Nothing drives higher education quite like research.

It’s a cornerstone of West Virginia University, thanks to the brilliant minds inside the Mountaineer community.

So when a WVU expert uncovers a life-changing breakthrough or offers stunning analysis of a key global issue, the outside world takes notice.

The National Academies – the top scientific research organization in the United States – are part of that outside world.

Serving as a gold standard for academic research, the National Academies comprises four organizations: The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

The National Academies are chartered by the U.S. Congress to be the primary non-governmental organization to provide expert, objective and independent advice to the federal government on matters of science, engineering and medicine

WVU’s connection to this prestigious, honorary membership group is growing, evident with the recent appointment of James Dean, director of Mining and Industrial Extension in WVU’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, to serve on a National Research Council committee to study ways miners can escape disaster.

“The work of this committee will focus on what is necessary for individual miners to self-escape, when possible, rather than await rescue teams,” said Dean, one of nine educators and industry representatives to serve on the committee. “I am honored to be selected to serve as a member of this committee.”

With a total membership of more than 6,000 scientists, engineers and health professionals, the National Academies were created in 1863 by an act signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

“They’re the most important organization nobody’s heard of,” said Jay Cole, chief of staff for WVU President Jim Clements. “They’ve tackled everything from aviation to zoology. Here’s an organization that, for more than 150 years, has collected an extraordinary amount of intellectual horsepower on an incredible array of topics.”

Dean’s appointment isn’t the only WVU connection to the National Academies.

Charles Vest, a 1963 graduate of WVU with a degree in mechanical engineering, serves as president of the National Academy of Engineering.

Vest believes the duties conducted by the National Academies reaches across all spectrums. It benefits the nation as a whole, learning institutions like WVU and local and state governments, including the state of West Virginia.

“Our reports impact legislation, regulation and operations,” he said. “These matters certainly impact the state of West Virginia and may also help frame research agendas at WVU. I hope that all institutions of higher education benefit from the studies and frameworks that emerge from the work of the National Academies.”

After graduating from WVU, Vest attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for graduate school. He completed his Ph.D. and then joined the mechanical engineering faculty there. In 1990, he became president of MIT and served in that position for 14 years. Since 2007, Vest has served as NAE president.

Vest explained that universities can become involved with the National Academies in two primary ways: 1) Faculty can be elected to one of the Academies, or 2) Faculty can be chosen to serve on various committees, roundtables and workshops through the Academies (as in Dean’s case).

As its primary focus, the National Academies provide independent advice. Federal and state agencies, foundations and private sponsors fund the Academies’ work. Those sponsors, however, have no control or influence over the results of a study.

Committees gather in public meetings but deliberate in private to avoid political, special interest and sponsor influence. Through that process, the National Academies produce 200 reports each year, covering a wide range of topics including obesity, the use of forensics in the courtroom, underage drinking, vaccine safety and climate change. These reports can influence major policy decisions.

Dean and Vest aren’t the only WVU connections to the National Academies. Syd Peng, former chair of the WVU Department of Mining Engineering, is an NAE member.

Peng arrived at WVU in 1974 and was immediately impressed with the University’s ability to develop his career in coal mining research and teaching. Since then, Peng has established himself as one of the nation’s leading experts in coal mining research.

The NAE citation for his election in 2006 was as ” the leader in the development of longwall mining, ground control and surface subsidence.”

“It is fair to say that I did not plan my career for NAE membership,” Peng said. “It was bestowed to me due to my lifelong achievements and recognition by my peers and the industry all over the world.”

Cole said he’d love to see more WVU faculty earn membership in the National Academies.

Peng believes that can happen if faculty members publish more articles in the prestigious peer-reviewed journals of their fields of expertise, and by networking with members of the National Academies.

“Membership in the Academies exposes one to the current and future national issues, their solutions and what the peers are working on and how,” Peng said. “Networking within the group tends to entice your competitive spirit. WVU can develop this opportunity to improve its rankings.”

Maura McLaughlin, associate professor of physics at WVU, served on a National Academies panel for the Astro2010 Decadal Review on Radio and Submillimeter Astronomy, a 12-member panel that made recommendations to the National Science Foundation for astronomy funding for the next decade.

“It was very interesting to serve with astronomers from various institutions and with different specialties,” McLaughlin said. “I learned about the hard realities of funding science in today’s climate.

“Whenever asked WVU faculty should serve on panels, despite the huge time commitment, as one can make a real impact on the future of science.”

The National Academies isn’t solely for faculty. Students can make a name for themselves, as well.

A project involving undergraduate engineering students will be highlighted in the National Academy of Engineering’s “Real World Engineering Education” publication of 2012. As part of a senior capstone project, students in the Projects with Industry and Building Energy Use program provide onsite technical assistance to West Virginia industry.

Graduates can also serve fellowships under the National Academies.

Before becoming the president’s chief of staff at WVU, Cole was the first WVU graduate chosen for the National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. Sarah (Lovell) Soliman was the second WVU graduate selected for the fellowship.

“It was one of the best professional, learning experiences ever,” Cole said. “The fellowship is designed for people interested in science policy – how science informs policy and how policy drives science. I came out with a stronger interest in science policy.”

As a high-ranking official at WVU, Cole believes the university and the National Academies can learn from one another.

“Since we are a research, land-grant university, what they (the Academies) do is very important to us,” he said. “We should aspire to that sort of model in our work.”

For more information on the Academies, visit



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