Brandcenter students win prestigious Cannes festival competition for second year

Charged with connecting audiences to an idea from a global brand in a way not possible three years ago, a team of students from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter has won the prestigious AKQA Future Lions competition for the second year in a row.

Limah Taeb, Stanley Hines and Xia Du, all students in the Experience Design track, won the Future Lions award for “BoseNeuro 35,” an idea that uses neuro-technology to send mental commands to Bose headphones, allowing users to interact with music via brain wave technology sensors. Their idea was born from the insight that many people listen to music to help them focus and be productive. The brain wave sensors assess music preferences, allowing for personalized playlists to achieve peak mental performance and productivity.

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Dental Hygienist finds his Disney princess at VCU

By Anthony Langley

Jorel Belarmino, RDH (B.S.’06/H&S; B.S.’14/D), is a registered dental hygienist living in Kissimmee, Florida. When he’s not working, he’s either working out at the gym or spending time at Disney World where his wife, Honey (B.A.’10/WS; B.A.’10/WS), works as member services manager at the Disney Vacation Club. He will be taking over the VCU Alumni Instagram account next week to give us a glimpse into his life.

What drew you to VCU?

I was born in Toronto, Ontario, and my family moved to Surrey, British Columbia, when I was 8. I attended middle school and high school through 10th grade there before we relocated to Richmond, Virginia. When it came time to choose a college, I wanted to stay close to my younger brother. After doing some research and learning about the outstanding reputation the health sciences program [at VCU] has as well as just the community feel and diversity around campus, it seemed like a perfect fit. VCU is a place I call home.

Do you remember your favorite moment from your time on campus?

There’s so many to choose from! One that’s on the top of my list is a clinic session I had in the dental hygiene program. During one of our first clinic sessions as junior dental hygiene students, Joan Pellegrini Ph.D., RDH (Ph.D.’08/E), was on duty grading my clinical notes.

I signed them “Jorel” without my last name to which she commented, “Jorel, you didn’t put your full name. How do you spell your last name? I’ll put it in for you.”

I thought, how professional of her to write my name in for me. This was my opportunity to set the tone for the year. I said, “Oh OK, thanks Dr. P.! It’s A-W-E-S-O-M-E.” She turned around and gave me this blank stare with an underlying smile.

I apologized and told her I was kidding, then spelled out awesome again. She said, “Oh jeez, nevermind, you do it,” chuckled and walked away.

Why did you choose to study dentistry?

I grew up enjoying the sciences and thought about becoming a doctor. I really wanted to use my hands so I thought being a surgeon would be a good option for me.

When I sat down and considered my options, I thought about the costs, happiness and quality of life. Dental hygiene fit the bill; it’s a highly rewarding career with flexibility, and I get to deliver great patient care.

I think my favorite part of working in dentistry is educating patients on how to improve their overall health through dental care at home.

How did you and your wife meet?

After I finished my first bachelor’s degree in science at VCU, I decided I’d go back to school. Shortly after my first semester back, I was working as a teaching assistant and tutoring entry-level biology and physiology classes. One day I just happened to sit in on an introductory biology lecture and there she was, Honey Delo, in the first row taking notes.

We had some mutual friends, had been introduced to each other in the Student Commons once but that was it. So there I was enamored with this stunning girl in the front row of the class I was tutoring. I decided to go for it, and the rest is history.

What prompted your move from Richmond to Florida?

It was always my wife’s dream to work for Mickey. We both grew up loving the magical world of Disney so we decided to make it happen.

Together, we set a goal, drew up a plan and executed it. I completed my second bachelor’s in dental hygiene, which gave us a solid foundation. Once she finished her degrees, we made the move to Florida where she’s pursued a career with the Walt Disney Co. Now we live our lives filled with pixie dust!

The both of us always say you should never fully become an adult. We’ve been Mouseketeers at heart since we were kids. Walt Disney World is the happiest place on earth. What’s not to love?

Pharmacy professor named first da Vinci Center Faculty Fellow

Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D.

Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’08/M),  wants to go beyond standard science.

“People like to say, ‘I’m doing arts, I’m doing science.’ No, no, no,” he said. “You are both doing art. It’s creating something brand new with the tools that you have. It’s art that’s based on a logical process, that’s true. But it’s creativity at its heart.”

The assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy is the first da Vinci Center Faculty Fellow. Wijesinghe’s commitment to collaboration across disciplines brought him to Garret Westlake, the center’s director.

“He actually reached out to me,” said Westlake. “I think it was my first week at VCU, and he said, ‘I would like to be more involved with the da Vinci Center, I wanted to get your ideas about where you see the center going in the future.’”

The faculty fellowship’s purpose is to highlight VCU faculty who champion cross disciplinary collaboration and innovation. Wijesinghe saw an opportunity to bring pharmacy and da Vinci students together to inspire entrepreneurship and creative thinking. He sees collaboration between the two as a ripe opportunity for student startups.

“Thinking outside the box, bringing the right people together and getting things done. That’s pretty much what we are trying to do here,” Wijesinghe said.

Wijesinghe recently sat down for an interview to discuss his roots as a scientist, and what intrigues him about the future.

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Two VCU Honors College students awarded Boren scholarships

Sarah Sweeney, left, and Theresa Dinh.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University students will study language in Asia with support from the Boren Scholarship. Theresa Dinh will study in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, Vietnam, while Sarah Sweeney will study at Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Boren Scholarship, part of the National Security Education Program, supports undergraduate students who wish to study less commonly taught languages. Dinh and Sweeney will spend an academic year abroad. Participants commit to a year of federal government service upon graduation.

Dinh, an international studies major in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is also a member of the Honors College and VCU Globe. She will study human trafficking and other topics at Hoa Sen University and in the State University of New York-Brockport’s Da Nang program.

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Make It Real Campaign for VCU surpasses $500 million

The Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the largest fundraising effort in the history of Virginia Commonwealth University, has raised more than $500 million to date, the university announced Monday.

The $750 million philanthropic campaign, which began with a quiet phase in July 2012, launched publicly in September with a series of events on the Monroe Park and MCV campuses. The campaign counts all funds raised through June 30, 2020. Gifts support critical university initiatives and fuel growth in three primary areas: people, innovations and environments.

This marks a major milestone in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “I am confident that this achievement will further catalyze our momentum because we — educators, researchers, care providers, creators, and community members and donors alike — are dedicated to the continued success of those who come to this renowned, premier public research university. I am grateful for the generosity of those who have given to VCU and invest in our mission of conquering the difficult to advance the human experience.”

The $500 million raised has established 216 new endowed scholarships and student support funds, 49 new endowed professorships and chairs, and 59 new endowed faculty support and research funds. Additionally, funds raised during the campaign have supported the Institute for Contemporary Art, the renovation of Cabell Library, the Inger Rice Lodge at the Rice Rivers Center, and a new, 154,000-square-foot facility that will centralize all 11 units in the School of Allied Health Professions under one roof.

More than 30,000 gifts have been made to VCU during the 2017 fiscal year, which ends June 30. It is the first time the university has surpassed that milestone. More than 12,000 of those gifts have been made by VCU alumni, surpassing the total number of alumni gifts made during the 2016 fiscal year. In addition, 13 schools and units are more than 60 percent of the way to their respective campaign fundraising goals.

“We are grateful to our donors who have generously supported the schools and units at VCU thus far in the campaign,” said Chris Ritrievi, senior associate vice president for campaign leadership and constituency relations. “We are also appreciative of the great work our volunteers and development staff members have done. This significant milestone represents two-thirds of our $750 million goal but we have a lot yet to accomplish. We are confident that our alumni and friends will rise to the occasion and help us meet or exceed the campaign goal by June 30, 2020.”

For more information about the campaign, visit campaign.vcu.edu.

An unexpected journey: Peace Corps takes alumnus from Richmond to southern Africa

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

December 2014 marked six months since Anthony Muron (B.S.’14/H&S) had interviewed with the Peace Corps. He spent those months keeping busy, volunteering with Commonwealth Catholic Charities and working the house painting job he had held for five years. In fact, he was 30 feet in the air on a ladder when he got the email.

Muron still remembers the feeling that brisk December day, climbing down the ladder teary-eyed to tell his co-workers that he had been invited to serve.

“I called my mother immediately to tell her the good news,” he says. “If it wasn’t for [her], I would have completely lost my way and may not have even gone to college. All my hard work had finally paid off.”

His father helped him pay his way through college, but it still  took a few years for Muron to strike a balance between studying and working during his time at Virginia Commonwealth University. By his third year, he was so concentrated on work that graduating on time was not an option. He knew that if he didn’t refocus on his schoolwork, his only other option would be to drop out of college.

“That was the moment where I told myself to pull up my bootstraps and put myself on the right track,” Muron says.

Wanting to make the most of his college experience in his senior year, which he paid for himself, he hit the ground running and signed up for every extracurricular activity that came his way. He re-joined Students Today Alumni Tomorrow, VCU Alumni’s student organization, serving on its Leadership Council and later its board of directors. He also became a member of the Student Government Association, Honor Council and Psychology Anonymous.

“Being involved with STAT was a huge turning point in my college career,” he says. “I was constantly working, zipping around campus on my bike, and attending meetings on both campuses right up until my last day as a student.”

Brendan Hood (B.S.’15/B), who worked with Muron on STAT’s board of directors, praised him for his work ethic.

“[Anthony] is a proud VCU alumnus, who always put others before himself and leads the way in showing the world how far loyalty, friendship and positivity can go,” says Hood.

Less than a year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Muron was on a plane to Mozambique. He has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for the past two years, working closely with local hospitals to council HIV patients about treatment options, to form patient help groups to ease medication distribution, to search for patients who have missed consultation dates and to educate the public about malaria and nutrition.

He also works on the Jovems Unidos no Trabalho do Oportunidades e Successo (United Youth in the Work of Opportunities and Success) project that meets weekly with local youth ages 13 to 23 to discuss health-related topics, to practice theater and to dance and play games. Youth also learn English through the English Theater Network where children from all 10 provinces in Mozambique come together annually to perform a play centered on various health and social topics.

“They’re a great group of kids,” Muron says. “Each one of them is active in their community, and they all have bright futures ahead of them.”

Last summer, Muron had the opportunity to pursue another one of his interests, environmental sustainability, while continuing his work with the Peace Corps. After visiting Mount Namuli in the heart of the country’s Zambézia province, he learned about the work that the Legado Initiative, another nongovernmental organization, was doing to introduce perma-gardening and sustainable agricultural activities in the area.

“Local leadership knows the damage that is being done to the rivers and streams through unsustainable farming methods and that preventing them requires a collective effort and alternative economic resources,” says Muron, who volunteered to help with the initiative. “The Legado: Namuli team realized this as well and wanted to use education as the first step.”

With support from government leaders, the team is working to identify change agents who can stop farmers from using the slash-and-burn agriculture method and recruit them to help introduce sustainable farming techniques.

“So far we’ve held training sessions in each of the six Namuli communities and reached 15 leaders in each, many of whom have already begun to implement perma-farm techniques in their own farms,” Muron says. “The key is perseverance and communication. There will be a lot of resistance and setbacks, but without pain there’s no progress.”

Today, the project has agreements with community leaders to stop the farming and burning of high-elevation forests in exchange for agricultural development, income generation and infrastructure building as well as funding from multiple private organizations that will help Legado accomplish its goals.

Over the next decade, the Legado: Namuli project will continue toward its goal of protecting one of Mozambique’s most ecologically diverse and important environments while at the same time ensuring that future generations will have adequate access to natural resources and freshwater supplies.

“If you give corn to a community, it will go hungry the following year; but if you teach them to grow corn, they’ll have food for generations,” he says. “We’re not saving these communities. We’re providing them the means to save themselves. That’s the purpose of sustainable development.”

In August, Muron will become Mozambique’s Northern Regional Peace Corps Volunteer leader where he’ll provide Volunteer and organizational support and develop sites for new Volunteers to live. Although he’s leaving the Zambézia province, he knows that the work he’s done will continue and is excited for the next step in building a better future for the country.

“I haven’t changed the world, the world has changed me,” Muron says. “The people I’ve encountered in this part of the world have taught me so much more than I’ll ever be able to teach them.”

Alumna lifts her way to success

Melicia Limbo (B.S.’09/GPA) takes the reins of VCU Alumni’s Instagram account next week. Follow the marketing director and athlete as she works with her training team to prepare for upcoming powerlifting competitions.

Why did you choose to attend VCU?

I needed a change of scenery but didn’t want to move too far from home, and VCU also has a forensic science program, which helped me finalize the decision.

Also my brother, Mark (B.S.’09/H&S), is a Ram and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

What are some of your favorite memories from your time on campus?

My entire 4 ½ years at VCU were so fun, but I would say my second and third years were the most exciting. I was that student who was at almost every basketball game yelling and being a die-hard fan, and I still am! This was the same year that Eric Maynor (B.I.S.’09/H&S), Mike Anderson(B.S.’08/H&S), Jesse Pellot-Rosa, B.A. Walker (B.S.’07/E) and Big Sam [Faulk] played [basketball] so they were really making a name for VCU across the country, and that was exciting to be a part of.

My second year, I figured out how to manage good grades and still be involved in student organizations and have a social life. In my third year, I tutored some athletes and was more involved with organizations, which influenced the way I work and connect with people today.

What did you do after earning your degree?

Well, in 2010 I started ROXYGREY+. It started out as a handmade accessory line, but within a short period of time, I shifted its focus into something I’ve been passionate about since I was as kid: writing. It became a platform for underground/local hip-hop artists to showcase their stories and music. I wanted quality music from artists who showed genuine passion for their art and not just fame, so I was very picky about the artists I featured, interviewed and reviewed.

Because of that, ROXYGREY+ earned a lot of respect over the years, and I was picked up by a handful of small networks as a featured interviewer and media personality. I’ve interviewed several notable names and brands like Pharrell, Pusha-T, No Malice, Greg Selkoe, Commonwealth (FTGG) and more.

Now, I mentor and advise a handful of creative artists, musicians, designers and business owners, working with them to generate ideas and create events to help them reach the next level in their career paths.

I think the purpose of ROXYGREY+ is still the same today as it was seven years ago: to serve as a platform for dreamers and doers to showcase their work and be a stepping-stone to their success.

In what ways has VCU tied into your career path?

I started working in the fitness industry at the Siegel Center, and three years later I was working the front desk at a fitness club where I was able to move up in the company to the position I am today as marketing director.

VCU helped me hone a lot of the skills that I use every day. In my line of work, I deal with budgets, events, advertising, networking and negotiating, so the writing and presentation skills I learned [at VCU] are vital. I also learned debate and discussion skills, attention to detail and my passion for people at VCU. Additionally, the connections I made while in school have been very helpful in networking and closing deals.

How did you get into powerlifting?

To give you some background, I’ve been an athlete since I was about 7 or 8 years old. I did tennis, swimming, running, martial arts and I started weightlifting for fun when I was 12. I was really just trying to compete with the guys in PE class.

I swam all four years in high school and while I was working at the Siegel Center, before it was the basketball team’s gym,  my co-workers egged me on to compete in the Bench Press Competition. You compete to see who can bench the highest weight. I ended up placing first in my weight class, and by the time I graduated, I was known as “Mighty Mouse” and “that girl who works out a lot.”

Fast-forward to last spring, a friend asked me if I’d be interested in powerlifting and told me that it would be a great sport for me. She had already been competing for a few years and told me to talk to her coach. So, I went out to one of her meets, met her coach and I’ve been going ever since. My first competition was in Pennsylvania last fall where I placed second in my weight class and qualified for nationals. I just competed again this past March at the SixKiller Open in Norfolk, Virginia, where I placed first in my weight class, was the second-best overall lifter in my division and qualified for both nationals and worlds.

Needless to say, there’s no turning back now!

Engineering student immerses herself in the creation of a promising grocery-shopping app

Sierra Semel.

Sierra Semel, a second-year mechanical engineering student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, is constantly coming up with creative ideas for new products. Last fall, what started as an ordinary class assignment grew into an unexpected opportunity to see what it takes to bring an entrepreneurial idea to life.

The assignment required Semel and her classmates to submit an idea to OpenIDEO, a global community of innovative thinkers exploring solutions to problems through online challenges. Each challenge runs for several months at a time and focuses on a specific issue. This time, it was reducing food waste.

Drawing inspiration from personal experience, Semel laid out the initial plans for a mobile app called Expire.

“As a busy college student, I often lose track of exactly when I buy my groceries,” Semel said. “I wondered what would happen if, somehow, I could be alerted when the groceries I bought were about to go bad.”

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Two VCU alumnae to serve in Peace Corps

Erica Ingram, at left, and Erin Geraghty.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University alumnae will share their knowledge of the English language during stints serving abroad in the Peace Corps.

Erin Geraghty (B.A.’16/H&S) leaves later this month to serve as an English teacher in Madagascar, while Erica Ingram (B.A.’15/H&S) will serve as an English teaching assistant in China.

Geraghty, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2016, will begin with a three-month home stay in order to focus on language and culture. She sought “the opportunity to break out of the box and see how the rest of the world lives,” she said.

After the home stay, Geraghty will begin a two-year stint teaching middle and high school English and assisting with local teachers’ professional development, according to the Peace Corps.

“I hope to give my community the tools with which to think deeply and effectively and to instill within them a larger commitment to better themselves, their communities and the world around them,” Geraghty said in a statement. “I’m most excited to meet my fellow volunteers, my students and to go exploring around the island.”

Ingram, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 2015, will teach spoken and written English at the post-secondary level.

“I have always wanted to visit China and learn about the people and the culture,” Ingram said in a statement. “I attended an event where I met several returned volunteers who spoke of their experience and how rewarding it was for them.”

Ingram participated in VCU Globe and the Peace Corps Prep Program as a student. The program was launched in 2014 and currently enrolls 250 students, said Jill E. Blondin, Ph.D., director of VCU Globe. Two other prep program alumni are currently serving in the Peace Corps.

Ingram will live for three months with a host family, studying the language and culture, before serving two years in her teaching role.

“I want to become more organized so that this experience can help further my ultimate goal of becoming a professional ESL instructor,” Ingram said.

According to the Peace Corps, there are more than 328 Virginians currently serving around the world. The corps was founded in 1961, while the China and Madagascar programs began in 1993.

VCU students travel to Peru to provide medical assistance, build a much-needed staircase

The MEDLIFE team, including 23 students from VCU, celebrate the completion of a staircase they built in Peru, alongside community members and MEDLIFE staff.

Twenty-three Virginia Commonwealth University students traveled to Lima, Peru, earlier this month as part of a volunteer trip to provide medical services and education, and to build a staircase that will allow local residents to better navigate their very hilly neighborhood.

The trip was organized by the VCU chapter of Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere, or MEDLIFE, which aims to improve the health and welfare of families and communities in Ecuador, Peru and Tanzania by providing medical services and education, as well as community development projects.

The chapter was co-founded last summer by Megh Kumar, a junior majoring in biochemistry and psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Shwetha Kochi, a junior biochemistry and bioinformatics major. They both wanted to give VCU students a new opportunity to help provide medical care in low-income countries.

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