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$20 million awarded to university science programs

Five West Virginia universities will see a share of $20 million to boost their science initiatives.

The National Science Foundation awarded the grant money to West Virginia’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) to invest in the schools’ research initiatives. The funds will last for a period of five years.

West Virginia University, Marshall University, West Virginia State University, Shepherd University and West Virginia Wesleyan College will split the money.

The proposal submitted by the state to the National Science Foundation, which was ultimately awarded, is called “Gravitational Wave Astronomy and the Appalachian Freshwater Initiative,” which will focus on water resources and gravitational wave astrophysics, according to a statement from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office.

Regulations on bodies of water in West Virginia are not as strict as some other states, giving researchers some freedom to work with streams, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, said Paul Hill, chancellor with the Higher Education Policy Commission. A total of $24 million will be invested, effective Monday “through a match partnership with participating universities,” according to the statement.

“As this great state’s land-grant institution, West Virginia University is finding ways to translate what our researchers do on campus into real benefits for the citizens of West Virginia and beyond,” WVU President Gordon Gee said in a written statement. “From lakes and rivers to the far corners of space, we are making discoveries that will help create a vibrant economy in the state and help our nation regain its leadership in innovation.”

Science-related grants have been awarded to West Virginia’s EPSCoR program in the past for its initiatives, Hill said. The National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program will award money to states who would not otherwise see funding in that field. Other states that have received funding include Kentucky and both North and South Dakota.

West Virgina’s EPSCoR program works in conjunction with the Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science and Research.

The money will be used to bolster the universities’ programs, hire faculty and to purchase new, current technology and equipment to make the students’ resources as up to date as possible in the science industry, Hill said. Universities will also work with their current leading scientists to investigate bringing other distinguished researchers to West Virginia.

The program is “catalytic,” said John Maher, the vice president of research at Marshall University.

With this funding, it will give students the opportunity to understand the freshwater resources in the region better and how we, as a society, have affected the natural water systems within the state. The program is something Maher is grateful for.

The multiple rounds of grant funding have helped put West Virginia on the map in the STEM field, Hill said.

The grant application was spearheaded by Jan Taylor, director of the division of science and research with the Higher Education Policy Commission.

“We have a real chance to make a change in West Virginia,” Taylor said.

The idea for the proposal came after Taylor collaborated with the universities to find each school’s strengths in their science industry. Once the strengths were identified, they worked to create a viable proposal that would benefit the state, she said.

For West Virginia State University, this is the second time it has seen its share of an EPSCoR grant reward, said Kimberly Osborne, vice president for university relations and operations. The program will give freshman the opportunity to experience more hands-on activities in the STEM field, whereas that experience would typically have been offered to them when they became upperclassmen.

“We’ve been a research institution for years,” Osborne said. “We are a growing research institution. We have embraced that, our students have embraced that ... we have some very unique programs for our students.”

Gee congratulated the team of WVU researchers whose work and “track record of excellence” helped make the grant award possible.

“I also offer thanks to Marshall University, West Virginia State University, the Higher Education Policy Commission and our state leadership for their continued partnership in growing the education, research and economic benefits for our West Virginia,” Gee said.

The grant is expected to help foster growth in smaller research industries in the state.

“When we support our universities and colleges with the tools and resources they need to provide quality and affordable education, we lead our students to successful careers and ensure our future will be bright,” said Sen. Joe Manchin in a statement from the governor’s office. “Enhancing STEM programs and upgrading infrastructure at our colleges and universities will open doors for our students and is crucial for West Virginia to remain competitive in the global marketplace. I am happy this grant will enable our higher education institutions to better prepare students in STEM and improve our workforce, our economy and our great state.”

Evidence of sustainability of the programs could be seen in a way to help keep state students in West Virginia, to keep the jobs and experience local, Hill said.

Reach Megan Kennedy at 304-348-4886 or, or follow her @wvschools on Twitter.

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