Problems confound our everyday lives.

Not only as Mountaineers, but as community members, West Virginians, Americans and citizens of this world.

These problems – ranging from impoverished rural areas to heart defects to energy utilization – will not go unresolved, thanks to key innovators and researchers at West Virginia University.

It is their curiosity, intelligence and outreach that will foster far-reaching solutions to the world’s most perplexing puzzles.

At the 17th annual Capital Classic Luncheon today (Wednesday, Dec. 5) in Charleston, WVU President Jim Clements introduced three Mountaineers who share a drive to better the lives of all and contribute to a better West Virginia.

The luncheon, sponsored by the WVU Alumni Association, is held in conjunction with the Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic men’s and women’s basketball games between WVU and Marshall University. WVU’s president shares the University’s goals and accolades with the Kanawha Valley crowd at this annual event.

This year, Clements brought Elaine McMillion, a documentary storyteller; Larry Rhodes, a pediatric cardiologist; and Shikha Sharma, a geochemist, to show the overflow crowd of more than 550 alumni, friends and state leaders firsthand how they strive to change lives.

McMillion graduated from the WVU Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism in 2009 and is currently completing graduate studies at Emerson College in Boston.

However, there’s no place she’d rather be than in West Virginia. McMillion’s love for the state is clear through her award-winning, community-based project called “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary,” which chronicles the beauty and struggle that rural residents face in McDowell County. The project was awarded a $65,000 New Media Grant from Tribeca Film Institute, and last week received a $20,000 grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

“A lot of people have been to McDowell County and have taken their share of photographs of abandoned buildings and poverty,” McMillion said. “That’s low-hanging fruit. It’s very easy to capture. It’s more of a challenge to capture the beauty and life behind those very serious issues.”

Like much of her work, “Hollow” focuses on contemporary social and cultural issues. She strives to share stories from the people and places often stereotyped by mass media. As part of “Hollow,” McMillion is giving the residents of McDowell County the tools to tell their own stories and find innovative solutions for the community’s concerns.

Rhodes, the pediatric cardiologist, is also making an impact. He works with children afflicted by heart conditions and is instrumental in Bob Hartley’s Camp Mountain Heart, an annual summer camp for children with congenital heart defects and disease. He was recently mentioned in a national story on ABC News.

“Our goal is to have each of these children go home and have a chance to live a normal life,” said Dr. Rhodes, director of the Institute for Community and Rural Health at the WVU Health Sciences Center.

Rhodes earned his medical school education at WVU. However, after earning his degree here, he wound up working as a doctor in major cities like Boston and Philadelphia.

Rhodes made a promise to his children that he’d stop moving them around until they graduated high school. He kept his promise, and then immediately found his way back to West Virginia.

“This is where I want to be,” Rhodes said. “This is where I need to be. This is where I belong.”

His former patients include doctors, lawyers, teachers – people who make an impact on the world – an impact they might not have survived to make without Rhodes’ care.

Sharma, an India native, came to WVU in 2010, to study one of the state’s hottest issues, energy. An assistant professor of geology, [Snippet Error: Invalid ID. Try editing the snippet again.] Sharma researches the development of unconventional energy resources, such as geothermal shale gas. She recently received a $265,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the Marcellus Shale, one of the nation’s largest reservoirs of natural gas, and examine potential sources of pollution that could result from drilling.

“Energy resources like coal, oil, gas and now shale gas are key to the development of West Virginia,” Sharma said. “As a scientist and professor at WVU, I want to work with energy producers so we can develop energy resources in an environmentally responsible manner. We can do it right.”

Sharma studies isotopes, which help scientists understand the sources of natural gas and geothermal energy. Through this work, she strives to bring people together.

“I would be really happy if I can bridge the information gap between people who have contrasting views on energy development,” she said. “That would be a happy result of what I’m doing.”

McMillion, Rhodes and Sharma took turns speaking to the audience following video introductions of each.

The three are examples of Mountaineers striving to be the best at everything they do, and to do it with the highest level of quality, Clements said.

“Each of them has pioneered an unmarked path to discovery, to hope, to new and expanded horizons,” he said. “They represent thousands of others – our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni and our friends – who are finding new solutions, new perspectives and new ways to improve the world.”

Two of the areas, health and energy, underscore WVU’s investment in specific research areas called “Mountains of Excellence,” Clements said, and all have the strategic plan goal of enhancing the well-being and the quality of life for the people of West Virginia.

Those “Mountains” are:

  • Achieving international leadership in radio astronomy
  • Utilizing shale gas
  • Promoting stewardship of water resources
  • Improving STEM education and scientific literacy
  • and Eliminating health disparities in Appalachia.

“All of these areas are existing strengths at WVU, and all are important to our state. These are broad areas with great potential for teamwork across multiple disciplines. And all of them address significant challenges we face as a society.

“And our land-grant mission demands that we address these types of issues,” Clements said.

Clements assured the Charleston crowd that WVU will climb each of those mountains.

“I cannot think of another place as committed to making a difference as our West Virginia University community, and I am proud to be a part of it,” he said. “The bond between West Virginia and its land-grant, flagship, research university is very special and cannot be broken.”



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