They created a computer station — and changed a quadriplegic patient’s life

Students Dustin Mays and Evan Amabile with Derrick Bayard at his home in Richmond.

Before dawn on Aug. 8, 2017, Derrick Bayard began having severe pain in his abdomen, followed by body spasms. Soon after, it became hard to breathe. He was home alone, a detail made exponentially more important — and dangerous — by the fact that he’s a quadriplegic, unable to use his hands and feet. Bedridden.

“I thought I could wait it out, but the pain was getting progressively worse and no one else would get here until 9 a.m.,” Bayard said.

So, using his head tracking mouse to press keys on the laptop monitor mounted above his bed, Bayard got on Facebook to see if any of his friends were online at such an early hour. He found three: one in West Virginia, one in New York and one in Richmond. They sent emergency help to Bayard’s Richmond home, but he couldn’t let first responders inside. One of them saw Bayard through a back window, but couldn’t gain access. A rescue team eventually broke through Bayard’s front window and transported him to Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. He was treated for a urinary tract infection, a common and potentially life-threatening ailment for quadriplegic patients.

Bayard is familiar with VCU for several reasons. It is the health system from which he has received primary care for more than 20 years. It is also where Dustin Mays, Lars Hofland and Evan Amabile attend graduate school in the School of Allied Health Professions’ Department of Occupational Therapy. This past spring, the three students built a customized computer table for Bayard’s laptop monitor. If the monitor had been anywhere else, and not tilted perfectly above him, Bayard would have lost precious time summoning assistance.

“It took me less than a minute to send for help,” he said. “If I just had [the computer] sitting somewhere else, it would have taken [longer] depending on what position I was in.”

Lack of dexterity has been a longtime nemesis for 56-year-old Bayard. Forty years ago he was felled by a bullet to the neck that was intended for someone else. He was paralyzed instantly. Like most people, he uses his computer for everyday tasks such as accessing the internet and social media. A few years ago, however, he began developing pressure ulcers on his elbows and chest, because he used them to prop himself up while laying on his stomach to face his computer screen. At the time, there was no way his laptop could be tilted above him. Bayard’s home attendant at the time, Latoya Harvey, wasn’t able to configure a way to keep the laptop steady enough for Bayard to use while on his side. It occasionally toppled onto him in bed.

Enter a team of VCU students with a $10 budget and an idea.

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VCU Alumni’s 2017 Alumni Stars!

Throughout the worlds of art, business, education, service and health care, VCU alumni reflect the brilliance of the university. Their knowledge and experience shine in all areas of human endeavor, illuminating problems, creating solutions and strengthening the quality of our lives.

VCU Alumni invites you to join us Nov. 3 at the Science Museum of Virginia for an inspirational program, cocktails and a seated three-course dinner as we honor the 2017 Alumni Stars.

VCU Alumni members can purchase individual tickets for $75 or a 10-seat table sponsorship for $750. Nonmember tickets are $100 or $1,000 per table. Sponsors are recognized in the printed program. RSVP by Oct. 25.

View the full list of 2017 Alumni Stars.


Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, Ph.D.

1999 Master of Public Health
School of Medicine

2007 Doctor of Philosophy
VCU Life Sciences

Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, Ph.D., walked across the stage at VCU’s Commencement in May 2017 and placed a hood around the neck of her first Ph.D. student. She found herself flashing back to her own hooding 10 years before as the first graduate of the doctoral program in integrative life sciences.

“As my newly minted doctor smiled broadly and walked across the stage, shaking hands with the president of the university, I remembered my excitement [as a new Ph.D.] and how hopeful I was for the future,” she says. “I also remembered how grateful I was at that time. I was grateful to my nuclear family, my parents, brother and husband, for supporting me. I was also deeply grateful to my academic family, the one that comes directly from being at VCU, because this institution was, and continues to be, the source of so many opportunities and possibilities for my career.”

With an undergraduate degree in kinesiology from the College of William & Mary, Prom-Wormley came to VCU in 1997 to pursue a master’s in public health. After graduation, she worked as a research assistant at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, housed in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. Inspired by a lecture on the genetic epidemiology of drug abuse and with the encouragement of her supervisor, she decided to apply to the newly formed Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences program in VCU Life Sciences, which gave her the space and training necessary to think about mental health outcomes as complex biological and social problems. She continued to research these principles as a Ph.D. candidate in life sciences and as an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Family Medicine and Population Health.

Her Ph.D. adviser, Lindon Eaves, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the VCU School of Medicine, evolved into “the most instrumental individual in my personal and professional life,” Prom-Wormley says. “In particular, our weekly meetings over tea on his patio promoted a great deal of fascinating work and inspired me to think carefully as a scientist.”

In fall 2011, she received the outstanding teacher award in the VCU Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. She also was honored for excellence in postdoctoral research by the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics in 2010.
Prom-Wormley hopes to continue researching avenues for applying genetic epidemiology results within the public health framework, particularly in prevention and treatment of smoking and nicotine dependence. She has been working on community-engaged research involving residents, elected officials and organizational leaders in Richmond’s East End.

She also hopes to continue developing as a mentor to students who someday will take that walk across the stage at Commencement, just like she did.


Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S.

1999 Doctor of Medicine
School of Medicine

It was front-page news out of NYU Langone Health in August 2015. In a 26-hour operation, the face of a 26-year-old bike mechanic who was declared brain-dead after a cycling crash was transplanted onto a 41-year-old former firefighter who was severely burned in the line of duty.

Leading the team that performed the most extensive facial transplant ever was VCU School of Medicine alumnus Eduardo D. Rodriguez, M.D., D.D.S., the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone. The painstakingly delicate surgery was a resounding success.

Becoming a leader in facial transplantation, Rodriguez says, wasn’t an anticipated career goal. “However, I’ve always had an interest in finding solutions to difficult problems, and this pursuit has led me to the position in which I currently reside,” he says.
Rodriguez and his team at NYU Langone are planning for future reconstructive procedures while expanding the face transplant program’s clinical, research and education/training efforts.

“Clinical efforts will focus on patient selection and achieving the most optimal aesthetic and functional results,” he says. “Research efforts are focused on improving immune surveillance and designing patient-specific targeted immune therapies to lessen drug toxicity without increasing risk of transplant rejection.”

Rodriguez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was born and raised in Miami. His road to VCU began with undergraduate education at the University of Florida followed by a dental degree from NYU College of Dentistry. He completed a residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine before enrolling at VCU, where he earned his medical degree in 1999.

“I was fortunate to have been part of a newly designed education curriculum there and certainly received the best medical education at VCU,” he says.

In addition to pioneering clinical achievements, Rodriguez has written more than 130 articles and 21 book chapters. He is a member of numerous national and international professional societies, and he was the Dawson Theogaraj visiting professor in plastic surgery on VCU’s MCV Campus in 2016.

Rodriguez is quick to share credit for his accomplishments and accolades.

“I am lucky to have been mentored by remarkable individuals, and along the way, I have worked hard but have enjoyed every moment,” he says. “I have learned from the most challenging moments, and that is why one must always look forward and never give up.”

Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts launches Arts Research Institute

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts announced today the launch of its Arts Research Institute, which will serve faculty in their creative research and interdisciplinary practices across the university. Through supporting faculty projects, catalyzing interdisciplinary collaborations, and facilitating public dialogue about the role of artists in society, the Arts Research Institute will be one of the few arts research offices to employ a spectrum of artistic practices as rigorous research methods on par with science, directed at responding to current issues of our time and a complex future.

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Alumni chapters collect food for FeedMore at annual charity challenge

Alumni chapters from all universities in Virginia, as well as several out-of-state institutions, will collect canned goods Wednesday to support FeedMore, the Central Virginia Food Bank.

Virginia Commonwealth University alumni will bring their canned goods and school spirit to the fifth annual Alumni Charity Challenge Wednesday, Sept. 20, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery.

Established in 2013 by VCU Alumni’s RVA GOLD Chapter, the Alumni Charity Challenge engages alumni chapters from all universities in Virginia, as well as several out-of-state institutions, to support FeedMore, the Central Virginia Food Bank, by collecting canned goods. The challenge, part of the annual Day to Serve, brings awareness to Hunger Action Month.

Thirty participating schools aim to collect 20,000 pounds of food, as alumni compete to donate the most canned goods and get their school’s name on a challenge trophy. VCU earned the trophy for the second consecutive year in 2016. The family-friendly event, sponsored by Nationwide and Virginia Credit Union, includes food trucks, giveaways and music from 103.7 Play.

“It is a great opportunity for alumni groups to come together to fight food insecurity in central Virginia,” said Joseph R. Stemmle, a School of Business alumnus, co-chair of the challenge and a member of the RVA GOLD Chapter’s executive board. “Each alumni chapter tries to collect as many cans as possible in three hours, which are then delivered to FeedMore the following day.”

During the past four years, the Alumni Charity Challenge has collected more than 16 tons of food that has benefited 200,000 children, families and seniors in 34 cities and counties across central Virginia.

“One in seven of our neighbors is struggling to put food on the table, and one in six children in our region aren’t receiving necessary nutrition,” said VCU alumnus Tim McDermott, chief development officer at FeedMore. “Events like this help raise awareness and allow us to reach folks who may not be familiar with FeedMore, our mission, our programs and our impact.”

In addition to donating canned foods, alumni can make make a monetary donation online to FeedMore. For every $1 donated, FeedMore can distribute five pounds of food. Online donations are accepted until 11:59 p.m. EST Sept. 20.

Learn more about the Alumni Charity Challenge at www.alumnicharity.org.

VCU physicists discover a tri-anion particle with colossal stability

A rendering of protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom.

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have achieved a feat that is a first in the fields of physics and chemistry — one that could have wide-ranging applications.

A team in the lab of Puru Jena, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has created the most stable tri-anion particle currently known to science. A tri-anion particle is a combination of atoms that contains three more electrons than protons. This discovery is novel because previously known tri-anion particles were unstable due to their numerical imbalance. These unstable particles dispel additional electrons, interrupting chemical reactions.

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Devanand Sarkar’s quest to cure liver cancer

When Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., came to VCU Massey Cancer Center in 2008, he wanted to pursue a new direction in his research. Driven by the loss of a close friend and colleague, Sarkar was on a mission to better understand the processes that drive the development of liver cancer. Nearly a decade later, his research is close to bringing about new treatments for the disease while redefining how obesity is connected to cancer.

In America, one of the biggest drivers of liver cancer is fatty liver disease due to obesity. Obesity leads to the deposition of fat in the liver, which causes chronic inflammation and eventually develops into cancer. The mechanisms behind this transformation were once a mystery, and then Sarkar unraveled them.

“It started with this gene, AEG-1,” said Sarkar, the associate director for education and training at Massey who also holds the Harrison Foundation Distinguished Professorship in Cancer Research and is a member of Massey’s Cancer Molecular Genetics research program.

Sarkar and his colleagues had originally discovered and cloned AEG-1 at Columbia University in the laboratory of Paul Fisher, Ph.D., now professor and chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU School of Medicine.

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Nursing alumna Lisa Feierstein takes her career beyond the hospital

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Like many teenagers, Lisa Feierstein (B.S.’78/N) dreamed of becoming independent after high school and making an impact on the world through meaningful work. After weighing her options, she decided that becoming a nurse would be the best way to make her way in the world.

“I saw nursing as a way to fuel my desire,” she says. “I could make a living and effect change, why wouldn’t I go for it?”

She enrolled at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing and, once on campus, was immersed into both academic and clinical work that gave her the tools and knowledge she needed to forge her own path.

“Looking back on it now, we were doing incredible things at a very young age,” Feierstein says. “It was intense, but I wouldn’t go back and change a single thing.”

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree and initially worked at the then-Medical College of Virginia Hospitals. Feierstein went on to work in home health, public health and medical sales before deciding to return to school. With the goal of growing into a leadership role, she enrolled at Western New England University where she earned an M.B.A. with a minor in health care administration.

“I understood that health care was a business, but after getting my M.B.A., I was starting to understand its inner workings,” she says. “It was a natural fit for me.”

A few years later, she married her husband, Steve, and the couple decided to take destiny into their own hands and start a business. After talking to industry experts and conducting formal research, they leveraged their respective strengths and started Active Healthcare Inc. Partnering with nurses, physicians and other health care professionals throughout North Carolina, the company has provided medical equipment to those with asthma and diabetes statewide for the past 27 years.

“Everything I learned as a nurse and at VCU was a prerequisite for owning my own business,” she says. “I learned collaboration, leadership and, most importantly, how to empower people to take back their health.”

Wanting to give back to the program that gave her the skills she still relies on today, in 2016 Feierstein and her husband established the Feierstein Leadership and Innovation Fund in the VCU School of Nursing. The fund supports a lectureship series or other activities that propel nurses to influence health care through innovation, leadership and entrepreneurship.

The inaugural Feierstein Lecture, held in July, drew 150 students, faculty, alumni and health care professionals to the school to hear Michael R. Bleich, Ph.D., RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, CEO of NursDynamics LLC, talk about how nurse caregivers, educators and scientists possess a unique perspective that makes them ideal innovators.

“When alumni invest in your school that makes it even more special because they’re demonstrating they want others to obtain a great education like they received,” says Jean Giddens, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean of the School of Nursing. “Lisa went on to become a game changer in her industry and has established this fund with her husband to help us develop nurse leaders who will shape the future of our profession.”

Going forward, Feierstein hopes that the fund will empower nurses to think about their skills in a creative way.

“Nurses have the capability to chart the course of health care as we move forward,” she says. “I wanted to provide them the same opportunities that I had and give them the tools to push the envelope even further.”

Alumna transitions from blackhawks to block planes

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Alicia Dietz (M.F.A.’16/A), a former Army pilot, is a woodworker, craftsman and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Craft and Material Studies in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. If she’s not at her Richmond studio creating functional and concept art, she’s traveling up and down the East Coast doing art projects with military veterans. Follow along with her next week as she takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram account.

What was your time as a pilot like?

I have wanted to fly since I was 6 years old and watched medevac helicopters land on the roof of the hospital that my mom worked at. When I got to high school, I talked to as many pilots as I could and asked them how they learned to fly. The overwhelming majority said they learned in the military so that’s why I joined the Army. I earned my undergrad in advertising and journalism at Ohio University, going through the Army ROTC program while I was there. I graduated in 2001 and was just entering flight school when 9/11 happened. I was in flight school for just over a year before getting assigned to a unit stationed out of Germany that was already deployed to Iraq.

I was in the Army for just over 10 years, flew as a maintenance test pilot and commanded two different companies, one in Alaska and one in Egypt. I took aircraft on flights after repairs to test their airworthiness before releasing them back onto the flight schedule. That feeling when the wheels just lift off the ground is one that never got old for me.

How did you get into woodworking?

My father and grandfather had always done woodworking in their spare time. My dad had a little workshop in our basement and over the course of a decade, built our entertainment stand and coffee and end tables. Then, while in the Army, they had Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers where you could learn how to frame things, throw a pot or build a table. I would go in during my downtime and play in the shop. It was a great way to de-stress and learn something new.  I got addicted!

After I got out of the Army, I used my GI Bill to go to a very traditional woodworking school in Vermont for two years, learning dovetails, mortise and tenon and traditional wood construction. I had the amazing opportunity to go to San Diego and do an internship with Wendy Maruyama, who studied at VCU for a bit and who was a real inspiration to me and introduced me to concept in my work. She was the one who encouraged me to go to grad school.

Why did you choose VCU, and what’s your favorite memory of being on campus?

Wendy had many positive things to say about VCU, and even though I was in Vermont, my partner was living and working just south of Richmond. I knew that when school in Vermont was over I was moving back to Richmond. It was extremely convenient that one of the best art schools in the nation was right in my backyard!

My favorite memories would have to both being a TA and now teaching [woodworking at VCU]. To see the spark ignite when a student falls in love with woodworking is truly magical.

Jade Chang wins VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘The Wangs vs. the World’

Jade Chang’s debut novel, “The Wangs vs. the World,” tells the story of an immigrant family whose sudden loss of a cosmetics empire and their home sends them on a road trip across America where they discover what endures as a family and within themselves. (Jade Chang photo credit: Teresa Flowers)

Jade Chang has won the 2017 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during a calendar year. Her winning book, “The Wangs vs. the World,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tells the story of an immigrant family whose sudden loss of a cosmetics empire and their home sends them on a road trip across America where they discover what endures as a family and within themselves.

Chang will receive the award Nov. 16 at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she will give a reading and participate in a roundtable and discussion with VCU students and the public. The event will be held in the Cabell Library Lecture Hall (Room 303) at 7 p.m. For additional details, visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event/. Chang was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 16th year. The other finalists were Chad Dundas for “Champion of the World” and Margaret Wappler for “Neon Green.”

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Congratulations to our Prizes and Surprises winners!

VCU Alumni rewarded its members in August with seven days of prizes and surprises. Members entered to win one of seven prizes from our affinity partners, and the winners were announced daily on Facebook from Aug. 14-20.

Thank you to our partners and congratulations to these winners:

Robert P. Siegel (B.F.A.’90/A)
A Nook and $100 Tiffany’s gift card from Windsor Senior Living

Deborah Krajacich (B.F.A.’96/A)
Two $250 travel certificates from Go Next

Franklin Wallace (B.F.A.’87/A; M.P.A.’08/GPA)
A one-year gym membership from VCU Recreational Sports

Kumara Sekar, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’93/H&S)
A VCU collegiate watch from M.LaHart

Anya Liddiard (B.S.’08/H&S; M.S.’11/MC)
A three-piece luggage set from Faithful Fanatics

Will Gilbert (B.S.’15/MC)
A class ring from Balfour

Holly Debernard (B.S.’16/N)
A Bluetooth speaker and prize package from Nationwide