Seven students pursuing doctoral degrees at West Virginia University are receiving funding through the Ruby Scholars Graduate Fellows Program. Lauryn Alexander, Heather Baldwin, Elaine Christman, John Hansen, Emily Hughes, Alyssa Stonebraker and Nicholas Winch have been named to the eighth class of fellows.
The program, established in 2011, includes a $34,000 stipend, a $2,000 travel grant and tuition waivers for each fellow to continue their research at WVU.
Recipients must be pursuing graduate degrees related to research in one of the following fields: energy and environmental sciences, nanotechnology and material science, biological, biotechnical and biomedical sciences, or biometrics, security, sensing, forensic sciences and related identification technologies.
“WVU is proud to welcome an exceptional group of scholars to campus thanks to the Ruby Fellows program,” Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed said. “I’m very impressed by their dedication to their chosen fields and desire to make a difference in the world. This kind of commitment is what it truly means to be a Mountaineer, and I am thrilled they have decided to call WVU home.”
The program was made possible by the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust with a $5 million gift. The donation was matched by the West Virginia Research Trust Fund bringing total funding for the program to $10 million.
Lauryn Alexander is from Mathews, North Carolina. She attended Hampton University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a concentration in forensic science. After researching potential universities to pursue her doctorate, Alexander chose WVU because its forensic program was consistently ranked as one of the best in the country.
“I wanted to be at a university where I knew I would be receiving the top instruction and education from the best professors and faculty,” she said.
Alexander has participated in several complex undergraduate research projects on issues like biosensing, clinical animal traits, nanoparticles, synthesis of polymers and biomedical imaging. She aspires to be a forensic analyst or forensic anthropologist and continue her research after receiving her doctorate.
Alexander says fellowship is as a reward for her hard work, knowledge and talent in science. She is proud to be recognized as one of the top students in the incoming doctoral class.
“During my tenure at WVU and within this program, I am looking forward to meeting other intelligent and bright scholars like myself,” she said. “I believe that being a Ruby Fellow will allow me to collaborate and network with the best and brightest minds at West Virginia University.”
Heather Baldwin, a native of Moorefield, earned her bachelor’s degree in animal and nutritional science from WVU. She decided to stay at WVU to earn both her master’s and doctorate in reproductive physiology.
Baldwin’s courses and research opportunities during her undergraduate at WVU helped her to decide on a career path.
“I knew that I wanted to pursue a career path that combined animal physiology with molecular biology,” Baldwin said. “I was attracted to reproductive research due to the impact that infertility has on humans as well as animal agriculture.”
Baldwin’s graduate research has focused on comparing factors that contribute to pregnancy failure in cattle. Since approximately 60 percent of all pregnancies advance past the first 20 weeks of gestation, Baldwin says her research will have a real-world impact.
This past year she studied cattle fertilization techniques at University College Dublin in Ireland and hopes to combine this knowledge with her current research.
She says the Ruby Fellowship will allow Baldwin to continue her research and gain first-hand experience.
“The learning environment is extremely supportive, and faculty are hands-on,” Baldwin said. “There is a great laboratory set up as well and includes an in vitro fertilization lab where we are able to generate embryos and study the role of particular genes during early embryogenesis in cattle.”
Baldwin hopes to work for a research institution or conduct research for the government after completing her degree.
Elaine Christman, from Prairie Grove, Arkansas, earned her undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Arkansas in 2008. After receiving her bachelor’s, she spent the next decade teaching science at struggling school districts in her home state.
Christman’s passion for education and her experience teaching at underprivileged schools are reflected in her research, which focuses on developing a better understanding of how students learn physics. This, she hopes, will help improve learning outcomes in science for students of all socioeconomic classes.
“Many students, especially those entering college from high poverty rural high schools like the ones where I taught, have some gaps in their math and science background, which can make physics courses challenging,” she said. “Ensuring that all students have the opportunity to succeed in these classes is crucial to increasing equity and access in STEM professions.”
Christman plans to use her doctorate degree in physics to educate future secondary physics teachers through a faculty position and continue her research in physics education.
John Hansen, originally from Joplin, Missouri, earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Utah State University. While at USU, Hansen worked both as a teaching assistant and research assistant.
Hansen’s career choice of education was influenced by the teachers in his life.
“I have always appreciated the quality of professors and teachers that I have had throughout my life,” Hansen said. “Seeing how they made an impact on me and on my classmates has been the biggest factor that has inspired and motivated me to become an educator.”
Hansen’s research aims to improve high school coursework in math and physics and he believes the Ruby fellowship will enable him to concentrate solely on his academics.
“The Ruby Fellowship will allow me to focus on my research throughout my graduate program in physics, and remove any need that I would have had to work a part time job to care for my family,” Hansen said. “It truly is a blessing for me and my family.”
Hansen chose WVU because he believes the coursework and faculty will push him to learn more than he could elsewhere.
“I believe that the high level of academia found at WVU will challenge me to become an even better scholar and will give me the necessary skills and experience needed to become a contributor in the education of the future generation,” Hansen said.
Emily Hughes, a native of Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania, earned her bachelor’s degree in geology from Keystone College in 2017. She received her master’s in geology from WVU this past May and will remain at WVU to pursue her doctorate in geology, concentrating in paleontology.
“I decided to pursue geology because I found it to be the most interesting field alongside astronomy,” said Hughes. “Ultimately, geology was more satisfying to me because it’s something that we can see and experience firsthand every day rather than at a distance through a telescope.”
Hughes studied the feeding mesh size in modern and extinct filter feeders and focused on reconstructing the diet of a specific group of eurypterids called stylonurina for her master’s research. She traveled to the United Kingdom to study the diversity of stylonurina fossil material and successfully applied for external grant funding to support her research.
Hughes plans to further her experience in education through a position as a college professor. She believes the Ruby Fellowship brings her one step closer to achieving her career goals.
“It's an honor to be awarded the Ruby Fellowship," she said. “It recognizes the effort I’ve put into my studies up to this point and serves as motivation to continue to work hard through the Ph.D. program.”
Alyssa Stonebraker of York, Pennsylvania, received her bachelor’s in biochemistry from Kutztown University. She developed a passion for chemistry in high school, but it wasn’t until she participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates at WVU with Justin Legleiter that she learned how much she enjoys the laboratory setting. The experience also helped her decide to attend WVU to earn her doctorate in chemistry.
“I fell in love with the research I worked on during the 10-week program, the faculty I had the opportunity to interact with were great, the graduate students were welcoming, and the campus is beautiful,” Stonebraker said.
Stonebraker is currently working with Legleiter on a manuscript regarding their project which she will be co-first author.
Stonebraker began an independent research project investigating the binding of biomolecules to the surface of ice nanoparticles following the REU. Since no similar projects had been initiated in a lab, Stonebraker was required to develop her own methodology.
She has had an abstract accepted to a national American Chemical Society meeting and data she collected was included in a proposal submitted to the National Institutes of Health.
Stonebraker hopes to learn more about career options while obtaining her doctoral degree. She is interested in a job either in industry or research.
Nicholas Winch, a native of Walkersville, Maryland, received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Elizabethtown College.
He plans to conduct research on sustainable energy sources, specifically solid-state batteries with the goal of increasing safety and efficiency while earning his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering.
“I am passionate about the field of energy research because now, more than ever before, our species requires newer, more efficient, and better ways to both produce and store energy,” Winch said. “With many of the mainstream methods creating mass pollution or end of life-cycle waste, I consider it a top research priority for a better tomorrow to explore all sustainable energy sources.”
Winch worked as a teaching assistant and was the captain of the Elizabethtown College Track and Field team during his undergraduate career. In addition, he has been invited to and attended multiple prestigious national conferences.
Winch has always been familiar with WVU, but the faculty and research opportunities are ultimately what attracted him to the institution.
“I have been looking at West Virginia ever since sophomore year of undergrad as a potential for graduate school. My long-time girlfriend attended WVU and I visited frequently and enjoyed the atmosphere immensely,” he said. “In addition, I took a Summer course and interviewed faculty to ensure the right fit and the university has a marvelous research program in materials science.”
The fellowship, according to Winch, will open many doors during his time at WVU.
“The Ruby Fellowship is obviously an incredible opportunity for any doctoral student,” he said. “The freedom and security to explore your passion is truly liberating and will allow me every opportunity to succeed at West Virginia and pursue focus on my research.”
The charitable trust that funds these scholarships was established by Hazel Ruby McQuain, wife of the late J. W. Ruby. Hazel McQuain died in 2002 at the age of 93, having retired as president of Ruby Enterprises Inc. She was involved in philanthropic giving that benefitted not only the University, but also local organizations for more than 20 years. One of the many donations included an $8 million gift for the building of J. W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, named after her late husband.