Discovering Appalachia Through Research

The Appalachian Institute admires the students at Wheeling Jesuit University that presented their scholarship into issues and projects that engage real questions for the region.  Research ranged from measuring the effects of coal and natural gas extraction to the prevalence of important local species.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Audra Macri, Ryan Schubert, Colt Street and Si Gammache, “Appalachian Institute Mapping Software.” Instructor Robert Kotson, Jr. mentored the project.
  • Sean Weaver, “A Study in the Movement and Propagation of Justicia Americana in Middle Wheeling Creek from 1995 to 2011.” Professor Dr. Ben Stout mentored the project.
  • Ronald B. O’Neil, “The Effectiveness of Buffer Zones to Mitigate the Impact of Longwall Mining on First Order Streams in Southern Ohio.” Professor Dr. Ben Stout mentored the project.
  • John Ruberg, “Establishing Baseline Water Quality for a Stream and a Spring.” Professor Dr. Ben Stout mentored the project.
  • Katlyn Marino, “A Comparison of Hellbender Microhabitat Data to Various West Virginia Watersheds Using a Geographic Information System and a Digital Elevation Model.” Professor Dr. Ken Rastall mentored the project.
  • Andrea Fitzgibbon, “Leaf Decay Coefficiants of Abnormally High Conductivity Streams in Southwestern Pennsylvania.” Professor Dr. Ben Stout mentored the project.

The Appalachian Institute also gave out its annual award for research that advances understanding in an issue specific to the Appalachian Region.  This year it was given to Andrea Fitzgibbon for her study on how measures of leaf decay reflect the impact of industrial processes on local ecosystems.  A copy of her abstract is attached.  A certificate of recognition was also given to the worthy team that presented on participatory mapping software.  This was the first group of recent history to have a project from a discipline other than natural science.

Discover past research projects here on our website and contact us if you are interested in your own project at ai@wju.edu .

ABSTRACT: Leaf Decay Coefficients of Abnormally High Conductivity Streams in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Fitzgibbon, 2012

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Immersed in Coal Country: University of San Francisco

By Allison Schaub, University of San Francisco

A small group of University of San Francisco students myself included and staff had the unique opportunity to visit Appalachia, an area rich in culture, beautiful landscapes and a shiny black rock called coal. We went on a weeklong trip to West Virginia through the USF Ministry Arrupe Immersion Program in order to gain a deeper understanding of the impact the coal industry has had on the region’s people and environment. We traveled across the state meeting with non-profits such as Coal River Mountain Watch who are working towards ending the state’s dependency on coal, a natural gas company called Chesapeake Energy, The West Virginia Coal Association and then ended the trip with a powerful visit to Kayford Mountain. Seeing a mountain and the surrounding ecosystems completely destroyed from mining and hearing the story of Larry Gibson, who calls the mountain his home, was a poignant culmination of our immersion.

Coal has been the biggest source of US energy for hundreds of years, but the way of obtaining it has changed drastically. Coal companies now use a type of mining called Mountain Top Removal. The tops of mountains are blasted off using explosives, leaving the coal seams exposed in order to be mined. While this type of mining is safer for the miners in comparison to the traditional underground method, the environment and people living in the area are being adversely affected and the industry has become more mechanized, therefore providing fewer jobs to the people of West Virginia. The blasted mountain or “overburden” are filling valleys, causing massive flooding across the state and forcing people to leave their homes. Those that aren’t forced to leave the areas that coal companies have moved into are exposed to an array of health risks, such as cancer and birth defects.

A message we continued to hear throughout the trip was that there is a strong love-hate relationship when it comes to the coal industry and the people of Appalachia. The state of West Virginia is stuck in a cycle of poverty because of the lack of job opportunities there. The United States is dependent on cheap energy and West Virginia is dependent on the coal industry. It is a complicated issue and we feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to obtain a deeper understanding of the energy problems our country is facing by connecting to people who have different views on the issue. It is imperative that we all need to be more knowledgeable about the effects of our energy consumption and take responsibility in making changes to create a future that doesn’t require the sacrifice of our environment and the people that live in it in order to turn the lights on.

Note from the Appalachian Institute: To learn more about the cycle of poverty in West Virginia and how people are breaking out of it, see this PBS Frontline article:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/countryboys/readings/duncan.html

West Virginia the Rich: Loyola University of Maryland

Since I’ve been back from our trip to West Virginia, I’ve been consumed with the question of what it means to be rich. On on our immersion trip, West Virginia was described many times as being the “richest and poorest state in the country”. This didn’t begin to make sense to me until I got home.

We learned that West Virginia is the greatest producer of coal energy, only second to Wyoming. Ninety-seven percent of its energy comes from coal, as well as the majority of the country receives energy sources from this state. Our nation would not be able to function, as it does today, without the resources extracted from Appalachia. In the same breath, West Virginia’s unemployment is consistently rising due to a great deal of mechanization. The divided counties are united when it comes to concern of growing poverty and unemployment and ultimate stability of their futures.


In this sense, yes, West Virginia can be seen as being both rich and poor. While discerning about my time spent and experiences of the past week, I’ve concluded that West Virginia is richer in so many other ways than the rest of the country is lacking.

Although this may be bold, I will go out on a ledge to say that West Virginia is home to the nicest people in the nation. These wonderful people not only invited us into their centers, seminars, and service sites, but also into their hearts. They answered every one of our typically blunt, curious, and personal questions about home, work, and their beliefs of energy sources were impacting their way of life, with educated and passionate responses. While usually being so rushed for time, our conversations were relaxed, engaged, and thoughtful. I learned what it to be joyful to live in homes that were filled with family relationships, tradition, and culture, rather than computers and televisions. The beautiful mountains that guarded their homes, as well as, the hollers that separated them, were as important to the West Virginians as the air we breathe.


We cannot begin to understand until we immerse ourselves in what we do not know. This vulnerability forced us to listen which in turn brought us understanding. The stories of both the county people and the big energy companies, were enlightening and inspiring because we now can share it with all of you. After one week, I am just beginning to see how much West Virginia has to offer. In the simplest terms, I unknowingly left a piece of my heart in those hollers.

By Kelley Dolan, Loyola University of Maryland

Heath Care in the Hollows: St. Louis University

By Kelsi
          When I first signed up for the trip to West Virginia, I was not entirely sure what we would be doing. Our group had a few preparatory meetings before leaving, and then one morning we met to load up our vans and eagerly set off on the nine hour car ride.
          Even that first night though left me with a lasting impression–we could see the sky full of constellations as we wound our way through the winding roads dotted with small homes and a babbling creek. The beauty was breath-taking. Still not knowing quite what to expect, we set off for Wheeling Jesuit for an orientation and to meet our trip coordinator. Before our lecture we attended a church service at the small chapel on campus–I think that was my first clue to how the trip would go. After mass parishioners eagerly sought us out and gave us advice or asked questions. With that advice we left for a delicious meal at a local diner before returning for the orientation. Unlike many lectures I have received, I was impressed by how engaging the presentation was. We learned about mountain-top removal, the mining industry, health issues in West Virginia, and the particular culture and charm of the Appalachian region.
          From that lecture onwards, our days were full of activity and learning. We visited Jackson General Hospital where we learned about health systems utilization and the patient population’s needs and assets from surgeons, physical therapists, CEOs, nurse practitioners, and physicians’ assistants. In Boone County we met with an administrator at the Department of Health and Human Services. We walked along mountain ridges after making our way up steep gravel roads to witness the effects of mountain-top removal. The Rock Lake Community Center where we stayed in South Charleston became home for us as we prepared nightly dinners, sang karaoke to the Backstreet Boys and Beyonce, played basketball past the point of visibility, and admired the night’s stars from the vastness of the quarry walls.
         But my two most memorable experiences involved really getting to know the heart of West Virginia: its people. On our second day we left for Wayne County to join a group of men from American Baptist who had devoted their time to disaster relief. When we arrived at the work site, we were all taken aback by the destruction of entire mountain sides. Trees littered road ways and crisscrossed backyards. We dove into our work after no more than a few sentences of direction. Not only did we work alongside the men, but we also worked with the homeowner herself. Ruby was so incredibly brave–she knew what had to be done and she did it. As we worked in camaraderie with the men and Ruby, easy conversation began to flow between us. We learned about how they’d devoted their life’s work to assisting others–even at the ripe ages of sixty and beyond–and how Ruby and her family had been born and raised in the same holler her entire life. The work and friendship created that day strengthened our own individual friendships and I know will have a lasting impact on each of us.
          My second experience came after a day of directing health education activities and volunteering at local after school programs conducted by the Patch 21 program. Our group had spent the day telling stories about hand-washing and chasing the plaque monster from teeth, and had finally ended the day’s activities with the rocking of infants and toddler play at a school in Ripley. I finally allowed myself to be dragged back to the vans and away from the little boy I had been goofing around with for the past few hours so that we could set out to Fairplain Union Church for a dinner reception and some genuine bluegrass music. Immediately upon arriving we were graciously greeted by Debbie who vigorously shook our hands, asked for names, and led us into meal lines and the rest of the community gathering. After loading my plate with delicious lasagna and a cheesy potato casserole, I found a seat with a few group mates and some of the kids from the community. There I met Noah and Taylor; I was so impressed by all of the kids and their willingness to speak with complete strangers let alone strangers who weren’t even their own age. We talked about school, sports, and books and learned what they liked to do for fun. I watched gymnastic feats and listened to them tease each other.
          Everyone gathered in the church itself for a performance from a local bluegrass band. The setting could not have been more perfect: the church was intimate with both community members and the rest of our group interspersed in the pews and the valley’s evening light streaming in from the windows. I swayed and bobbed my head as I remarked on the sublimeness of the evening to my friend Sara. When the music stopped no one left. Instead our trip coordinator’s father got up and spoke shortly before Debbie jumped in with promises of more music from one of the community members, Crystal. Crystal’s song was so beautiful, but even more impressive for me was her son’s, Noah’s, rendition of the song “Lead Me”. An eleven year-old boy got up on the parish stage and sang beautifully, completely alone to strangers who an hour or so before he had never met. Filled with good food, good conversation, and the evening’s entertainment we made conversation with the pastor, parishioners, and band before leaving. As the light turned to dark we finally progressed our way towards the back of the church giving hugs, handshakes, and warm thank yous to our hosts. We loaded our buses, but not before Debbie hurried our way with offerings of leftovers and a few last stories.
          Those two experiences left me with such a lasting impression of the warmth and community of West Virginians that was continued throughout our experiences. Everywhere we went we were received kindly and with enthusiasm. I am so thankful for the opportunities I had to meet with and engage in the community and to the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit for their help coordinating our trip. I am especially grateful to all the new friends we met and made, because they are the ones who made this trip special for us. Thank you all. The trip is not one I will ever forget.

Boston College Mingo County Service Immersion 3/4/12–3/9/12

Boston College is finishing up their week long immersion trip to Matewan, WV in Mingo County. Check out these two great blog entries written by BC students!

Lisa Bevilacqua: Wednesday

Before we arrived in Matewan, West Virginia, we did not know much about the Appalachian culture or how we would be spending our week. We knew that religion plays a big part in people’s lives here, and we got to experience this first-hand tonight when we attended a Bible study just down the road from the community center that has been our home for the past few days. We arrived late to the Bible study, but the half-hour we spent there had a big impact on us and our understanding of the religious values of the region. Everyone’s opinions were accepted in the service, and people were encouraged to ask questions and share any comments that came to mind during it. At the end of the service, we were lucky enough to join the community in song. Afterward, many of the people seated around us welcomed us and told us how glad they were that we had come to visit and take part in their Bible study. We were surprised that we were the ones being thanked, because we were so grateful to have been welcomed into such a private part of their lives. The experience gave us new insight into an aspect of the community that we hadn’t yet seen. Even though our faiths are slightly different, we found that we could still relate to the discussion and appreciate the messages that were being conveyed. We’ve really enjoyed all the time we’ve spent here in Matewan so far, but going to the Bible study helped us to truly understand the values of the Appalachian culture.

Melissa Donaher: Friday wrap-up

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect coming into the Matewan trip.  I had done a service trip in the past but it had not been very immersive and was more about ‘fixing” the community than being one with them.  This trip was truly one of solidarity, which allowed us to get to better understand both the inspiring and devastating aspects of the Appalachian culture.

One of my most distinct memories was talking with Smoothie on the first day about his life, especially hearing about all the struggles and violence he experienced in his youth and how they shaped his current outlook on the world.  He really wanted to impart some of his wisdom onto us, a common theme in talking with everyone we encountered.  What I took most from this experience was just learning about about the daily lives of Smoothie and the people he described.  It is one thing to listen to people talk about the Appalachia region or read about it but it a much more meaningful experience to  hear and see a firsthand account.   I know that Smoothie and all of his crazy stories are what will stick with me most when I return to my everyday life and inspire me to act with greater purpose and thought with regard to this region than I ever would have before coming to Matewan and meeting all these incredible people.

Hill Hunger

Hill Hunger
I think that something in the hill child dies
when he is taken to the level lands;
A man bred by the ocean understands,
and he will tell you that his sick heart sighs
For hiss of surf: and all his being cries
for roar of waves and spray upon his hands.
Ever beneath his weary feet the sands,
ever a sail before his searching eyes.
And so, I think the hill child always sees
that broken line inked in against the skies,
Where saffron sunset drops to meet the trees
upon the hilltop and the nighthawk flies,
And when his mind cannot recapture these
I think that something in the hill child dies.
— Lillian Mayfield Roberts