Inspiring West Virginians

West Virginia Public Broadcasting proudly presented the 2016 Inspiring West Virginians radio documentary December 21 at 8pm, with encores on Dec. 30 and Jan. 2 at 1pm. 

This year's one-hour program completes the very popular 7-year series.

Inspiring West Virginians tells the stories of West Virginians who are exceptional leaders in science and business. We visit them where they are, learn about what they do, hear stories of their childhoods and the influence of a West Virginia upbringing.  Added to that are the perspectives of friends, relatives and colleagues.  

Coming from small towns or modest means, they’ve all overcome hardships and hurdles on their way to the top of their fields.

These individuals credit their Mountain State upbringing and the values they were taught here as factors in their achievements. In return, they’re giving back to their home state in various ways.

Don't miss listening to these Inspiring West Virginians in the 2016 broadcast!

Dan Carder, Emissions Engineer

Dan's is a “David & Goliath” story – about how the 46 year old West Virginia engineer led a small team at West Virginia University that discovered the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer, Volkswagen, had a cheating device on their diesel vehicles.  It’s one of the biggest scandals in automobile history.  Carder, a WVU graduate and mechanical engineer, runs the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (known as CAFEE) at West Virginia University.  The Center developed the world's first mobile on-board emission testing system, which led to detecting VW’s effort to intentionally deceive its customers.  Dan Carder grew up in Mineral Wells, in Wood County, tinkering with cars and engines.  We visit his childhood home and meet his mother.  In Morgantown, we discover first-hand how the CAFEE research and testing facilities are continuing to make a difference on a world stage. In fact, Carder was named to TIME’s 2016 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.   We’ll also hear from WVU President Gordon Gee on the impact that Carder’s work has had on the university, the state and the nation.

Emissions Engineer Dan Carder of Mineral Wells, WV is named to TIME's 2016 list of World's 100 Most Influential People.
Credit Jean Snedegar

Justin Ellis, Astrophysicist

One of the fastest growing fields in astrophysics is gravitational waves – those ripples in space first predicted by Albert Einstein back in 1915.   A hundred years later, in September 2015, they were first detected by ultra-sensitive lasers. But others are searching with pulsars. Once detected, gravitational waves will lead to a revolution in astrophysics and astronomy – rather than looking at the universe, scientists will also be listening to it.  Among the small team of scientists worldwide looking for gravitational waves using pulsars is Justin Ellis, 30, from Jefferson County, WV.  He’s an unlikely science star.  Until Ellis went to college, his main interest in life was racing dirt bikes, which he did ALL the time, and won numerous Motocross competitions. Then in his freshmen year of college at Shepherd University he had a science professor who inspired him, who completely changed Justin’s life and direction.   Ten years later, Ellis won one of the world’s most prestigious fellowships in science – NASA’s Einstein Fellowship.   Justin shows us around NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and takes us to the Mission Control Room, from where many of the world’s satellites are managed.  We also go to nearby Caltech, where he works with a small team of colleagues, who call him “brilliant” and “Sherlock Holmes-like” in his determination to find the solution to a very difficult problem.  Justin also takes us to his family home in rural Jefferson County, WV to meet his parents.  And finally, we meet the professor at Shepherd University who sparked Justin’s interest in science, Jason Best.

30-year-old astrophysicist Justin Ellis of Jefferson County, WV is recipient of one of the most prestigious fellowships in science - NASA's Einstein Fellowship.
Credit Jean Snedegar

Ken Allman, Entrepreneur

This is the story of an entrepreneur who brought his business back to West Virginia, and in the process, is transforming his hometown, and inspiring the whole state.  In 1995 – when the internet was still in its infancy – Ken Allman, a young man from Hinton, WV, started an online business in his one-bedroom apartment in St Louis, Missouri.  The business was designed to become a link between physicians looking for a new position, and hospitals and other facilities looking for medical staff.  Four years later, Allman, now 54, moved the headquarters of his growing business back to his hometown in Summers County, and soon after was employing more than 20 local people.  Today PracticeLink, still headquartered in Hinton, is the nation’s largest online physician job bank, a vital link in recruiting thousands of doctors to hospitals, medical groups, healthcare systems, academic institutions, government agencies and the military.  But Allman didn’t stop there.  In order to serve the needs of his growing business, he and a team of people in Hinton began restoring nearby historic buildings - an inn and guesthouse, a restaurant, a movie theater that could double as a venue for conferences, and more.  Today that company, MountainPlex Properties, manages 20 buildings in Historic Hinton, and its efforts have sparked a rebirth of this railroad town.  We meet Ken Allman in his PracticeLink headquarters in Hinton, visit some of the buildings that have been restored to their former glory, and meet his mother, sister and childhood friends along the way. 

Businessman Ken Allman operates the nation's largest business of its kind - in his hometown of Hinton, WV.
Credit Jean Snedegar


Producer/Host Jean Snedegar of Elkins has profiled more than 2 dozen of these innovators from West Virginia throughout the course of the series, beginning in 2010. She's traveled from Washington State to Washington, D.C., down country roads in McDowell County to a farm in Berkeley County.

“West Virginia has produced an amazing array of world-class scientists, engineers and business people, and their stories are part of the rich tapestry of this state,” said Snedegar. “I hope their journeys inspire people from all walks of life, but especially students who may say to themselves, ‘If that person can do it, so can I!’”


- In December 2014, we featured four incredibly inspirational leaders in the Season 5 one-hour radio documentary. Click the player below to listen to the program. 

This West Virginia Public Broadcasting radio series is produced and presented by Jean Snedegar, an independent producer based in Elkins, and Suzanne Higgins, Executive Producer for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The series is made possible by the generous support of the Myles Family Foundation – inspiring West Virginians to soar.

Verna Gibson, first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company
Jean Snedegar

Verna LeMasters Gibson, a native of Elkview in Kanawha County, broke the ultimate corporate “glass ceiling” in 1985 when she became the first woman CEO to earn the top spot at a Fortune 500 company, The Limited Stores.  She ran The Limited for six years and during that time it became the nation’s first billion dollar specialty retailing chain. 

Mark Williams, "Mr. Fuel Cell"
Jean Snedegar

Randolph County native Mark Williams is a visionary engineer and scientist who was the first person to see the commercial potential of fuel cells to run everything from heart pacemakers to power plants. 

Judy Sheppard, a dynamic West Virginia entrepreneur
Jean Snedegar

  Judy Sheppard is currently West Virginia’s most honored businesswoman and entrepreneur.  In 2011 she was named the state’s Small Business Person of the Year as well as Distinguished West Virginian of the Year.  Sheppard is founder, president and CEO of Professional Services of America, Inc, a multi-million dollar business based in Parkersburg.   With more than 200 employees, PSA, as it’s known, provides services for some of America’s largest corporations – DuPont, GE, Pepsico, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Mylan Pharmaceuticals and others – as well as 32 government agencies.

Dr. Lewis Cantley opened up entirely new fields in cell biology and cancer treatment.
Jean Snedegar

Back in 1985 Dr. Lewis Cantley, a native of Big Chimney in Kanawha County, discovered an enzyme called PI3-Kinase.  At the time his scientific colleagues thought he couldn’t be right.  How could a chemist discover something so fundamental to biology?

Kim Weaver - Global Pioneer in X-ray Astronomy
Jean Snedegar

When Kim Weaver looked up at the stars from her father’s campground in Monongalia County, she was inspired to find out what was out there.  By her early 20s, this WVU graduate had already discovered a galaxy.  She was also among the first scientists in the world to study Black Holes, using an X-ray telescope built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Her discoveries helped to launch whole new fields of astronomy.

Homer Hickam - Rocket Boy, NASA aerospace engineer, writer
Jean Snedegar

McDowell County native Homer Hickam, Jr. is best known for his book Rocket Boys, the story of how six teenagers in a 1950s West Virginia coal company town went on to win the National Science Fair in 1960.   One night in October 1957, Hickam’s life changed forever when the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 – the world’s first artificial earth satellite – flew over his hometown of Coalwood.

“I knew at that moment that somehow, some way, I wanted to be involved in this movement into space.”

The fourth series of Inspiring West Virginians  features one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, John Forbes Nash, Jr, a 1994 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Nash grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, and the town still holds an importance for him. Now 84, John Nash is currently a Senior Research Mathematician at Princeton University in New Jersey. 


Inspiring West Virginian, bio-engineer Linda Powers
Jean Snedegar

Bio-safety-level-2 laboratories in the Bio5 Building at the University of Arizona Medical School is where Linda Powers has designed and built several impressive and important scientific instruments.

“Here we handle microbes that can make you sick, but generally not kill you,” said Powers on a recent tour.

But the 64-year-old Beckley native, now the Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Professor of Bio-Engineering at the University of Arizona, does handle microbes that can kill you.

Rodney Bartgis 2013 Inspiring West Virginain
Jean Snedegar

Fifty-four-year-old Rodney Bartgis, state director of the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, stood atop Cave Mountain in Pendleton County, an elevation of 2,777 feet.

“It almost looks like the Rocky Mountains,” said Bartgis. “This is the biggest uplift of limestone in the eastern mountains of the United States, and a lot of the rare plants and animals in this canyon are associated with this limestone,” he said. 

Diane Lewis, Morgantown AFM
Jean Snedegar

Action Facilities Management – or AFM – overlooks I-79 near Morgantown and employs more than 300 people in nine states. 

“In Fairmont we work for the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation and we do the security, maintenance and janitorial for all these facilities here,” said founder, president and CEO Diane Lewis. “It’s one of our commercial clients.”   

John Nash
Jean Snedegar

Editor's note: Nobel-prize winning mathematician John Nash and his wife were killed in a traffic accident May 23, 2015. This profile from 2013 is part of our series, "Inspiring West Virginians."