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Cunningham recipients announced

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 10 - October 27, 1994

Seven individuals from around the country have received Virginia Tech's prestigious Cunningham Fellowship, which recognizes the students' outstanding credentials and potential as doctoral degree candidates.

The proceeds from an endowment from Virginia Tech alumnus George Cunningham and his wife Gladys combined with department and university resources provide up to ten $17,000-to-$20,000 fellowship packages each year. The fellowship is renewable for three years.

In an open competition, the university's academic departments submit the names of blue-ribbon students to whom they would like to offer a Cunningham Fellowship. This year's recipients and their majors are: Jon Blotter of Logan Cache, Utah, mechanical engineering; Katherine Gage of East Lansing, Mich., dairy science; Dwight Holland of Roanoke, Va., human factors engineering; Patricia Knight of Roanoke, Ala., horticulture; Matthew Lovern of Manassas, behavioral ecology; Steven Villers of Monongahela, Pa., ecology; and, David R. White of Alexandria, agricultural and applied economics.

Blotter's interest in engineering was influenced by several professors, while his decision to become a professor himself is a result of experience. As an undergraduate at Utah State, he taught accelerated courses in Spanish to pay his way through school. As a graduate student, he helped develop and instruct a new laboratory course at Utah. At Virginia Tech, he is a lab instructor. "I enjoy working with students," he explains. Blotter came to Virginia Tech to pursue his research interest. He is investigating the energy and power flow of vibrating structures. Tech is one of two universities that has laser scanning capabilities to make the study possible. The results of his research will benefit the area of structural dynamics.

Gage is interested in the area of breeding and genetics, with a focus on quantitative animal genetics. She is also interested in molecular genetics. Her research goal is to improve animal production through her with dairy cattle. As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, Gage developed a linear scoring system for type traits in Arabian horses based on the system already used in dairy herds. She wants to remain in research, either in industry or a university.

Holland's academic studies and career goal combine his interests in flying and medicine. With less than two years left in medical school at U.Va., he is taking a few years to earn a doctoral degree in human factors engineering. His eventual goal is to be an Air Force or NASA physician and to research and develop aerospace systems that will help pilots avoid crashes. He is receiving medical school research credit for his human factors studies. Holland is in the habit of doing more than one thing at a time. He has dual bachelor degrees in math and physics from Emory and Henry, and a master's degree in geophysics from Virginia Tech. He became interested in human engineering in the military while doing pilot training. Upon completion of pilot training, he returned to Virginia Tech for the master's degree in systems engineering, working full time at General Electric in Salem as a human factors and safety engineer. His specific research interest is long-duration space flight problems, and aviation safety issues. While a geophysics graduate student, he was part of a year-long Antarctic research expedition, and was awarded the Antarctica Service Medal for "valuable contributions to exploration and achievement." Holland says he became aware of group dynamics in that long-term, close-quarters, isolated situation. Space flight imposes much the same conditions. "Astronauts, despite being highly trained and selected, when faced with isolation and confinement, become hard to get along with," says Holland. "Group dynamics is an area we have to study." On the issue of safety, he points out, "80 percent of crashes are caused by pilot errors, which is why we have to study human factor issues." Holland has published 15 articles on aerospace medical and human factors topics, written two chapters in the textbook Ergonomics, and co-chaired panels at national meetings. He is a member of the Aerospace Medical Association, and the Human Factors Society. He is a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve with more than 1,600 hours of flight time in a variety of aircraft. Holland is a teaching assistant and active in student government.

Having grown up in her family's greenhouse business, Knight decided to study horticulture in college. But it was the demands of doing research that motivated her to continue her education. Her early research was on alternative sources of nitrogen fertilization during three methods of irrigation. She points out the importance of such studies in the light of growing concern over water quality and runoff from horticulture operations. She plans to do her doctoral research at Virginia Tech on plant stress physiology, and plant responses to water and nitrogen allocations. "The development of new technologies is vital if agriculture is to remain strong. That makes research a dynamic field that offers constant challenges," she says. Her goal is a career in horticulture research. Knight has already published research and placed first in two student competitions for her presentations of research papers.

Lovern's studies in biology allow him to pursue his interest in animal behavior and how it is influenced by environment and evolution. After earning his bachelor's degree in biology at Duke, he continued there for a year as a research associate in an animal studies lab, where work included studies of geographic variation in birdsong. His field work included finding swamp sparrow nests, and conducting song playbacks with song sparrows. Lovern's graduate work will be with a different creature. He will study with Thomas Jenssen, whose research is on the social behavior of free-ranging lizards. Lovern looks forward to a career as a university teacher and researcher.

Villers has been interested in natural-world science "since childhood," and would also like to study in behavioral and conservation ecology. His undergraduate degree is in biology, and master's degree in conservation biology at the University of Pennsylvania. As part of his studies, he served a six-month internship with the National Zoological Park, assisting with a white-tail deer study, and worked in Venezuela during a tropical field ecology course. At Virginia Tech, he will also work with biology professor Jenssen in the study of lizards. He will do a field study of "floater" males, those who fail to obtain territories. Although in the lab these males form social hierarchies with territorial males, shared territory does not appear to be the case in the field. "I believe that the only way one can hope to gain an accurate understanding of the behavior and ecology of an organism or population community is through studies in nature," Villers said. Villers was attracted to Virginia Tech by the abundance of potential field research sites.

White would like to be a natural-resources environmental economist and is particularly interested in natural-resource policy issues facing rural or developing areas. After earning a bachelor's degree in environmental science from the University of Virginia, White served with the Peace Corps as an inland fisheries volunteer with the Havasupai Indian Tribe in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He returned to earn a master of natural resource policy and master of public policy from the University of Michigan. After graduation, White was an analysis team leader and adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he worked on a water-resource management project for a year. For the last year, he has been a research associate at Virginia Tech conducting environmental economics research. He has published works on tax compliance, and on the difficulty of measuring the economic benefits of water pollution.