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Hitt receives Presidential honors

By Staff | Jan 16, 2017

Chronicle photo by Toni Milbourne Than Hitt shows some of the brook trout under observation by his team at the Leetown Science Center’s Stream Lab.

Shepherdstown resident, Dr. Nathaniel (Than) Hitt, was honored this week by President Barak Obama as one of 102 scientists and researchers earning the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

The award, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

Hitt shared that he was proud to receive the award.

“This is quite an honor,” he said. “This award reflects a collaborative team here at Leetown,” Hitt continued referring to his co-workers at the Leetown Science Center, part of the United States Geological Survey.

Hitt is a Research Fish Biologist at the Leetown Science Center where he investigates freshwater fish ecology and toxicology from a landscape perspective, focusing on stream ecosystems in the Appalachian highlands.

The White House announcement said, “Dr. Nathaniel P. Hitt – in recognition of his use of creative field and laboratory research in fish population and community ecology at multiple scales to improve biological conservation and provide insights into fish responses to climate change. For scientific leadership in coordinating research among state, federal and academic sectors as well as for public outreach.”

At the Leetown Science Center, Hitt is involved in a variety of projects that determine how species respond to environmental quality, climate change, land use and more. His research team collaborates with researchers working with molecular and cellular data as well as satellite imagery.

“I am especially interested in providing relevant ecological research for Appalachia,” Hitt said.

Originally from Morgantown, Hitt is dedicated to doing all he can to make West Virginia and Appalachia better.

“We have many problems to address in Appalachia,” he said. “And it will take political will and civic engagement as well as good science.”

Hitt compared the role of science in society to that of a compass.

“A compass can tell you where north is, but it can’t tell you if you want to go north,” he said. “That’s where values and ethics come in.”

Currently Hitt’s research includes studying the brook trout, West Virginia’s state fish, and other endangered species in Appalachia.

The stream lab at Leetown, where research is underway, has tanks with brook trout at various stages of their lives as well as at various water temperatures to determine how temperature change affects the fish. His ongoing studies can lead to answers on how ecological systems connect to human life in a variety of ways.

“Science is most powerful when it is integrated with partners who can put it to use,” Hitt said. “And we’ve made important progress but we have a long way to go.”

Hitt holds a B.A. in Biology from the College of Wooster, an M.S. in Organismal Biology and Ecology from the University of Montana, and a Ph.D in Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences from Virginia Tech.

He is active in the community, serving on the Shepherdstown Planning Commission. He was instrumental in the solar project at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. In his spare time, he also plays guitar with the Speakeasy Boys.

Hitt’s award will be presented at the White House within the upcoming months, after the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

Despite the award’s presentation by the new administration, Hitt said that he was extremely honored to have the award announced by President Obama, who places a high value on the scientific contributions.

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” President Obama said. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that Federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

The Presidential Early Career Awards highlight the key role that the Administration places in encouraging and accelerating American innovation to grow our economy and tackle our greatest challenges. This year’s recipients include representatives from the following departments and agencies: Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution and the Intelligence Community. These departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions.

In addition to Hitt, two other individuals from the U.S.G.S were awarded the honors although neither work in the Leetown facility.