But since 2012, King’s influence has stretched beyond his own portfolio. Under his helm as vice president of research, West Virginia University attained R1 status (“very high research activity”), the most elite designation for research-focused institutions that includes the likes of Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins.
Here King talks about his life trajectory and what’s in store for research at WVU.
It sounds like your appreciation for science started early.
I remember in elementary school having assemblies in the cafeteria to watch the Mercury or Gemini rockets launching. It was a big deal. And I have various pictures of me as a child with my geology set or microscope. I asked my parents for a chemistry set for Christmas. They asked, ‘Is that really a good idea?’
For most of us who grew up in the 60s, science and engineering held a fascination. We aspired to be astronauts.
You became a leading expert in spectrometry. What exactly is that?
The area of chemistry I went into was analytical chemistry. Within that area, I worked in trace analysis. You can think of that as developing techniques to measure very, very small quantities of material. The two techniques I used were either optical spectroscopy or mass spectrometry. In the chemistry world, we have atoms and molecules. I worked on the atoms side of things. An example would be developing techniques that allow us to measure how much, let's say a rare earth element, was present in a large sample.
Beyond that, in mass spectrometry, you can not only measure how much there is of an element, but you can also measure how much of a given isotope is in that element. Elements exist in multiple forms. You might have between one to 10 isotopes and these things just have a slightly different atomic mass. With mass spectrometry, you can differentiate those things and that becomes important when you're working in the nuclear industry.
What led you to WVU?
I did my undergrad at James Madison University and got my PhD at the University of Virginia. I worked at the Naval Research Lab as a postdoc for two years and then came to WVU as an assistant professor in chemistry. The alternative path would've been working for a mass spectrometry company designing instruments out in the San Francisco area. I remember we were at our apartment when the earthquake hit San Francisco and my wife told me, "See you made the right decision.”
When I visited WVU for the first time, I knew it emphasized both research and undergraduate education. A lot of research universities don’t mix those two. Part of the reason I went into academia was not just to do the research but to also work with students and help them learn to appreciate and enjoy chemistry the way I had. The culture at WVU was a perfect fit.
What’s on the horizon for WVU as a research enterprise?
I always tell people that WVU is still evolving as a research university. The goal each year is to move further and further up. Certainly, during President Gee’s time here, we’ve accelerated that growth. That growth is also a function and reflective of the faculty and students.
We have robust graduate programs at the institution now and have grown significant reputations in the areas of astrophysics and neuroscience.
Thinking about energy, I see us pivoting towards sustainability. I see us growing a stronger research program looking at water quality issues. Those are important to the state of West Virginia. We'll continue to grow the health sciences. Data sciences is going to be very important, too, and will bridge over into engineering, business and other disciplines.
What we do has to have purpose at this university. That permeates the research culture.
Besides the chemistry set, what else led you into the field of chemistry?
I had an exceptionally good high school chemistry teacher. In my freshman year, I took both chemistry and biology, and at the time, the first course you had to take was zoology. That's a lot of dissection, memorization of bones and structures and things like that. And then you would go to the chemistry lab and really get to do things. It was more physical. It was really what you got to do in the lab that attracted me most to chemistry. As an undergraduate at James Madison, I got involved in doing undergraduate research. I had a work-study and was working in the prep room, preparing chemicals and things like that. That was fun.
Because you’ve been in a top administrative role, do you miss doing research?
I do. I haven't been in the lab in seven years and am probably rusty on my skills. But as much as I miss doing the research, I miss teaching freshman chemistry because that is the most interesting course to teach. The thing is, the longer you've been in higher education, the more you understand that the point of that course is to help people understand how science works. When you first start, you think, ‘Well, I've got to teach people all of these different chemical principles so they can take the next chemistry course and the course after that.’ When you look at the bigger world and where I am now, I think about that as, ‘No, what I'm trying to do in any kind of intro science course would be to improve scientific literacy so that students in that course, when they leave, that they have a better understanding of how science works, and what facts are, what theories are, and they can understand when people talk about scientific matters and understand how the world of science really works.’
How else do you see research evolving at West Virginia University?
Over in both engineering and the arts and sciences, there are groups that are increasingly engaged in space sciences areas like robotics and autonomous vehicles. That’s a huge area for us heading into the future. And when it comes to NASA funding, we do it very well. We’re right between Yale and Case Western Reserve University when it comes to NASA funding.
And what we do around space weather and small satellite development, that ties in nicely with the aerospace industry located in the central part of West Virginia.
What would you consider the most rewarding moments of your career thus far?
It's probably seeing what my former students have gone on to do and accomplish. Any of us who are faculty, that's what we treasure the most. You're seeing the successes that students have and the impact that the University has had on their lives. They're out there working, contributing to society and helping solve problems. I like to think it’s not just a function of their drive and abilities, but also what they learned when they were at West Virginia University. And that learning goes way beyond the classroom and way beyond the discipline that they're in.
Book: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Movie: Star Wars or Maltese Falcon
Music: The Beatles
TV show: Big Bang Theory
Place: Shenandoah Valley