Six students pursuing doctoral degrees at West Virginia University are receiving funding through the Ruby Scholars Graduate Fellows Program. This year’s fellows are Kelsey Bentley, Julia Ivey, Anuj Kankani, Claire Kelly, Zoe Pagliaro and Matthew Waalkes.
Recipients must be pursuing a graduate degree in one of the following fields: energy and environmental sciences, biological, biotechnical and biomedical sciences, or biometrics, nanotechnology and material science, security, sensing, forensic sciences and related identification technologies. The fellowship’s financial support allows incoming doctoral-level scholars to commit themselves fully to expanding their study and use their research to benefit the people of WVU, the nation and the world.
“We are proud to welcome another extraordinary group of scholars to WVU this year with the support of the Ruby Fellows program,” said Maryanne Reed, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “I continue to be impressed by these Fellows and their ability to think across disciplines, their drive to explore the unknown and their desire to create change in their communities and the world. Our Ruby scholars are the next ‘must watch’ innovators at WVU.”
Established in 2011 by the Hazel Ruby McQuain Charitable Trust, the Ruby Fellows program includes a $34,000 stipend, a $2,000 travel grant and a waiver of tuition for each fellow to continue their research at WVU.
Driven by a love for animals, Kelsey Bentley, of Micro, North Carolina, initially entered college with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. She changed course when her undergraduate mentor showed her an alternative career path that focuses on helping animals by educating livestock producers about the science behind their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science, with a concentration in veterinary bioscience, at North Carolina State University, and came to WVU for a doctorate in animal and food science.
During her graduate assistantship, Bentley conducted research in partnership with Virginia Tech to understand the genetic basis for enhancing animals’ health by requiring fewer treatments of antibodies in their feed. Now, Bentley hopes to aid producers in making better decisions to manage their flocks.
Bentley’s decision to proceed with her doctorate was two-fold: She ultimately hopes to teach at the collegiate level, and she understands the immense impact of higher education as a first-generation college student.
“My parents really pushed me, saved for me and put their everything into making sure that, if I wanted to go to college, I had the opportunity, and that was my driving factor,” she said.
For Bentley, the Ruby Fellowship builds upon her parents’ commitment to her success.
“It gives me the ability to focus 110% into my research, and sink my heart and soul into my thesis,” Bentley said. “The financial freedom this brings means so much to this small-town girl with a big dream.”
After completing her doctorate, Bentley hopes to join the faculty at North Carolina State University and pursue a position as an extension agent.
A West Virginia native from Oak Hill, Julia Ivey attended Shepherd University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. Specifically, Ivey is interested in neuroscience and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease resulting from repeated concussions that can only be diagnosed postmortem.
“I’m interested in research on the brain,” Ivey said. “There’s so much we still do not know about it, and research allows me to learn more about it and solve problems. I want to make a difference in neurodegenerative diseases.”
During her time at Shepherd University, Ivey participated in the West Virginia IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, a National Institutes of Health-funded summer research program led by WVU and Marshall University. In the laboratory of WVU’s Paul Lockman, she conducted research focused on the efficacy of cannabidiol, alone and in combination with radiation, in treating breast cancer that metastasized to the brain.
Ivey was drawn to WVU because the University offers unique opportunities to participate in innovative research. One research study that fascinated her was a Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute project that uses focused ultrasound as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, being a Ruby scholar allows Ivey to focus on her research.
“I’m thankful for the scholarship because I can fully commit myself to my studies and research without having to worry about the financial stability,” Ivey said. “From my education so far, I’ve realized you have to put in the work and people don’t realize how difficult a STEM field can be, and there’s always so much to learn.”
Ivey wishes to continue conducting research to contribute to the discovery of new cures or treatment possibilities for neurodegenerative diseases after completing her doctorate in neuroscience.
Anuj Kankani, of Katy, Texas, earned his undergraduate degree in physics at Texas A&M University. At WVU, Kankani plans on pursuing a doctorate in physics with a focus on astrophysics and studying extreme spacetimes, such as black holes and neutron stars.
“The problems you work on are researching some of the biggest things in the universe – some of the most complicated processes – and you learn new tools, which to use and how to use them properly,” Kankani said.
For the past two and a half years, Kankani has been a part of two different undergraduate research projects allowing him to combine his physics, computer science and astrophysics knowledge.
Kankani is excited for the opportunity to pursue this graduate program thanks to the Ruby Fellowship.
“The fellowship will allow me to focus on learning more about astrophysics and my field,” Kankani said. “Also, I will be able to gain more skills – both research and general, like collaborating with people and contributing to the field with my own research.”
Additionally, Kankani hopes to finish his PhD and continue research in a professional setting.
“Being a Ruby scholar means an opportunity to make the most out of my time at West Virginia University,” he said. “I like learning every year. You become better at learning and realize how much there is out there to learn, and how much you don’t know.”
Claire Kelly, a native of Morgantown, attended WVU for her undergraduate degree in immunology and medical microbiology. After her first biology class in high school, Kelly knew she wanted to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology.
“Most people with a Ph.D. didn’t know they wanted to pursue one, but I’ve always been so curious about biology as a whole - specifically of how cells work and interact with each other,” Kelly said.
As she progressed through her major, she realized her passion focused more on the immunology side and less on the microbiology side.
“Especially with neuroimmunology, it’s a very niche field so my favorite part working in it is there are a lot of new things to learn,” said Kelly. “Every time I do an experiment and I get new data, that’s a tiny piece of some puzzle that I get to contribute to.”
Kelly’s focus in her graduate research is inflammation in immunological mechanisms in the brain and central nervous system and autoimmune diseases.
During her time at WVU, Kelly said one of the aspects she is most thankful for is the guidance and mentorship she’s received from those around her.
“I look at the older graduate students, and I’m hoping I’ll build to the point they are,” Kelly said. “I’ve gotten where I am today from graduate students that helped me along my experience in the labs I’ve worked in, and I want to be able to do that for others.”
Kelly is pursuing a doctorate in the accelerated program for immunology in microbial pathogenesis and hopes to become principal investigator of her own research lab.
Zoe Pagliaro graduated from Skidmore College in New York with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Originally from South Kingstown, Rhode Island, Pagliaro said she was drawn to WVU because of Edward Brzostek’s lab focusing on sequestering biocarbon underground to make agricultural lands environmentally sustainable.
Before attending WVU, Pagliaro worked on a project focused on developing a rapid and efficient soil carbon assessment tool that provides accurate data to help farmers and land managers join carbon markets. She was among the first students to analyze soil samples to guide land management decisions on former Vice President Al Gore’s farm.
Additionally, Pagliaro co-authored a review paper on the biochemistry of the Amazon rainforest over the past 10 years. That data set was used, with Pagliaro’s participation, at a National Geographic Society convention in Brazil.
Pagliaro’s field research showed her the joy and impact of science.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be a small part of the puzzle to fix the bigger issue of climate change,” she said.
Pagliaro was shocked when she received the news of becoming a Ruby scholar.
“I thought it was a huge honor to receive, and a huge honor to even be nominated,” Pagliaro said. “It was really a proud moment to see that I can do great things and that this prestigious group believes in me.”
Pagliaro aims to continue doing research to solve environmental issues related to climate change as she pursues her doctorate in biology.
“I can’t give enough thanks to those who made this possible for me,” Pagliaro said. “I’ve felt so lucky to be as educated as I am, and education is empowering. This shows how much I can accomplish and achieve.”
A native of Frederick, Maryland, who moved to Waynesboro, Virginia, in high school, Matthew Waalkes attended the Virginia Military Institute and received an undergraduate degree in biology. He became interested in biology because of his curiosity about the world.
“You don’t know what the answer is going to be, and your job is to explore this vast unknown,” Waalkes said. “That’s what particularly interested me in neuroscience – no one knows a lot about it.”
Waalkes has many years of lab experience, as he initiated an undergraduate research project examining the cross-sectional anatomy of soybean stems and branches that was published. Also, Waalkes conducted a study using zebrafish to assess the developmental and neurodevelopmental impact of potential toxins and pesticides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to inform safety guidelines for chemicals.
Waalkes is now focused on the interaction between chemicals and the nervous system to treat disorders of the central nervous system. When he found out he was accepted into the Ruby Fellowship program, he was ecstatic.
“Being a Ruby Fellow means it’s a challenge – it’s a recognition – and you’ve come this far, we recognize this, and we want you to meet these standards,” Waalkes said. “And I accept the challenge and hopefully exceed these standards.”
After completing his doctorate in biology, he hopes to continue his research while teaching others as a middle school science teacher.
“Learning new things always makes education exciting, and teaching the next generation is something that I’ve always enjoyed and wanted to pursue,” Waalkes said.
The charitable trust was established by Hazel Ruby McQuain, wife of the late J. W. Ruby. Before passing at 93 in 2002, she was involved in philanthropic giving to support WVU and local organizations for more than 20 years. One of her many gifts includes an $8 million gift toward the construction of J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, named after her husband.
CONTACT: Cassie Rice
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