Chancellor Hill: Scientific discovery fuels minds, futures

This commentary appeared in the February 25, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

As a young boy growing up in rural West Virginia, I loved discovery. I was fascinated by the idea of putting two things together and getting something entirely new, how things worked and why frogs croaked in the spring. So I was drawn to science.

Scientific research is profoundly fascinating. Something starts as an idea, and with analytical powers, deep study and experimental creation, you end up with a problem solved, questions answered or a discovery made.

Students from across our state who are at the Capitol today understand how exciting that is. As part of the annual Undergraduate Research Day at the Legislature, they are showcasing research projects in areas ranging from biochemistry to geosciences.

For these students and young people across the state, we must continue making progress toward an economy fueled by innovation and discovery.

That’s why we are encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship through advancements like the Regional Technology Park in South Charleston and the I-79 Technology Park in North Central West Virginia — places where high-tech businesses converge with higher education, research and new opportunities.

We are supporting entrepreneurship by encouraging students to hone their business skills and building creative communities across West Virginia.

And under the leadership of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, West Virginia continues working to spur early interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), while also attracting investments in our state — investments that lead to new, high-tech careers and sustained economic growth.

To take full advantage of these burgeoning opportunities, we need young people with an innovative spirit. We need the students at the statehouse today and many, many more.

If West Virginia is to grow economically, then we need creative, strong minds to make it happen. And we must support those minds.

Our merit-based financial aid program, the PROMISE Scholarship, has done just that by providing more than $400 million to more than 35,000 West Virginia students from all 55 counties. West Virginia also offers the Engineering, Science and Technology Scholarship, which is available to qualified students interested in pursuing an education in these critical fields.

With all of our financial aid programs combined, West Virginia is 8th in the nation in aid provided to college students. That’s something I am very proud of, and something we absolutely must continue.

As a state, we also have invested in science and research activities that have resulted in celebrated progress at colleges and universities across our state.

These efforts were highlighted in 2008, when the State Legislature created the Research Trust Fund — better known as “Bucks for Brains” — which invested $50 million that doubled private gifts and has expanded research and infrastructure in areas linked to economic development, health care and job growth.

Our undergraduate researchers at the Capitol are carrying forward that great momentum. They represent what the future of our state can be — if we encourage them, support them and inspire more students like them.

If you are a student who aspires to scientific studies or careers, there are some important steps to consider.

First, take STEM courses in high school — and don’t shy away from the difficult ones. I’ve heard of some bright students who might avoid a course like calculus because it could affect their GPA. But it’s important to dig in at the highest levels so you’re ready for the demands of college.

Study broadly. Take chemistry, math courses, physics, biology. All of these areas and numerous more are increasingly interrelated. So if you have a strong, broad background, you’ll be prepared for what your future holds — and you might end up on a career path you didn’t expect.

Work collaboratively. Individual research is becoming shared research. Be prepared to work as a team — because big problems require the collaboration of a lot of people with big ideas.

And lastly, I’m sure other students, loved ones and friends look up to you and admire your dedication. That means you have a real opportunity to inspire them. Let them know that it’s cool to be smart. It’s something that you have to dedicate yourself strongly to, but it’s something you should embrace.

And it’s something you should be proud of.