Three West Virginia University professors awarded the Claude Worthington Benedum Distinguished Scholar Awards for 2013-2014 have one thing in common—a passionate commitment to improving our world.

Law professor Anne Marie Lofaso argues for the legal protection and empowerment of working-class Americans, in articles that have already influenced federal lawmakers.

Psychology professor Dan McNeil examines the pain that patients experience during dental procedures and the factors that can either increase or minimize that pain.

Engineering professor Nianqiang Wu has discovered an energy transfer theory with significant positive implications for solar-energy harvesting.

“The Benedum Award recognizes distinction in research, scholarship or creative activity, said Provost Michele Wheatly. “The three professors who have received the awards this year have certainly achieved that distinction. What is more, they are each dedicated to research that has the potential to impact our world now, today, in meaningful ways. We are so proud to have them here at WVU.”

The award, presented this year in three categories – physical sciences and technology; behavioral and social sciences; and humanities and the arts – honors excellent faculty in creative research at the University. Each recipient will receive $5,000 in professional support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation Endowment at WVU.

Each award winner will give a lecture this spring as part of the award.

McNeil will address the questions “Pain and Anxiety: Foes? Friends? Partners?” on April 7 at 4 p.m. in room G-21 Ming Hsieh Hall. Lofaso will present on “The Autonomous Dignified Worker” on April 8 at 4 p.m. at the Law School. Wu will explore “Teaching Electrons to Dance for Biosensing and Solar-Light Harnessing” on April 15 at 4 p.m. at the Erickson Alumni Center.

Dan McNeil
Psychology professor Dan McNeil came to his current research focus, he says, from a desire to “understand the nature and function of anxiety, fear and pain from behavioral and cognitive-behavioral perspectives” and to “help patients be more comfortable during dental and medical procedures.” Work in this area, and specifically work aimed at developing and implementing assessments of pain and its relationship to fear and anxiety, led McNeil to behavioral dentistry.

“Dental and medical situations provide a natural laboratory for the ready observation of various states of emotional distress,” he explained. The study of dental pain – and the related issues of dental phobias and anxiety – has also led McNeil to practical interventions in dental treatment practices to help reduce or eliminate patients’ distress, both at WVU, where he has a secondary faculty appointment in the Department of Dental Practice and Rural Health, and with the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia. COHRA is a collaborative between WVU and the University of Pittsburgh, and recently the University of Michigan, which McNeil helped to develop over 10 years ago, and in which he has been involved since it was founded.

The explicit mission of COHRA is to address the oral health problems of the people in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia. As a result of his involvement with the collaborative, McNeil has been the principal investigator or co-investigator on a number of funded grants from the National Institutes of Health, exploring psychosocial factors involved in oral health problems in families in Appalachia.

He has also widely published and presented findings of his research, both nationally and internationally. “I hope that my research products have advanced the field and will improve quality of life in oral health, and in health care generally,” McNeil said.

In a review of the first edition of the book, Behavioral Dentistry, in which Dr. McNeil is the first author of a chapter entitled “Emotional and environmental determinants of dental pain,” Gill Jones, the director of undergraduate dental studies at Peninsula Dental School and a consultant in dental public health, praised McNeil’s work in almost urgent terms. “If you read nothing else” in this book, she wrote, “read this chapter.”

McNeil, who did his academic work at the University of Alabama, has been widely recognized in his field, earning numerous service, research, and mentoring awards from the university and professional organizations, and a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship in 2010.

“West Virginia University is one of a few institutions worldwide recognized for scholarship in behavioral dentistry and Dr. McNeil’s work on pain, fear, and dental health is the reason we are on the map,” said psychology chair Kevin Larkin. “Understanding the intricate connections between the experience of fear and pain is essential for promoting oral health among West Virginians and serves as an excellent example of cross-discipline translational science.”

Anne Marie Lofaso
Anne Marie Lofaso has been a full-time faculty member at the WVU College of Law since 2007. Her scholarship focuses on labor law, beginning with what Dean Joyce McConnell (and others) calls a “seminal article” in the field that established – right in the title – a theory of workers’ rights.

The article, Toward a Foundational Theory of Workers’ Rights: The Autonomous, Dignified Worker, appeared in the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law Review in 2007. In it, Lofaso uses existing legal definitions of autonomy (“to become part author of one’s life”) and dignity to argue that the possession of these two values are essential rights of all workers, rights that should be present in all workplaces and that the law should protect.

Lofaso argues, in this article and in several subsequent ones, that collective bargaining power, as facilitated by labor organizations and unions, is a key tool to providing works with autonomy and dignity.

She has also addressed issues of dignity and autonomy for immigrant workers, as in a February 2013 article, distributed to the U. S. Congress by a progressive think tank, in which she argues that the National Labor Relations Board should have the authority to compel employers to uphold the labor rights of undocumented workers. The Senate version of the most recent immigration law incorporates one of Lofaso’s specific suggestions from this article, that employers who hire undocumented workers and then violate their collective bargaining rights be compelled to pay penalties to the U. S. Treasury.

“Dr. Lofaso exemplifies the ideal scholar – one whose theoretical work catalyzes change,” McConnell said. “Through her theory of the autonomous dignified worker, Professor Lofaso has transformed the scholarship, policy and teaching of labor law. A scholar’s achievement is measured by the impact her work has on the world. Against this measure, Professor Lofaso is a giant in her field – the leading legal scholar promoting the autonomy and dignity of working-class people.”

Lofaso, who earned her BA from Harvard, her JD from the University of Pennsylvania law school, and her PhD from the University of Oxford, received the Faculty Significant Scholarship Award from WVU in 2011 for her article What We Owe Our Coal Miners. She has previously been honored numerous times by the NLRB and the American Bar Association. Her in-progress research continues to focus on labor rights and relations.

Nick Wu
Words used to describe Dr. Nianqiang (Nick) Wu’s work include “unprecedented,” “pro-active,” “exceptional” and highly innovative—and those are just the terms a layperson can understand.

Wu, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at WVU since 2005, works in the area of photocatalysts and biosensors. Working at the almost unimaginably small scale known as nanoscale (as an example, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick). Wu has made several breakthrough discoveries that have a strong, long lasting-impact in multiple application domains such as clean energy, environment, human health and homeland security.

Photocatalysts are materials or devices, which convert solar energy to chemical energy. (Chlorophyll, found in green plants, is the one with which most people are familiar.) For example, one of his current photocatalysis research projects is to convert shale gas to liquid fuels that can power vehicles. Photocatalysts are increasingly important today because of their increasing applications in, among other things, solar-light harvesting, environmental remediation and photo-therapy of diseases.

Wu has also developed nano-biosensors that detect environmental toxins (such as mercury and lead), DNA as well as biomarkers of cancers and traumatic brain injury. For example, ovarian cancer is a “silent” killer for women patients. Hence early detection is the key to survival of patients. He has developed a nano-biosensor for monitoring a protein biomarker, an indicator for early-stage occurrence of ovarian cancer and recurrence during therapy.

The scope of influence of Wu’s work is international and significant. He has a prolific record of peer-reviewed publications. He has published more than 116 journal articles, three book chapters and one book. In October, 2013, his work appeared in the prestigious Nature Communications, the first Statler College acceptance by Nature journals in the past 20 years. During last four years, more than 10 papers were ranked as most-read papers or invited as the feature articles in highly reputable and competitive journals. His papers have attracted the rapidly increasing attention of peers, gained an annual citation rate of about 1,200 citations in 2013 alone.

“Prior to Dr. Wu’s employment at WVU, the MAE department had no research or educational program in the areas of nanotechnology and solar energy,” said MAE department chair, Dr. Jacky Prucz, “He has assumed a key role in establishing and leading major research programs.”

Dr. Wu studied at Zhejiang University in China before coming to Morgantown. He has won several previous research awards from the university, as well as the Alice Hamilton Award for Excellence in Occupational Safety and Health in 2010. According to NIOSH, this award is presented each year “on the basis of rigorous reviews by panels of scientific experts from outside the Institute.”

Past winners of the Benedum award include:


Terry Gullion; chemistry
Joseph Morton; animal science
Randall Jackson; geology & geography
Mark Wicclair; philosophy


Arun Ross; computer science
MaryAnn Samyn; English
Jianbo Yao; animal science


David Lederman; physics
Alvin Moss; medicine


Mark Brazaitis; English


Charles Jaffe; chemistry
Yon Rojanasakul; pharmacy


Elizabeth Fones-Wolf; history


Jorge Flores; biology
Nancy Giles; physics


Tracy Morris; psychology
Christopher Wilkinson; music


Robert Dailey; animal and veterinary sciences
Earl Scime; physics


James McCroskey; communication studies
Timothy Sweet; English


Richard Brisbin Jr.; political science


Ismail Celik; mechanical and aerospace engineering
John Cuthbert; curator, West Virginia and Regional History Collections
William Stauber; physiology and pharmacology


Peter Lightfoot; music
Linda Butler; plant and soil sciences
Mark Koepke; physics


James Harms; English
Ali AbuRhama; surgery
Ronald Balvers; economics
Harry Gingold; mathematics


Kenneth St. Louis; speech-language pathology
William Hoover; animal and veterinary science
Krysztof Ciesielski; mathematics


Cun-Quan Zhang; mathematics
Richard Walls; educational psychology
Nyles Charon; microbiology
William MacDonald; plant pathology


Kung Wang; chemistry
Robert Blobaum; history
Philip Chase; psychology
Christine Baylis; physiology


Larry Halliburton; physics
Timothy Adams; English
Mark Wicclair; philosophy
Keith Inskeep; animal science
Joe Hagan; political science


Kathleen McNerney; Spanish
James Elkins; law
Thomas Kammer; geology
Roger Lohmann; social work
Leroy Lapp; pulmonary and critical care medicine


Robert Maxon; history
Ali Feliachi; electrical and computer engineering
Dale Colyer; agricultural economics
Kenneth Landreth; microbiology and immunology


Robert Goodman; physiology
Arthur Weldon; physics
Michael Reed; instructional computing and English education
Patrick Conner; English



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