By Tim Hayes

Just over the state line, a few miles further south, one finds Morgantown, West Virginia, home to West Virginia University (WVU). The University has become a hotbed of research and innovation, geared toward solving practical issues and problems. Here is just a taste of the outstanding work occurring there.

Latest Grant Creates John Chambers College of Business and Economics

John Chambers
Chambers, former CEO and Chairman of Cisco Systems Inc., and founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures

In a unique agreement that will provide WVU significant financial and intellectual resources, Silicon Valley visionary John Chambers announced a gift of time, talent and treasure to support a recently announced start-up engine at the College of Business and Economics. In addition to the announcement of his support, WVU also announced that the college of business will be renamed in his honor, and will be known as the John Chambers College of Business and Economics – as of November 9, 2018.

“I’ve always believed in the power of education, but we need to reinvent our schools for a new, digital era. I’m betting on the Mountaineers and believe my home state can become a startup state if the university, business and public sectors come together to support transformative innovation,” said Chambers, former CEO and Chairman of Cisco Systems Inc., and founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures, a native of Charleston and a two-time WVU alumnus. The start-up engine will support business development, innovation and investment in West Virginia.

Chambers’ gift will include financial support to:

  • Build out and operate the start-up engine.
  • Create a philanthropic venture capital fund in support of the project.
  • Create a Center for Artificial Intelligence Management to explore AI’s opportunities and challenges.
  • Establish a fund to support the creation of the Center for AI Management.

AI Combats Opioid Addiction

Yanfang (Fanny) Ye, WVU assistant professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, recently was awarded a $1 million three-year grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop novel artificial intelligence techniques to combat opioid addiction, one of the largest and deadliest epidemics in the U.S.

“As of today, we still lack deep insight into the online ecosystem of opioid trafficking,” said Ye. “In addition to off-line data, utilizing AI technologies to obtain knowledge and recognize patterns from online data across the darknet and surface net could provide valuable investigative leads, which might greatly facilitate law enforcement’s ability to prevent, respond to and disrupt opioid trafficking networks.”

As part of the grant, Ye, in collaboration with Xin Li, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, will design and develop new AI technologies to automate the analysis of large-scale surface net and darknet data to provide timely investigative leads to law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to combat opioid trafficking.

WVU offers both undergraduate and graduate academic programs in cybersecurity, working in collaboration with the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the John Chambers College of Business and Economics to prepare students from many fields to pursue cybersecurity careers in government and industry. Ye and her collaborators recently received the prestigious Challenge Problem Winner award in the Artificial Intelligence for Cyber Security Workshop (AICS 2019). By emphasizing the research and application of techniques to attack and defend machine learning systems or adversarial learning, Ye’s report, “Enhancing Robustness of Deep Neural Networks against Adversarial Malware Samples” earned top honors.

Researchers Win Recognition for Composite Systems

For the second consecutive year, WVU researchers have won recognition from the Composites and Advanced Materials Expo. Hota GangaRao, the Maurice and JoAnn Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at WVU, and doctoral candidate Praveen Majjigapu, won the Most Creative Application Award in the design category for their patented NextGen Multifunctional Composite System.

The system is a three-piece invention consisting of filler modules — wedge-like parts made to certain specifications — reinforcing dowels and composite materials allowing buildings and bridges to resist heavier loads and providing a significant amount of shock absorption as well as moisture and fire resistance. The patented system will increase the strength and endurance of structures in earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other large blasts, helping communities prevent catastrophe. The system is also beneficial for repairing historic or aging structures.

Tests have shown that the multifunctional composite system can absorb at least five times more energy than unfortified structures.

“This system can economically refurbish at about one percent of replacement cost thousands of buildings in California and elsewhere without ripping and replacing,” said GangaRao, “thus reducing the $2 trillion infrastructure funding gap.”

RNI Tackles Tough Public Health Threats

The WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI) is leveraging cutting-edge technologies and strategic partnerships to help overcome society’s most persistent public health threats – including opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – while optimizing performance, resiliency, and recovery for elite athletes, the military and patient populations. Led by Ali Rezai, MD, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists and neurosurgeons, the RNI’s efforts are driven by connectivity and strategic integration. Some recent successes:

  • Last October, a multidisciplinary team at the RNI made history by performing the first procedure in the world of a phase II trial using focused ultrasound to reversibly open the blood-brain barrier to treat early stage Alzheimer’s.
  • As part of a commitment to battle opioid addiction, the RNI marked a major milestone in November by enrolling the first patient in a randomized phase III clinical trial that will test the effectiveness of an injectable non-opioid, non-steroid micropellet to treat sciatica.
  • Cure or dramatic improvement of a patient’s epilepsy is now possible at the RNI, with a new minimally invasive therapy. In November, surgeons performed the state’s first laser interstitial thermal therapy procedure for drug-resistant epilepsy caused by focal seizures.
  • This May, the RNI will celebrate the launch of its new state-of-the-art facility, the Center for Innovation. The following day, the RNI will hold an inaugural summit, bringing together scientists and partners from industry, academia, and government to discuss some of the latest advances in neuroscience.

Researching the Impact of Intense Weather Events

Antar Jutla, WVU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Statler College, will partner with the University of Maryland to study how intense weather events in the Chesapeake Bay affect the ecology of pathogenic Vibrio bacteria, a food-borne infection associated with eating undercooked seafood. This work is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year. Since Vibrios cannot be eradicated from the Chesapeake Bay, the development of predictive models based on conditions favoring their survival in the marine environment will inform policies to protect public health.

Jutla also is part of a British-led humanitarian team working to predict and prevent a major outbreak of cholera in Yemen. Cholera is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium called Vibrio cholera. The CDC estimates more than 2.9 million cases of cholera occur annually worldwide, causing approximately 95,000 deaths.

Last year, Yemen suffered the worst cholera outbreak in its history with more than 1 million suspected cases. Starting in March 2018, DFID began using this data to work with UNICEF to prevent the spread of the disease ahead of the rainy season. This allowed for the targeted delivery of such items as hygiene kits, clean water, cholera treatment kits and medical equipment to areas predicted to be at greatest risk, an effort that has yielded positive results to date.

To learn more about research and other partnership opportunities with West Virginia University, please contact Jack Thompson at jack.thompson1@mail.wvu.edu.

Tim Hayes is a Pittsburgh-based communications veteran offering expert writing services and presentation skills coaching. tim@timothy-hayes.com.