Faculty at UVA and UVA-Wise are empowering one another to make a difference in Southwest Virginia.

In a time of increasingconsideration for the future of rural communities, academicpartnerships become an important tool for building economic development across the Commonwealth. UVA faculty are finding they need only to look within the UVA family, to UVA’s College at Wise, to realize a natural partner in addressing rural challenges and opportunities. UVA-Wise faculty are eager to share their work with colleagues in Charlottesville and to promote Appalachia as a precious resource for research and teaching. Both institutions have a role to play in creating conditions for economic prosperity, and with recent support from the Appalachian Prosperity Project (APP), two research teams in particular are getting to work.

Founded in 2007, APP is an academic-community-industryalliance that is working to address Southwest Virginia’s most pressing challenges. APP’s mission is to advance health, education, and economic prosperity in the region. 

APP awarded two $5,000 fellowships to enhance collaboration between UVA and UVA-Wise. Winning proposals focus on challenges and opportunities in Southwest Virginia with research teams comprised of faculty from both institutions. These inaugural fellowships came out of the April 2019 symposium, Profiles in Partnership: Discovery, Community, and Service in Appalachia, produced by the UVA Office of Economic Development in partnership with the UVA-Wise Office of Economic Development and Engagement.

Support from the UVA Bicentennial with funding from the Alumni Board of Trustees enabled the symposium’s planning team to not only award the fellowships, but also to create faculty connections in real time at the event, covering travel and lodging expenses for guests traveling from Wise.

Intended to serve as planning grants, the fellowships offersupport for time and travel to consider a project idea and follow-on proposals. Multiple departments came together to create the request for proposals and to evaluate submissions, with representation from both the Provost’s Office at both institutionsand the UVA Office of the Vice President for Research.

“I am enthusiastic about the collaborative work that will be carried out through the APP fellowships; intentional partnership between faculty from UVA and UVA-Wise is an important step in building our institutional partnership and our collective commitment to a bright future for Southwest Virginia, said Louis Nelson, Vice Provost for Academic Outreach at UVA.”

Opportunities like the APP fellowships give faculty a chance to discover one another, to conceptualize how we are stronger together, and to make a plan for future, high-impact research and collaboration.

It is exciting to see mutual interest in addressing challenges and opportunities for southwest Virginia at both institutions. The APP fellowships are a great opportunity for UVA-Wise faculty to bring research and ideas to the table that not only enhance outcomes and impact, but also benefit researchers at UVA, said Scott Bevins, Associate Provost for Information Services and Chief Information Officer at UVA-Wise.

The Fellowships:

Building Capacity: STEM Education in SWVA

One winning proposal, “Paving the Pathway to Appalachian Prosperity with Education Initiatives: Strengthening Existing Collaborations to Improve STEM Education and Learning,” will consider methods for broadening participation in STEM for K-12 students, especially within disadvantaged populations. Collaborators include Priscilla Brame, Associate Professor of Education at UVA-Wise; Frackson Mumba, Associate Professor of Science Education at UVA; and Josephine Rodriguez, Assistant Professor of Biology at UVA-Wise. The team will conduct a needs assessment of local schools in the Appalachian region and hold in-person meetings at UVA-Wise to develop two National Science Foundation grant submissions. Working groups will include additional UVA-Wise faculty as well as local partners.

“The inspiration for this project was the belief that our greatest resource is the collective talent and potential of our students and children. We are grateful for the APP Fellowship, which will fund preliminary data collection as well as working group meetings where we will discuss how we can improve STEM education in Southwest Virginia. The discussions and products of the working group meetings will provide a foundation for additional proposals in STEM education research to the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education to be submitted by the end of the year,” said Josephine Rodriguez, UVA-Wise faculty member and fellowship collaborator.

Spurring Economic Development through Botany

Another proposal, “Collaborative Efforts in Economic Botany: Capitalizing on Rich Botanical Resources and Heritage in Appalachia,” will focus on industrial hemp, non-timber forest products, and conservation of the extremely valuable oak familyto spur economic development. Collaborators include Bryan Berger, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at UVA; Ryan Huish, Assistant Professor of Biology at UVA-Wise; Manuel Lerdau, Professor of Environmental Science at UVA; and Michael Timko, Professor of Biology and Public Health Science at UVA.

Collaborators seek to develop niche markets for unique natural resources – industrial hemp, for example, could be a prime substitute for the dwindling tobacco industry in the region. Oak trees are an economically viable species, but multiple pathogenic diseases threaten their long-term health and conservation. Southwest Virginia is a hotspot for oak diversity that needs to be preserved, and the team’s collective expertise and equipment can strengthen efforts in prevention, early detection, and planning. Two federal grant proposals will be developed to continue oak conservation work.

Mike Timko, Bryan Berger, and I will be expanding our collaborations to include plant extraction techniques for compounds from hemp and native Appalachian medicinal and food plants that can be streamlined and incorporated into the community. Manuel Lerdau and I met during the Appalachian Prosperity Project Symposium in Charlottesville, where we were excited to learn that some of our research interests dovetailed. I am sincerely appreciative to the organizers of the Appalachian Prosperity Project for their foresight, faith, determination, and vision surrounding the great potentials here in Appalachia,” said Ryan Huish, UVA-Wise faculty member and fellowship collaborator.

Looking Ahead: Fostering Additional Research Collaborations

To continue to build out research infrastructure and encourage research collaborations between UVA and UVA-Wise, APP is hiring a Research Program Manager to build the capacity of the Healthy Appalachia Institute and to expand the research portfolio in Southwest Virginia. The hire will assist in creating meaningful, high-impact research projects in collaboration with resources at UVA. The position is aligned with objectives for the College at Wise to foster a greater impact on the region by growing public health and economic development resources.