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Solving for the real world

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WRITTEN BY DIANA MAZZELLA
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KALLIE NEALIS

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On a Friday last October, West Virginia University tried something new.

Researchers from across campus crowded into the sleek Media Innovation Center with coffee in hand curious and committed to nearly 36 hours of working together with some people they knew and a lot of others they did not. Provost Maryanne Reed stood at a lectern to kick off a hackathon — the kind of challenge found in Silicon Valley. A pot of more than $400,000 from the Office of the Provost, Health Sciences and the WVU Research Office, along with gifts from private donors, including Natalie and Wes Bush who sponsored the event itself, would be divided among three winning ideas targeting major social problems. 


The Academic Innovation Summit was the sort of event where you think about all that could go wrong. How can a handful of people — engineers, economists, artists, social workers, nurses — develop an idea in less than two days and put it into practice? 


woman in bright fucsia

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed


“If you’ve never participated in a hackathon, you may be feeling a little uncertain about what to expect today,” Reed said at the start of the event. “And that’s okay. It’s good to feel a little unsettled because we are taking you by design out of your familiar environment and into a place and space that encourages creativity and collaboration.” 


Reed said that the event was partly inspired by the speed and innovation demonstrated by the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


“We believe that we can find solutions to any problem if we bring that same focus and effort to the task at hand,” she said. 


There are lots of problems in the world to choose from, but the competition focused on five that were particularly pertinent to our state and the Appalachian region: the future of addiction and recovery, the future of aging, the future of the West Virginia economy, the future of energy and sustainability, and the future of education in K-12 and universities. 


Kristi Wood-Turner, assistant dean of community engagement, was there that day. She had seen hackathons in action. WVU has hosted events like these before, generally for students, starting around 2014 when the Reed College of Media co-hosted its first in a series of national hackathons that challenged students in concentrated time period to design new uses for emerging technologies, such as wearables, mixed reality and AI. 


“I was a judge a few times when they did the hackathons for students,” she said. “And I always felt like, ‘Wow, I feel so bad for them — 24 hours.’ And then of course I flopped roles, and here I am the participant. And I can see how hard those decisions are. And I actually could see the tiredness coming across everybody’s face towards the end of this session.” 


During this event, she was in the higher education group with Director of the Center for Resilient Communities Bradley Wilson, Assistant Director of Digital Marketing Technology Dave Olsen, Reed College of Media Teaching Assistant Professor David Smith and School of Pharmacy Clinical Professor Gina Baugh. 


“Imagine five totally different people coming up with one solid project that actually could work very well to increase retention and recruitment and purpose of students,” she said. 


Their group developed an idea called the Community Engagement Collaborative to support Pell-grant eligible students — linked to low socio-economic status — with grants to create and deploy community engagement projects, charging their own future careers and helping local communities. 


By Saturday morning, the 10 teams had researched and developed their concepts, practiced their presentations and were now ready to pitch. They each had 10 minutes followed by pointed questions from the judges. 


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Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and coordinator of mental health and addiction studies


The first pitch started with Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and coordinator of mental health and addiction studies, shifting the tone in the room immediately to deadly serious. 


“There’s a new using phenomenon called wasping,” she said. “You probably haven’t heard of it. It involves spraying Raid on a piece of screen, hooking the screen to a car battery to pass an electrical charge to bake and somehow chemically transform the Raid into a crystal. The crystal is then scraped or tapped off of the screen onto a piece of paper, collected and smoked or cooked and injected.” 


“So the drug problem continues. And as many of you may know, we’ve played whack-a-mole with it a long time. There’s always a new drug.” 


Tack’s group was charged with developing a treatment solution as part of the future of addiction challenge. The team’s proposal was for funds to support a mobile substance use disorder assessment unit. Their plan included deployment of the unit to areas where patients lack transportation and face barriers to healthcare. Specifically, they targeted three rural West Virginia counties facing high rates of substance use — McDowell, Mercer and Wyoming. 


Another team proposed providing the overdose inhibitor naloxone and information on how to use it. 


Other teams tackled various topics with innovative approaches, including how to address clean drinking water and wastewater remediation. Proposals also focused on mapping of clean energy opportunities in the state, mentoring teachers and attracting college students into teaching programs, as well as the creation of a center to grow the workforce serving older adults and helping students adapt to remote careers in West Virginia. 


Kirk Wilhelmsen, professor and chief of cognitive neurology in the School of Medicine, started pitching his group’s proposal on the Visiting Neighbor Program, a preventive measure to train seniors to help ward off the disease of loneliness in other senior citizens. 


“I often tell my patients a story of one of my patients in North Carolina,” Wilhelmsen said. “She was a recent widow. It was the start of the pandemic, and she thought she was losing it. 


“And I told her, ‘You know, the phone still works. You need to call people.’ She did me one much better. She started the 11 o’clock club. At 11 o’clock, seven ladies dragged their chairs out in a cul-de-sac and socially distanced and got to know each other. And it turns out she was much better the next time I saw her. It was profound.” 


The researchers often know what is going wrong. They’re just in need of opportunities to put solutions into practice on a broad scale. 


Another group was looking at using technology to support agriculture on small farms across the state through the SmartAg WV Program. John Saldanha, Sears Chair in Global Supply Chain Management and associate professor, said that his team’s idea starts by assessing the needs and feasibility of farms in the state and looking at the potential uses of robotic technology developed in the lab of engineering Associate Professor Yu Gu, where software is enabling robots to identify plants and help pollinate blueberries. 


“I don’t think anybody ever thought about this before we were all in the room together,” Saldanha said. “I think the innovation summit helped create that critical mass of people who maybe had the same idea, and brought us together to actually verbalize and realize concepts that were until that point aspirational, giving us a chance to work on, and develop those concepts more fully.” 


His teammate Matt Wilson, associate dean of research and professor of reproductive physiology in the Davis College, said that often in farming there is not a holistic approach. 


“I think that’s a real value that we’re trying to bring is coming at it from multiple disciplines that try to assess not only what’s feasible, but if that’s what you’re going to do, what are the other things you need to know? What is the approach? Where is there a market? As opposed to just growing tomatoes really well.” 


By Saturday afternoon, it was time to announce the groups that were funded. 


Among them, the Community Engagement Collaborative, followed by the SmartAg WV Program, and the Visiting Neighbor Program, which will train senior citizens in sample communities to “visit” elderly neighbors to provide companionship, educate seniors on healthy lifestyle choices and connect them to helpful resources in the community and online. 


man at microphone

Clay Marsh, Chancellor and Executive Dean for Health Sciences


“These are real opportunities and not just opportunities for academic growth 

for us,” said Clay Marsh, Chancellor and Executive Dean for Health Sciences, who helped judge the event. “But they’re opportunities for us to be a place that’s a real-world problem-solving place that starts to find answers that we can democratize for the rest of the world.” 


After the summit, the Provost’s Office offered mini-grants of up to $10,000 to teams that were not awarded funding at the event but wanted to reorganize their proposals and move their project forward. Several teams applied for the grants and were funded, including one designed to support graduating seniors who take remote work positions and stay in Morgantown. 


Sarah Glenn, associate director of the Center for Career Development at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, is heading First Ascent. 


Students would be mentored in working remotely effectively for a rewarding and successful career, participate in WVU’s remote worker certification course and get connected to the Ascend WV remote worker community in Morgantown. The first group is being recruited for this summer and fall. She believes this program could grow more opportunities for future WVU students. 


“Let’s say we have a student in marketing who lands in a remote position with a really cool company from Austin, and they’re able to perform well on the job in that first year,” Glenn said. “That’s another organization who’s going to be actively seeking out talent from WVU.” 


Reed hopes to make this event a regular tradition at WVU, adding, “one of the biggest takeaways is that magic happens when you bring creative people together across disciplines and inspire them to dream big.” 


Learn more: Generating the next big ideas for WVU.