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Record-breaking gift makes new West Virginia Wesleyan fellowship program possible

The campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon in the fall. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Wesleyan College received the largest one-time gift in its 130-year history for a new program aimed at students pursuing careers in science.

John F. McCuskey, an attorney and former justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, donated $1.5 million to West Virginia Wesleyan, a private liberal arts college in Buckhannon, to create the McCuskey Family Fellowship Program.

McCuskey, who earned a bachelor’s in mathematics and a minor in physics from Wesleyan in 1969 before earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and graduating from the West Virginia University College of Law, said he wanted to give back to his alma mater and help create the next generation of researchers.

“I want to give more incentives to Wesleyan to get the good students, and the students of promise, to go to a place like Wesleyan,” McCuskey said. “This is another opportunity that is going to be unique, that will attract students that otherwise might not be able to afford to go to Wesleyan, and for other reasons might not go.”

The McCuskey Family Fellowship Program is a summer paid research program. At least two freshmen and one sophomore will be chosen annually for the program.

John F. McCuskey

Prospective students must be involved in natural sciences programs with a focus on biology, chemistry and physics. Eligible students include residents located in Appalachia, minorities and persons of color, students with intellectual or physical disabilities and students who attended low-performing public high schools.

“This is wonderful. The significance of the fellowship cannot be overstated,” said Joel Thierstein, president of West Virginia Wesleyan. “The fellowship is a transformative moment in the life of the recipients. It will change their life going forward because it kind of accelerates their ability to think at a higher level. They’re now starting to think about primary research almost as a high school student coming forward. And that is amazing.”

McCuskey hopes the endowed fellowship will give students with research ideas opportunities, students who otherwise might not get the same opportunities to do similar research at larger public and private colleges and universities, to conduct research and make breakthroughs that further scientific understanding.

“This is going to be something that attracts graduate schools and those schools where these students are going to go next,” McCuskey said. “Those who decide to go to a graduate school rather than to go right into the workforce, they’re going to have a unique little star on their resume … that’s going to be unique that undergraduate schools don’t offer.

“You’ve already shown not only that you make good grades and that you have a good work ethic, but you’ve demonstrated that you have a passion for something in particular that the graduate school is going to benefit from,” McCuskey said.

The first Wesleyan students selected for the McCuskey Family Fellowship Program are: Abigail Bowe, a graduate of George Washington High School in Charleston majoring in biochemistry; Logan Nelson, a biology major from Wenatchee, Wash.; and John Rose, a graduate of the Linsly School in Wheeling majoring in physics and education.

“I am very excited to participate in the research program,” Rose said. “I’m very humbled as well. It’s kind of a dream come true in a way, so I’m very excited to begin the research process.”

Rose is working with Joseph Wiest, a physics professor at Wesleyan, on a research project to develop alternative rechargeable power sources for future NASA unmanned missions to planets in the solar system.

Rose has watched the recent Mars rover mission with great interest as NASA tests the first flight of an unmanned drone in the red planet’s thin atmosphere as part of the Perseverance mission. Rovers and other unmanned vehicles rely on solar panels to recharge, but Rose would like to research the possibility of capturing alpha particle-emitting isotopes to convert those isotopes into an energy source.

“I’m absolutely interested in studying more energy sources, and definitely interested in doing a little more research into the technologies behind the helicopter, especially because that new technology proves to be very promising for future missions and future surveys and future research,” Rose said.

West Virginia Wesleyan is partnered with NASA through the West Virginia NASA Space Grant Consortium. Wiest is a member of the board of the consortium. A number of Wesleyan graduates have gone on to careers in NASA, including Darrel Tenney, Tony Lindeman, Olivia Rycroft and Christopher Kuhl, chief engineer for the NASA Perseverance mission.

McCuskey said the first group of McCuskey Family Fellowship scholars were fantastic. He hopes to expand the fellowship later to other fields of study at West Virginia Wesleyan to help the next generation of graduates.

“These people were freshmen in college, and they’ve already done much more than me at that stage of my college life,” McCuskey said. “Wesleyan has always been a great feeder school to med schools, to nursing schools, and to other graduate schools, so I thought that’d be a good place to start the fellowship program. Wesleyan is already well-suited for the sciences.”

“We are honored, absolutely honored, to be the recipient of this tremendous gift,” Thierstein said. “This is … a testament to the kind of the way (McCuskey) lives his life that he wants to give back. This is a tremendous gift, not only to West Virginia Wesleyan college, but to the state of West Virginia.”

McCuskey is the co-founder and partner in Shuman, McCuskey and Slicer, a law firm with offices in Charleston, Morgantown and Winchester, Va. A native of Bridgeport, McCuskey served two terms in the West Virginia House of Delegates and was elected when he was still in law school.

McCuskey served as commissioner of finance and administration from 1985 to 1988 under the late Gov. Arch Moore. He was later appointed in 1998 to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court by Moore. McCuskey was defeated for the seat by Warren McGraw, serving until the end of 1998. McCuskey’s son, J.B. McCuskey, is in his second term as State Auditor.

Steve Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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