Skip to main content

WVU students innovate and serve through unique research opportunities

A student looks down while working on a black robot surrounded by wires.

Clarus Goldsmith, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at WVU, works on a robot that mimics animal movements. (WVU Photo/Savanna Leech)

Download full-size

From robotics to maternal health to food insecurity, West Virginia University students — both undergraduate and graduate — are finding ways to make a difference in the lives of others while expanding their own future paths.

As WVU celebrates its sixth annual Research Week from April 1-5, many students have found purpose on campus through discovery and innovation.

“We would not be an R1 institution if not, in part, for the drive and determination of our student researchers,” Vice President for Research Fred King said. “Both undergraduate and graduate students at WVU are afforded hands-on experiences and opportunities that cannot be found at most universities in the country. The student research experience is truly one of our unique selling points, and that investment has yielded noticeable returns on developing experts and problem solvers that better the world.”

Familiarity breeds concepts
Embarking on unchartered territory is romanticized. But, often, taking the more practical, stable route is likely to ensure success, especially with the help of a familiar face.

For Clarus Goldsmith, it started at Case Western Reserve University. There, as a mechanical engineering junior, the Columbus, Ohio, native met and built a working partnership with Nicholas Szczecinski, an assistant professor at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. At the time, Szczecinski was wrapping up his doctoral program.

Together, they developed a robot called Drosophibot, a robot that’s roughly the size of a cat but moves like a fruit fly. When Drosophibot walks, it experiences forces in the same way a fruit fly does.

“A big part of what brought me to WVU was Nick,” said Goldsmith, now a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at WVU. “He got hired at WVU the same semester I was finishing my master’s and looking for PhD programs. Since I knew we worked together well and he had just been awarded an international grant, it made a lot of sense to come to WVU with him.”

Their collaborative efforts have continued at WVU, where Szczecinski builds and controls robots to mimic animals to study mechanics and nervous systems. Goldsmith has even developed a newer version of Drosophibot, aptly named Dropsophibot II, which is fully built and walking. It’s a ground-up redesign that taps into more recently available biological data. Goldsmith said the next steps will be to develop technology that gathers what kinds of sensory information the animal collects while walking.

“The fruit fly is an important animal model for neuroscientists,” Goldsmith said, “but there are still some experiments that are difficult-to-impossible to perform on fruit flies due to their small size. Drosophibot allows us to perform biologically informed experiments on the robot and get data that can be used to inform hypotheses about the animal.

“Currently, there’s a lot of unanswered questions about how nervous systems and brains perform tasks in general. By exploring how insects like the fruit fly control walking on robots, we can look at our findings together with data from other animals and, hopefully, piece together fundamental principles of walking across species.” 

Goldsmith said their research can be utilized to design robots that perform search and rescue, ecological surveying, and housekeeping, among other tasks.

“We could also use this increased understanding to design prosthetics or help with rehabilitation after nervous system injuries, and if we know what is necessary for different movements, we can more easily identify what might be missing or damaged.”

Goldsmith has worked on robots since high school and said what makes the research more compelling is that it blends engineering with biology.

“I often joke it’s a fitting place for me to be since I’m good at math and science and was also the kid who played with bugs and other creepy crawlies,” Goldsmith said.

“One of my favorite aspects of the research I’ve done with Nick is just how interdisciplinary the work is. We regularly collaborate with biologists and neuroscientists in addition to other engineers, and the differences in training and knowledge bases across these disciplines really highlights the beauty of collaboration in research.”

Goldsmith is currently eyeing the market for postdoctoral positions with the goal of ultimately becoming a faculty member with their own research lab.

A change of course
When Victoria Nist landed on WVU over The Ohio State University to pursue her future career as a veterinarian, little did she know she’d wind up researching toxicant exposure and its potential health effects on mothers and their children.

After she arrived at WVU, Nist received an email from the Office of Undergraduate Research informing her of the Research Apprenticeship Program, which allows any undergraduate student to gain course credit and federal work study funds by working with research faculty. Nist took up the offer.

“I absolutely fell in love with the research process,” said Nist, a student in the Honors College from Massillon, Ohio. “Over the course of my first two years, I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t want to be a vet. Maybe I’d rather be a researcher or scientist.’”

Nist conducted research with Heather Chaney, who’s since left WVU, at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. After Chaney’s departure, Nist needed to seek out a new research lab. At the recommendation of Chaney, she found her way across colleges to the WVU School of Medicine where she does research with Elizabeth Bowdridge, assistant professor of physiology, pharmacology and toxicology.

Nist, who will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in animal and nutritional sciences in May 2025, ultimately wants to enter a dual MD/PhD program.

She’s currently wrapping up a National Institutes of Health-funded project exploring the health effects of exposure to Nano-TiO2, a particulate found in common everyday products such as sunscreen, cosmetics, paint and even the ‘M’ on M&Ms and the ‘S’ on Skittles, Nist said.

But the levels of exposure from those items aren’t as hazardous as they are in factory and workplace settings, she said, which is the basis of her study.

“The occupational exposure — it’s more abundant in workplace situations,” Nist said. “Once the particulate matter is inhaled, it reaches the lungs. The particulates are so small they circulate throughout the body and can affect organs in different ways.”

Through studies with rat models, Nist has discovered Nano-TiO2 is an endocrine disruptor that affects pregnancy. The sizes of the litters are smaller in comparison to the norm. The exposure also results in more females being born, whereas litters are usually split 50-50 between genders. 

“They have decreased levels of estrogen and the genes that regulate estrogen are disrupted,” she said. “One of the biggest things is a decrease in vasculature to the uterus and other reproductive organs. This is why the litter doesn’t grow as big as they would.”

Nist noted rats and humans share similar hormonal regulation.

“Our lab’s goal is to explore the effects on women and their children, as it’s relevant to West Virginia considering the percentage of people who have worked in factories and may have bene exposed to the toxicant,” she said.

The impact doesn’t stop there in the family tree. Nist and fellow researchers have noticed the health disruptions pass on through the third generation.

With factories being more prominent in the early 1900s, toxicant exposure to those workers may be affecting their descendants today.

Nist has presented these findings at Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol as well as the national Society of Toxicology conference.

She’s also paying it forward as an undergraduate research ambassador giving advice to undergrads interested in research.

“It was something I couldn’t say ‘no’ to because of the impact undergraduate research has had on me,” Nist said. “I’ve not only worked with incredible faculty members but with students from different majors. Being a research ambassador allows me to give back to the University and encourage other undergraduates to pursue research that can make a difference.” 

Secure to serve
Growing up in a household of six in eastern Tennessee, Tiffany Strange remembers overhearing her parents talking anxiously about putting enough food on the table. As a young girl, Strange didn’t think much of it at the time.

Now she recognizes the reality of the situation. Her family, like many others in rural pockets of Appalachia to this day, fought to overcome food insecurity.

“I wasn’t really aware at the time of our food insecurity,” said Strange, a Newport, Tennessee, native. “We had food between my grandmother having a garden and my family canning. But looking back, I can remember my parents stressing about how they were going to make ends meet. We lived in what is now considered a food desert. The closest store was roughly 30 minutes away, with the exceptions of the infamous dollar stores in rural areas.” 

Right out of high school, Strange went to culinary school before embarking on a career as a pastry chef. She worked in various bakeries whipping up breads and sweet treats such as brownies, cookies and cheesecakes.

But six years into her career, she experienced a setback. Strange developed an allergy to cinnamon, an ingredient unavoidable in a bakery setting.

Ultimately, Strange decided to come to WVU as a nontraditional student, earning her bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and foods in 2023. She made a seamless jump to the master’s program in nutritional and food sciences, and was just one of 10 students to be awarded the Hazel Ruby McQuain Graduate Scholarship last year.

The scholarship program, administered by the Office of Graduate Education and Life, provides students who are committed to addressing the greatest needs of West Virginia and its residents with up to three years of financial support.

For her research, Strange has gone full circle by taking on the food insecurity problem in Appalachia, the very issue her family faced back in Tennessee.

“I want to be able to educate children and families to make healthier choices,” she said. “I also want to incorporate local farmers into this because then not only are people getting the benefits from locally sourced food items, but the farmers are also able to reap benefits to maintain or expand their farm and lifestyle. In the perfect world, there would be a steady income for farmers with food being economically feasible for families.”

Strange works with several nonprofit organizations focused on feeding children.

For her thesis, Strange is studying blueberries. Her research takes a three-pronged approach: How is climate change affecting the nutritional content of blueberries? How can blueberry leaves and pomace be used as a nutritional supplement? Can consuming blueberry leaves as tea or pomace in powdered form, like in baked goods, smoothies, etc., have health benefits?

“Education is one of the most powerful tools in a dietician’s toolkit on an individual or per-family level, but my childhood in rural Appalachia taught me that there are systemic factors at play as well.”

Editor’s note: The use of animals in this project was evaluated by the WVU Institutional Animal Care and Use Ethics Committee. WVU is voluntarily accredited by AAALAC, a national peer organization that establishes a global benchmark for animal well-being in science.



WVU Research Communications

Call 1-855-WVU-NEWS for the latest West Virginia University news and information from WVUToday.