Leland Melvin is the only person to have caught a football on the NFL field and in space. On Wednesday, he spent the day with Dan River region students at the 2018 Southern Virginia STEM-H summit at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville.
“This community is doing an amazing job inspiring a new generation of explorers,” Melvin said to the gathering. “I think the tech community here is bringing the students up to be the next blue-suited Virginians walking on the moon. I give all of you a round of applause.”
The Lynchburg native gave the keynote speech at a luncheon for students and at the Southern Piedmont Technology Council’s Innovation Stars Awards banquet that evening.
“We have to make sure that as we go on this journey that all of our kids can see themselves in this role,” Melvin said. “For the kids in here, you may be on one path and see some things that don’t look right, but know that that might be part of your journey.”
With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in materials science engineering, he worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center testing the creation of optical fiber sensors for measuring damage in aerospace vehicles. He was later appointed head of NASA Education and served as the co-chair on the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Task Force. He is also a current host for ABC’s robotics competition series, “Battlebots.”
Before the banquet, he held an invitation-only book signing and networking meeting for members of the schools’ robotics teams. His book, “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace and Second Chances,” was released in May.
“I grabbed the application and looked at it and said ‘Yeah, right,” Melvin said. “A friend of mine got in and I said ‘If NASA’s letting knuckleheads like that in, then maybe I can try.’”
At the banquet, awards were handed to local students, entrepreneurs and organizations. The first recognitions delivered were for the two Student Innovator Awards.
Danielle Jeffers, a George Washington High School graduate and current Virginia Tech student, created a company called “Dough 4 Degrees.” The company has helped more than 50 students earn more than $160,000 overall in the last year, and has been invested in by TV hose Marcus Lemonis, of NBC’s “The Profit.” Jeffers was not able to attend the ceremony but sent in a video in lieu of an acceptance speech.
The second winner was Michael Ashby, another Danville resident and an Averett University student.
Ashby created an opportunity for the Averett IT team and computer science students to assist nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the Dan River Nonprofit Network and the Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“Averett University, Goodwill Industries and the nonprofits of the region greatly benefit from his leadership,” Program Committee Chair Inez Rodenburg said.
The Institute’s own Samantha Smith-Herndon won the Rising Star Award for her work with an agricultural program that uses aerial drones.
“Technology will play a key role in the future of agriculture, and Samantha is ensuring the agricultural community in southern Virginia will be at the forefront of these innovations,” Rodenburg said.
Anna Crawley, from the Noblis Center for Applied High Performance Computing in Danville, received the Innovation in Education and Community Outreach Award for developing innovative uses of technology to promote and enhance educational opportunities. Noblis was chosen for this award because of the partnerships that has been created since 2015 with Danville Public Schools.
The Innovation in Community Award was given to the Precision Machining Workforce Development Pipeline because of its “innovative use of technology to deliver services, advance their mission or impact the community.”
“Implementation and deployment of this dynamic workforce pipeline required collaboration between industry, public schools, colleges and community leaders,” Rodenburg said. “Troy Simpson has skillfully worked with community and industry leaders to develop this extraordinary precision machining workforce training pipeline that has the potential to transform this region with higher skilled and automated jobs opportunities.”
Panaceutics pharmaceutical company, which on Tuesday announced a $5.8 million capital investment in their expansion to a building in the Ringgold East Industrial Park, received the Small Business Innovation in Technology Award. The Microsoft Data Center in Mecklenburg received the Large Business Innovation in Technology Award.
The award program’s organizers - the Southern Piedmont Technology Council - is a group of technology companies and advocates in southern Virginia that has been around since 1998. They serve Patrick, Henry, Franklin, Pittsylvania, Halifax and Mecklenburg counties and the cities of Danville and Martinsville.