Senior forensic science student Peydan McVicker, from Farmington, West Virginia, transferred to Fairmont State after her freshman year of college in hopes of receiving more individualized attention that would nurture her passion for sustainability.
“Being from such a small town, I was not used to the large class sizes and the lack of one-on-one time with my professors. I decided to come to Fairmont State because I knew it was a smaller institution,” said McVicker. “I scheduled a meeting with my current advisor, Dr. Mark Flood, and he welcomed me with open arms. Since then, I have really blossomed as a student and thrived in the smaller class sizes.”
So much so, in fact, that earlier this semester, McVicker, who also pursued a minor in chemistry, was invited to virtually present her research on the development and composting of cellulose-based bioplastic derived from hemp fibers to the West Virginia Legislature and Executive Branch during the 18th Annual Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.
“Basically, I wanted to find out if I could make bioplastic from hemp and see if it biodegraded,” said McVicker. “If it worked, we could then implement something better for the environment instead of the petroleum-based plastic that piles up in our landfills.”
McVicker, a self-proclaimed climate change activist, had previously interned at a hemp farm in Buckhannon where she worked under the organization’s head of research and development in a lab setting creating CBD products. Her experience there affirmed her interest in the topic and sparked her idea to further pursue hemp research.
According to McVicker, who is also a member of the University’s Forensic Science Club, the support and encouragement of Assistant Professor of Forensic Science Kristy Henson and Chemistry Professor Dr. Matthew Scanlon was essential to her ability to see the research through.
“Professor Henson and Dr. Scanlon have helped me become a more professional student,” said McVicker. “They both have definitely left their marks on me and I am a stronger student because of them.”
McVicker’s research was a multi-step endeavor. First, she ground up the hemp and put it through chemical processes to pull the cellulose out of it. The viscous material that was extracted was then treated and air dried, creating what McVicker described as a “styrofoam-like substance.” Then, she placed the bioplastic in a composting bin alongside traditional plastic to observe its rate of biodegradation over the course of eight weeks. McVicker’s research revealed that the bioplastic degraded quicker, confirming that it could be a more environmentally friendly alternative in the production of daily household items like storage containers and garbage bags.
“Plastic can take months to years to fully degrade, and when it does, it harms the environment and emits harmful chemicals,” she said. “Climate change isn’t something that’s going to go away unless we help, so this type of research is going to become more and more important in the years to come.”
Over the last few years, McVicker spent countless hours inside the classrooms and laboratories in Hunt Haught Hall, deriving meaningful lessons from her professors and conducting valuable research. But this weekend, as McVicker puts the cap on her undergraduate career at Saturday’s Spring Commencement ceremony, she will quickly turn her focus to the next step in her journey toward enacting change through environmental stewardship: earning a master’s degree in health science.
“I am really looking forward to beginning my path as a professional and hopefully getting some more laboratory experience in a life-like setting,” she said.