unique opportunity for commercializing higher risk, long term research like mine. There is more time to incubate ideas in a university compared to the private sector,” Valentine said.
Valentine chose WVU from several offers for a number of reasons.
“WVU considers Small Business Innovation Research grants to be a viable means of funding laboratory research as well as grants from the National Science Foundation – not the case at a lot of other universities,” he said.
WVU also offers the unique ability to share high-end research equipment.
“The shared facilities where my graduate students are welcome, the impressive machine shop, the electronics shop, the glassblowing shop, all allow me to focus on my research right away instead of having to build out an entire laboratory first to then be able to conduct my research,” he said.
“Plus I’m surrounded by excellent colleagues who think as I do,” he said. “I felt at home.”
Wesley Burnett, dedicated to humankind’s health
Burnett is an applied economist with interests in energy and the environment, earning his Ph.D. in 2011 from University of Georgia. His research seeks to better understand and forecast how energy development affects the economy and environment of energy rich regions.
“I’m interested in the health of humankind. My interest in energy stems from my interest in the long-term welfare of humanity,” he said.
Burnett was born in an economically depressed region of southeastern Kentucky. Were it not for the region’s coal industry, his father would not have had a job with the railroad industry.
“Fossil fuels have propelled us into the modern era, but non-renewable resources will eventually be exhausted and we all face the looming specter of global climate change,” he said.
Burnett is interested in how to sustainably manage these resources to maximize the welfare of current and future generations, while at the same time treating greenhouse gas emissions as a constraint to the continued use of fossil fuels.
“Developers and policy makers often use unemployment and tax revenue as primary indicators of economic vitality, but that can be short-sighted,” he said.
For example, he noted that several industry-sponsored reports have focused on the near-term effects of non-conventional gas development on income, employment, and tax revenues.
He names North Dakota as example.
“The popular press could lead you to believe that North Dakota’s low unemployment rate is attributable to the shale oil revolution,” Burnett said. “But this ignores the fact that North Dakota has historically low unemployment rates, some of the lowest in the nation, even before this revolution began.”
In fact, North Dakota’s highest ever unemployment rate according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was 6.8 percent in February 1983. This past April, the bureau reported that North Dakota had 3.3 percent unemployment rate while West Virginia, which is also experiencing a shale boom, was at 6.6 percent.
“There is no doubt that shale oil has had an impact on North Dakota’s unemployment rate, but it does beg the question of whether the unemployment rate would have been low despite this play,” Burnett said.
Economists would say that a fully robust method to estimate the impacts of energy development should involve a “counter factual.” A counter factual is a theoretical concept that considers impacts if the development had not occurred in the first place. Burnett will use the concept of a counter factual to develop a quasi-experimental computer model to study the economic impacts of unconventional gas development in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, region where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been practiced for more than a decade in the Barnett shale play.
Only the western half of metropolitan Dallas-Forth Worth sits above the Barnett, making the region a natural living laboratory for a quasi-experimental research design. The clear demarcation will allow Burnett to investigate what happens to home values near gas wells versus home values where no drilling has occurred.
“Housing values often provide a tremendous amount of latent information about an economy,” Burnett explained. “What would have happened to housing values if shale development had not occurred? Examining that question could tell us a lot about the effects of energy extraction on the local economy,” he said.
After controlling for nearby transportation, schools, shopping and other locational features, Burnett proposes to see if there is a statistically significant difference in home values where shale gas development has taken place versus areas where it is not.
This method should provide a better estimate of economic impacts because it addresses the question of whether housing prices would have risen despite shale gas development in the area. The results will offer richer, more rigorous information for policy makers to better manage the boom and bust cycles that generally accompany energy developments.
“My objective is not to advocate ‘for’ or ‘against’ a particular policy, as might be expected with research sponsored by special interest groups. Rather, it’s to inform policy makers of potential impacts based upon peer-reviewed economic research,” he said.
Burnett’s Appalachian heritage led him to WVU. As the first in his family to graduate from college, he calls himself fortunate to have earned an advanced degree and, “to have the opportunity to teach at a public research university such as WVU.”
As a teacher, Burnett wants to reach out especially to those students at WVU who come from circumstances similar to his own.
“I hope to inspire them, and all my students, to reach their full potential as productive citizens,” he said.
ORAU ‘wins’ become a tradition at WVU
Valentine and Burnett were among 30 winners of a pool of 147 applicants from the 109-member ORAU university consortium. Only two faculty members per institution were permitted to apply. Applicants undergo a highly competitive peer-review process organized by ORAU among its members.
A WVU faculty member has been named to the Powe award five of the last six years, but this is the first time both applicants have won. WVU, Virginia Tech, and the University of Texas at Austin were the only schools to have both of their applicants selected.
“Dr. Valentine and Dr. Burnett are to be congratulated for being recognized by their senior colleagues at ORAU member universities for their promise as outstanding researchers,” said WVU’s long-time ORAU Councilor and NRCCE Director Richard Bajura. “WVU’s recent awards speak to WVU’s ability to attract the best and brightest faculty.”
Katie Stores, assistant dean for research for the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, nominated Valentine for the competition.
“We are very proud of Dr. Valentine’s early successes in research, and see great promise in the new technologies he is developing in analytical chemistry,” said Eberly College Dean Robert Jones.
Tim Phipps, associate director for research for the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, nominated Burnett.
“The Powe award will give Dr. Burnett the opportunity to conduct research that will have a national impact on our economy and quality of life,” he said.
“We were pleased to have the opportunity to hire Dr. Burnett two years ago,” Phipps said. “He has taken on the leadership of our College’s energy economics program and has worked closely with other colleges at WVU to develop an interdisciplinary Master’s Degree in Energy that will help train our future leaders in the energy and environmental policy areas.”
“We’re very proud of this year’s winners and of WVU’s track record of success,” said Fred King-, WVU vice president of research. King was appointed to ORAU’s Board of Directors last March. “Dr. Valentine’s and Dr. Burnett’s desire to engage in research that solves problems in service to society is exactly what great land grant universities like WVU do best.”
CONTACT: Trina Wafle; National Research Center for Coal and Energy
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