WVU honors four scholars who enrich society with research on health care, communities, molecular structure and fungi
It takes many small steps to make a career. And 30 or so years down the road, you don’t always have stellar results.
But four researchers at West Virginia University are being honored for their work in understanding more of our world. The University has chosen them because of their scholarship and results to be this year’s Benedum Distinguished Scholars.
Terry Gullion is being recognized for his work in determining the molecular structure of certain types of materials; Randy Jackson is noted for how he combines a variety of academic disciplines to target regional issues; Joe Morton is being recognized for his work studying and amassing a collection of fungi that is critical to plant life on earth; and Mark Wicclair is being honored for his body of work on understanding the role of conscience in healthcare providers’ decisions.
The award, handed out in four categories physical sciences and technology, biosciences and health sciences, behavioral and social sciences, and humanities and the arts recognizes distinction in research, scholarship or creative activity. Each honoree will receive $5,000 in professional support, provided by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.
Each will give a lecture in the spring as part of the award.
Gullion will be speaking on “The Magic of NMR” on March 12 at 4 p.m. in the Rhododendron Room of the Mountainlair. Wicclair will be speaking on “Conscientious Objection in Health Care: Deciding When to Accommodate Health Professionals” on April 2 at 4 p.m. in the Rhododendron Room of the Mountainlair. Morton will speak on “Evolution of a Fungal Symbiosis Critical to the Life of Most Plants on Earth” on April 4 at 4 p.m. in Room 101AB of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy. Jackson will speak on “Origins, Destinations, Regions and Economic Development” on April 9 at 4 p.m. in the Rhododendron Room of the Mountainlair.
Terry Gullion, professor of chemistry, Benedum scholar in physical sciences and technology
Since getting his Ph.D. in physics, Terry Gullion has worked along the boundary of physics and chemistry, developing techniques which allow scientists to uncover the structures of molecules.
As a postdoctoral researcher Gullion invented the rotational-echo, double-resonance (known as REDOR) method in nuclear magnetic resonance. Up to this point, the structure of a molecule in a non-crystalline material has been difficult to determine because of the lack of long-range crystalline order. But Gullion’s work, established through a series of experiments and publications, has enabled scientists to see what they’ve never seen before.
This potential of solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance as a structural tool is the draw for Gullion.
“You know these aren’t things you can hold in your hands and see,” he said. “You’re just using your own mind and looking at data and trying to make a picture that would be consistent with all of the information you have, and at some point, you convince yourself that you know this.”
Gullion’s research has allowed other scientists to make discoveries that can then be applied to a problem. In a recent collaborative project, a scientist from Japan wanted to determine the structure of silk. Gullion said his REDOR technique was well-suited to help solve this structural problem.
By combining his nuclear magnetic resonance methods with the protein synthesis skills of the Japanese group, they were able to work together to provide a structural picture of the silk protein.
Knowing the structure of silk provides insight into how natural structural fibers are formed and could allow other scientists to attempt to replicate the process with synthetic fibers.
Gullion says he receives tremendous support from the staff in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry machine shop. Their ability to design and create devices used in his experiments makes his work possible.
“These shops may not be on the frontline face-wise but the things that they do and the support that they provide is absolutely necessary to get things done; there’s no doubt about it,” Gullion said.
Gullion’s colleagues attest to the simplicity and effectiveness of his developed methods.
“Because of his practical bent, his methods have had a great impact on the solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance field, particularly with applications-oriented scientists like myself,” said David P. Weliky, professor of chemistry at Michigan State University. “Dr. Gullion has sought to find simple solutions to difficult methodological problems and has distinguished himself with his repeated success with this approach.”
Randall Jackson, director of WVU Regional Research Institute, Benedum scholar in behavioral and social sciences
The appreciation for Randy Jackson is visible in his office, which is filled with trinkets of gratitude from international colleagues. His Mountaineer pride is also displayed, in a picture that hangs on the wall of his WVU-themed Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Jackson is a professor of geography and director of WVU’s Regional Research Institute. He had a humble beginning to his studies in economic geography, starting out at the University of Illinois before finding his way to WVU in 2002.
“I got interested in economic geography when I had a job driving a truck, a tractor trailer, coast to coast,” Jackson said. “I was in the habit of stopping at every rest area and fueling station and picking up a newspaper. When I read the newspapers, it became apparent pretty quickly that people in different parts of the country were interested in different things on the same day.”
The experience led to a lifelong interest in geography.
While getting his undergrad degree at the University of Illinois, Jackson became interested in theoretical and methodological debate and the nature of a particular impact assessment model. One of the people in that debate happened to be the current director of the Regional Research Institute. Jackson said that he didn’t think anything of it at the time, but he had become aware of the Regional Research Institute early on in his academic studies.
“In his role as director of the Regional Research Institute at WVU he has recruited an excellent group of scholars and graduate students that have greatly enhanced the reputation of RRI and generated additional external funding,” said James Lesage, of Texas State University.
WVU has given Jackson the unique opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary environment. On any given day, he could be working with geographers, resource economists, economists, foresters or engineers.
“He has helped promote a model of research that begins with elegant, relevant theory through to model design, data assembly and implementation and finally to dissemination not just in the academic press but in public forums and news media,” said Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois.
Joseph Morton, professor of plant pathology, Benedum scholar in biosciences and health sciences
Joe Morton herds more of his children every year.
They are very small and easy to overlook because they are hidden away in roots in the invisible world of soil.
They are fungithe good kind that form beneficial symbiotic associations with almost 80 percent of plants. In fact, plants probably wouldn’t have gotten started on land 450 million years ago if the fungi weren’t there to help obtain food and water.
As plants segued from water to land, they had no true roots. The “mycorrhizal” symbiosis provided a way for plants to obtain precious nutrients on land, and they have evolved together ever since. The mycorrhizal association is so critical that if the fungi disappeared today, much of the plant life in the tropics and deserts would cease to exist.
The WVU collection of mycorrhizal fungi is the largest in the world and is nine times the size of what it was 30 years ago. It is used by high school students to discover microbes, researchers to explore the fungi and the symbiosis, and businesses to develop applications for agriculture and restoration projects. As an example, one company is using the fungi to restore green areas and grow date palms in deserts affected by oil well fires in the Persian Gulf.
“Now they’re my babies. I know all about them. I know when they’re bad and when they’re good,” Morton said with a laugh.
Morton first learned about mycorrhizae after he came to WVU through a graduate student who needed help with a project involving these fungi, and Morton had a background in botany and mycology. Since then, much of his knowledge has been acquired from working intimately with his culture collection every day since 1982.
After 1990, the collection garnered continual support from the National Science Foundation. Morton says that WVU’s early contributions of a full-time technician and greenhouse facilities were instrumental in making this effort a success. He used the collection to research on a wide range of questions regarding systematics, evolution and biology of these fungi that resulted in more than 70 published articles, including one in Nature.
James Bever, a professor in the Department of Biology at Indiana University and former post-doc in Morton’s lab, said mycorrhizal fungi were inaccessible to a wider audience before the collection.
“He shined a light of understanding on these cryptic, mysterious soil fungi and by doing so,” Bever said,” he ignited a revolution in our understanding of their biology, their taxonomy and systematics and their importance in agriculture and ecology.”
Mark Wicclair, professor of philosophy, Benedum scholar in humanities and the arts *
Mark Wicclair’s office has no bells or whistles, just a window that overlooks Beechurst Avenue. He has a wall adorned with previous awards, including a 1995 Benedum Distinguished Scholar Award, which he received for his research on ethics and aging and a book on the subject published by Oxford University Press in 1993.
Wicclair has been with the WVU philosophy department since 1978. He is professor of philosophy and an adjunct professor in the Department of Community Medicine.
Wicclair received his second Benedum Distinguished Scholar award this year for his work on conscientious objection in health care. His research culminated in a highly acclaimed Cambridge University Press book, Conscientious Objection in Health Care: An Ethical Analysis.
According to David Barnard, Miles J. Edwards Chair in Professionalism and Comfort Care and Assistant Vice Provost at the Oregon Health and Science University, Wicclair’s book is “among the most impressive and significant contributions to the bioethics literature in many years.”
“All of us who work in the field of bioethics are in Mark Wicclair’s debt,” Barnard said.
Lisa Harris, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan praised the book for being “the first book on and best treatment of conscience in health care” and “what it continues to do in the futurestir important and yet un-had conversations in academics, politics, law and culture more broadly.”
The book also won a prestigious Choice Outstanding Title in Philosophy award.
“Although conscientious objection originally was associated with military service, it occurs in health care when doctors, nurses, or pharmacists refuse to provide a medical service because it is contrary to their moral or religious beliefs,” Wicclair said. “An important question is how to respond to such conscience-based refusals.”
He rejects two extreme responses. One holds that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have an obligation to provide all legal and professionally accepted services within the scope of their competence. The other holds that health professionals should be exempted from doing anything that is against their conscience.
“I explain and defend a more nuanced, contextual approach,” Wicclair said, “one that accommodates conscience based-objections provided it will not impede patients’ access to information and medical services or place excessive burdens on fellow health professionals, supervisors, or institutions.”
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