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WVU announces recipients of 2023-24 Benedum Distinguished Scholar Awards

Benedum Distinguished Scholar Awards 2024

Three outstanding faculty members at West Virginia University have been selected as the 2023-24 Benedum Distinguished Scholars in recognition of their exceptional research and scholarly activity. 

Honorees include: 

  • Nina Assimakopoulos, associate professor of flute in the School of Music, College of Creative Arts;

  • Melissa Blank, associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences; and 

  • Sarah Burke-Spolaor, associate professor of astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

The Benedum Distinguished Scholars Awards, funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, are awarded annually to faculty engaged in “creative research” in as many as four categories: behavioral and social sciences, biosciences and health sciences, humanities and the arts, and physical sciences and technology. This year, exceptional scholars were identified in three of the four categories. 

“As in year’s past, this group of Benedum Distinguished Scholars is extraordinary,” Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed said. “These brilliant faculty members are changing the way we experience art, understand the universe, and protect our most vulnerable populations from health risks. They inspire their students and colleagues to push the boundaries of discovery and engage in work that matters.” 

Assimakopoulos is the recipient of the 2023-24 Benedum Distinguished Scholar Award in the Humanities and the Arts. She is known for her performance and recorded publication of new compositions and sonorities that showcase underrepresented composers, such as American women composers, and that uniquely combine classical music practices with flute works from music cultures around the world. Her efforts have resulted in more than 100 new works or world premiere recordings and performances, nine compact disc publications, and 206 solo performances. 

Assimakopoulos is internationally known for her contributions at the forefront of contemporary flute performance, including her works that exemplify contemporary non-traditional playing techniques called extended techniques. Her recordings in this emerging genre of modernist music encapsulate the entire range of extended techniques in use by flutists and composers. Her work is so significant that it has been selected for funding by prestigious grants, including two from the Aaron Copland Fund for New Music Recording. A recent album release, “Bending Light: Sonic Prisms for Solo Flute,” won two international awards — a Global Music Award and a Music and Stars Award — for best instrumentalist. Assimakopoulos has offered over 100 workshops and master classes to make these techniques globally accessible to flutists and composers. 

She is also a renowned international leader in the realm of multimedia performance and experimental composition using global flutes she makes from wood and works that blend improvisation, instruments made from organic matter, storytelling, and the use of eco-performance themes as points of entry. “The Legend of SkyWoman” encapsulates her unique compositional style and was recognized with a bronze medal for experimental music in the 2023 Global Music awards. Also included in this category of interdisciplinary and multimedia artistic experiences is her choreography of 20 works for flute performance and movement and her more recent eco-performance work — “Sonic Bloom: Breath, Branch, Song” and “Fallen Angels, Voices from the Forest” — that combine West Virginia field recordings and musical instruments that Assimakopoulos created with organic matter. 

Blank is recognized as the 2023-2024 Benedum Distinguished Scholar in Behavioral and Social Sciences for her significant research contributions to evaluating the relationship between electronic cigarette use and dependence among vulnerable populations of youth and young adults. In 2014, Blank began questioning and assessing whether these products have the potential to promote and maintain nicotine dependence in populations that tend to be otherwise naive to nicotine and/or tobacco. 

Over a span of 10 years and with $4.6 million in external funding as a principal investigator or co-investigator, Blank has focused much of her research on evaluating the interaction between e-cigarette design features and user behavior to understand the ability of these products to deliver nicotine. This work is vital for determining e-cigarettes’ efficacy as a smoking cessation tool. Blank also found that withdrawal symptoms for both cigarette and e-cigarettes/vape abstinence are very similar — and equally bad — and that dependence on e-cigarettes is different (i.e., more reinforcing) than dependence on nicotine patches or gum. In addition, her studies have established young adults using newer e-cigarette models more frequently have the highest dependence levels; that white, rural youth are the most likely to use e-cigarettes, and that many of those youth who start with e-cigarettes eventually smoke cigarettes. 

Blank has translated this research into 23 peer-reviewed publications in high impact journals in her field and is known for instilling rigorous research methods, dedication, and passion in her graduate students. She has also translated her research into practice in educational materials and prevention programs. For example, she is a contributing author on the 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on e-cigarette use, the first by a federal agency to comprehensively document the impact of e-cigarettes on the health of youth and young adults. In 2018-2019, she collaborated with the American Lung Association on developing the INDEPTH Program, an alternative option offered to students who face suspicion for violation of school policies banning tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes. Blank also consulted in 2020 with the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health Division of Tobacco Prevention to create a vaping toolkit and has given numerous community presentations on the dangers of vaping.

Burke-Spolaor is honored as the 2023-2024 Benedum Distinguished Scholar in Physical Sciences and Technologies. She is known nationally and internationally for her groundbreaking work on fast radio bursts and supermassive black hole binaries. SBHBs are the largest, most destructive objects in the universe, but their “darkness” makes it near impossible to find and study them using classic electromagnetic waves (i.e., light from material around black holes). SBHBs are important to find and understand due to their significant role in galaxy evolution and for the unknown, extreme physics that occurs within them. 

While the very first detection of gravitational radiation occurred in 2015, a different, longer gravitational wavelength is needed to locate black holes. Burke-Spolaor is a leading member of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, which uses a network of stars called “pulsars” distributed throughout our galaxy to detect small ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by the distant gravitational waves of SBHBs. Burke-Spolaor’s research in the field of low-frequency gravitational wave astrophysics has laid the foundation for the next generation of progress in pulsar timing array science and is paving the road to find the first SBHB in the near future.

Burke-Spolaor has been recognized for her work with a Jansky Fellowship, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholarship. She has authored or co-authored 83 refereed publications with over 18,000 citations, and as a principal investigator or co-investigator has secured over $20 million dollars in external funding. Burke-Spolaor led the formation of the Gravitational Wave Astrophysics Working Group within NANOGrav, has given 25 invited talks since 2018, and is regularly interviewed by leading media outlets such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. 

Each Benedum Distinguished Scholar will receive a $5,000 professional development honorarium. The scholars will be recognized during a faculty and staff awards reception at Blaney House in April and will be featured in next year’s Benedum Distinguished Scholars Showcase. Details about the event will be shared at a later date in MOUNTAINEER E-News.

Read more about these and other awards.