50 years after Virginia’s first heart transplant, $1M gift breathes new life into historic lab

The former laboratory of Richard Lower, M.D., the pioneering surgeon who performed the first heart transplant in Virginia in 1968, will be transformed into a $5 million suite of research facilities.

How in the world do you thank anyone for saving your life three times?” It’s a poignant question for David Cottrell.

When Cottrell arrived at VCU Medical Center, he thought he had the flu. He had no idea just how ill he was — or how much time he would spend in the hospital. His actual diagnosis: a staph infection, which led first to bacterial spinal meningitis, then spread to his heart valves. He experienced multiple strokes and began to experience multisystem organ failure.

The outlook seemed bleak, but a large, diverse team at VCU Medical Center oversaw Cottrell’s care, navigating each challenge and complication that arose. Through the most harrowing times of his illness, he and his wife, Christy, never gave up. “We never lost faith in the quality of the care or team that surrounded us,” Christy Cottrell said. And the couple took advantage of the academic health center’s collaborative approach, listening to the team and knowing that the team was listening to them. After 10 months and four surgeries ­­— including three open-heart procedures — David Cottrell was truly on the road to recovery.

“I have been able to retire, spend more time with my family, travel and focus on the things I love,” Cotrell said of his life today. “I was able to walk my daughter Leah down the aisle. I owe the teams at VCU my life.”

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VCU Alumni and MCVAA welcome new leaders: Alumnae Dale Kalkofen and Ellen Byrne bring deep ties to VCU, decades of experience in education

Dale Kalkofen, Ed.D. (M.A.E.’76/A) (left), and Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D. (B.S.’77/P; D.D.S.’83/D; Cert.’91/D; Ph.D.’91/M), are the new presidents of VCU Alumni and MCV Alumni Association of VCU, respectively. Photo by Jud Froelich.

By Erica Naone

New presidents took office this month for both VCU Alumni and the MCV Alumni Association of VCU. They’re the first new leaders since both organizations approved an inclusive model for all graduates in November 2017.

Dale Kalkofen, Ed.D. (M.A.E.’76/A), leads VCU Alumni’s Board of Governors, and Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D. (B.S.’77/P; D.D.S.’83/D; Cert.’91/D; Ph.D.’91/M), sits at the helm of MCVAA’s Board of Trustees. Both alumnae bring decades of experience in education and administration, deep connections to VCU and a lifelong love of learning from people and the world around them.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the alumni organization, they say. In May, the VCU Alumni board voted to endorse ELEVATE, the VCU Alumni strategic plan, which stands for “Expanding Leadership, Enrichment and Volunteerism for Alumni Through Engagement.” The five-year plan starts strong with a year of collaborative programming and engagement opportunities for all graduates, especially those who previously did not find a way to connect.

“The whole idea is to touch as many VCU alumni as possible in the course of a year and to create all kinds of opportunities,” Kalkofen says.

Byrne and Kalkofen will have strong support from the university as they guide their associations toward engaging VCU’s nearly 200,000 alumni.

“Dale and Ellen are dynamic and collaborative leaders with strong ties to many facets of VCU,” says Joshua Hiscock, associate vice president for alumni relations. “I look forward to partnering with each of them over the next two years to both strengthen their respective associations and grow new volunteer engagement opportunities for even more alumni to become involved.”

Strong connections to VCU

Kalkofen was recruited to study at VCU after nine years teaching visual arts to elementary, middle and high school students. After completing an interdisciplinary master’s degree (half in the School of the Arts and half in the School of Education, she says) and 24 years in Richmond Public Schools, she went on to administration and leadership roles in school systems including Boston Public Schools, Memphis (Tennessee) City Schools and Chesterfield County (Virginia) Public Schools, from which she retired in 2010.

What’s kept her connected to VCU all this time, she says, are the people and the opportunities to serve.

She’s excited to spread the word about ways alumni can get more involved. She points to examples such as VCU Libraries’ Friends of the Library and the Pollak Society, which supports the School of the Arts. Kalkofen notes that there are also many opportunities for alumni to connect to current students.

For her part, Byrne has spent most of her life studying and working at VCU. She began at the School of Pharmacy, completing a bachelor’s degree in 1977. She taught in the School of Pharmacy from 1977-79, but soon returned to her studies. She went on to graduate from the School of Dentistry in 1983, complete a general practice residency at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, earn a certificate in endodontics in 1991 and finish a Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1991.

She now serves as senior associate dean and professor at the School of Dentistry. “I guess after you get three degrees and two certificates, they have to give you a job,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Byrne’s times both as a student and as a faculty member tie her strongly to MCVAA. “It’s a reunion year for me every year,” she says. “Even if it’s not really one of my reunion years, I come back down [to campus] because I’m definitely going to know someone there. … I sign up for everything.”

At the most recent Reunion Weekend in April, she particularly enjoyed visiting the new Institute for Contemporary Art on the Monroe Park Campus. “We really are one university,” Byrne says. “I think as we move forward and the university itself grows in many areas, we have to remember and honor our legacy and our heritage and embrace the future of whatever VCU is going to look like.”

Kalkofen adds that helping alumni build relationships with people and places on both campuses can bear fruit. For a long time, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., has had a vision of interdisciplinary connections within the university community. “If people don’t know each other, they’re not likely to develop interdisciplinary projects together,” Kalkofen says.

She can imagine effective community service projects, for example, led by alumni from the School of Social Work and the College of Health Professions, working together.

“I think it’s important for us to dream about improving the quality of life for children and for adults in the city of Richmond and the greater metropolitan area,” Kalkofen says.


When away from her volunteer and professional leadership roles, Kalkofen lives on a farm about 30 miles from Richmond, Virginia. Active farming only started for this “city girl” about five years ago, she says, when her son, Hans Kalkofen (B.A.’12/H&S), started caring for farm animals and got her involved. Since then, she’s enjoyed the pleasures of feeding baby goats and has even cut the umbilical cords of some of the farm’s newborn lambs.

“We have goats and sheep and a couple of donkeys.” She pauses, smiles, and, ever filled with VCU spirit, adds, “Rams.”

Byrne enjoys spending time outside of professional pursuits constructing elaborate gingerbread houses. She got into the hobby through her twin sister, Carol Bolling (B.S.’77/P), who attended pharmacy school with Byrne and graduated in the same year. By now, she says, “it’s almost taken on a life of its own.”

She begins making the dough a year in advance, which she freezes until the holiday season rolls around. A highlight of the annual preparation process is a trip to buy candy in Carytown at For the Love of Chocolate, where she always chats with owner James Kinard (B.S.’89/H&S).

She makes about 30 houses a year. Some go home with guests as party favors. Others go to “people who maybe had a bad year,” Byrne says. “It’s random, never the same person. I just show up and say, ‘Hope this helps you decorate your house at Christmas.’”

She brings a similar generous spirit to her philosophy of helping alumni engage with VCU. Byrne stresses the importance of meeting people “where they are.” Because students often get out of school in debt, she notes, they may not be able to give financially right away. They will, however, come to a reunion or give of their time and talents.

“You have to find out what they want to engage with,” Byrne says and then laughs. “It always helps to have a successful basketball team.”

Help welcome VCU’s newest students this summer

Join VCU Alumni and VCU New Student and Family Programs for our summer send-offs. Come enjoy conversation with members of VCU’s Class of 2022 before they start their college careers. We will have hearty hors d’oeuvres and beverages to savor while welcoming VCU’s newest students and their families.

The summer send-offs are a great opportunity for incoming students to learn from alumni in a networking-type setting about VCU, post-grad life and what it means to be a Ram. They also give alumni a chance to connect with the newest members of the community.

Send-offs have been planned for late July and early August in Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., Charlotte, N.C., Virginia Beach, Va., Washington, D.C., and Roanoke, Va. Alumni are invited to register here.

Scientist, artist, inventor, dean: The many sides of Shawn Brixey

After two semesters at VCU, Shawn Brixey sees the School of the Arts in the position of upholding a large legacy, while at the same time projecting into the future.

At first glance, Shawn Brixey’s lab looks like any other in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering.

For starters, there are optical isolation tables, lasers, video microscopes, circuit board printers, oscilloscopes, and computer numeric control machine tools. It looks and feels a lot like a hybrid physics/engineering lab.

Brixey, dean of the VCU School of the Arts since July, is perhaps the first art school dean to have a laboratory rather than a studio. To be sure, Brixey is a rarity — equal parts artist and scientist.

With strong arts, design, science and engineering knowledge — and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology education — Brixey is equally comfortable among scientists as he is with artists. He recognizes that scientists share the same sense of awe and wonder, derived from the same place, as artists.

“We use different methodology and we approach creative problem solving differently,” he said. “But one of our fundamental goals is as we experience the structure and behavior of the world around us through observation, experiment, intervention and expression, we both want to discover what it means to be human and then document that in ways that no one’s ever really imagined.”

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With a $1M gift, alumna Iris Harrell and wife Ann Benson create a new scholarship for gender, sexuality and women’s studies at VCU

Ann Benson and Iris Harrell have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to support students studying in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

When Iris Harrell’s (M.E.’75/E) parents got divorced during her junior year at what is now the University of Mary Washington, her college education was left in jeopardy. She didn’t have enough money to supplement the scholarships that had allowed her to be the first member of her North Carolina farming family to attend college.

“But [Mary Washington administrators] went into a back room and found some scholarships that they hadn’t awarded,” Harrell said. “They just gave it to me and I was able to finish school. And my life has been way different — and better — because I got a college degree.”

Harrell, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education in 1975, taught for several years, was a touring folk musician and ultimately founded a successful construction and remodeling company in California with her wife, Ann Benson, is now giving back to help students like her obtain an education.

Harrell and Benson have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to create the Harrell-Benson Scholarship for students in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

“Scholarships are about your legacy,” Harrell said. “I got mine. I want to make sure that the next generation of people get theirs.”

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VCU forensic science professor’s breakthrough in cell imaging could have major impact in crime labs

Unlike traditional forensic testing methods, Christopher Ehrhardt’s procedure can be used to identify different cell types in a sample without damaging the sample.

A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has developed a procedure for identifying the source of cells present in a forensic biological sample that could change how cell types are identified in samples across numerous industries.

Many traditional techniques for distinguishing between saliva, blood, skin or vaginal tissue in an evidence sample are based on microchemical reactions that can be prone to false-positive or false-negative results, according to the researcher, Christopher Ehrhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Additionally, they may be difficult to use on aged or heavily degraded samples.

“The information is often limited,” Ehrhardt said. “And when using conventional methods, you have to be prepared to consume part of the sample in most cases, which decreases the value of it.”

VCU receives funding for oyster restoration work


The partnership with Toadfish Outfitters will allow VCU to plant more than 2 million oysters in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program has partnered with Toadfish Outfitters of Charleston, South Carolina, to advance its efforts to replenish oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Toadfish Outfitters, a manufacturer of coastal lifestyle products, has designated the VOSRP as the sole recipient of proceeds from the sale of Toadfish products in Virginia. VOSRP will use the funding initially to acquire 20 million oyster larvae that will be planted on recycled oyster shell placed in Chesapeake Bay waterways. This will allow VCU to plant more than 2 million oysters in the watershed, and coincides with Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week.

“Oysters are the ultimate friend of the coast as they help to keep our waters clean,” said Casey Davidson, founder of Toadfish Outfitters. “Since day one, we’ve promised to give back a portion of every product sold toward oyster habitat restoration, so working with VCU was a natural fit.”

VOSRP, part of VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, is a collaborative, community-based oyster restoration program that works closely with the Virginia seafood industry. The VOSRP currently collects recycled oyster shells from more than 50 restaurants and 30 public drop-off locations statewide to use in the creation of sanctuary oyster reefs. The shells are seeded with juvenile oysters before they are planted. These efforts are direly needed because the Virginia oyster population is currently estimated to be at two percent of peak numbers.

“We are excited about the new partnership between Toadfish Outfitters and the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program to help bring the Virginia oyster back to Chesapeake Bay,” said Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of VCU Rice Rivers Center. “The work of Toadfish has supported oyster restoration in other states and this contribution will advance our waterway conservation efforts.”

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A new positioning system invented by a VCU professor delivers where GPS fails

Wei Cheng’s system allows a group of devices to know where they are in relation to one another, and could have hundreds of practical applications, from finding a friend at a concert to locating a Lyft driver at the airport.

A Virginia Commonwealth University computer science professor has developed a system that could change how we find friends in crowded places, Uber drivers in busy cities, and even family spread across a cruise ship.

Unlike GPS, which provides location data based on latitude and longitude, this new system — invented by Wei Cheng, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering — tells users where they are compared to others.

The system allows a group of devices to know where they are in relation to one another, what direction each device is traveling, and how fast each is moving.

“Think of this technology like a swarm of bees,” Cheng said. “The bees all know where the other bees are, and where they’re going.”

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VCU College of Engineering breaks ground on new research building and makerspace

From left: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering; and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., break ground on VCU’s Engineering Research Building.

Virginia Commonwealth University leaders and dignitaries gathered Tuesday to break ground on a 133,000-square-foot research building that will significantly expand the College of Engineering’s laboratory capacity and serve as a collaboration hub for students and faculty.

The new Engineering Research Building, scheduled to open in 2020, will support advanced research and economic development with a design that emphasizes makerspaces, collaborative research facilities and flexible gathering areas. Richmond-based architecture firms Baskervill and Smith McClane Architects and Boston-based firm Goody Clancy designed the $93 million building, which is being financed by investments from the state, VCU and private support. Washington, D.C.-based Page/SST Planners designed the laboratory spaces.

“The college was established as a public-private partnership with a mandate to educate engineers who will fuel economic development in the region. The ERB reflects our commitment to meeting this goal,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Chair. “Virginia’s support of this critical addition to our teaching and research mission is a strong vote of confidence in our program. We are proud to step into this next phase of our development with the commonwealth as our partner.”

The building will support student-centered learning, meaningful research, workforce development and a culture that promotes creativity, entrepreneurship and global perspectives.

The ERB’s entrance at Cary and Belvidere streets, designed by Smith McClane Architects of Richmond, will continue the college’s tradition of architectural details that refer to past eras of engineering advances. The building’s pavilion design alludes to the 19th-century dawn of industrial engineering with a roofline that features updated smokestacks. A brick-and-glass pavilion and large courtyard will feature power-equipped seating areas so students can research and collaborate outdoors as well as in the large internal atrium.

The building’s first floor will include the office of Engineering Career Services and economic development resources for the college’s internship and co-op programs. A 9,000-square-foot Innovation Maker Facility, supported by a gift from Altria, will foster hands-on engineering and prototype development skills essential for transition into careers in industry. With resources that include 3D printing, bench electrical fabrication, tabletop equipment and hand tools, the makerspace will stimulate knowledge-sharing, collaborative problem-solving and the rapid design of new ideas.

Floors two, three and four will house faculty research labs, offices, spaces for graduate and undergraduate student research and interactive areas for group seminars. Multidisciplinary and collaborative faculty research “neighborhoods” will be furnished with wet laboratory facilities for biomedical research and dry laboratory spaces.

High-resolution renderings of the building are available for download on the college’s Flickr page.

Make It Real Campaign for VCU passes $600 million

Funds raised so far in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU have established 261 new endowed scholarships and student support funds.

Virginia Commonwealth University has raised $613.5 million toward its $750 million goal in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the university announced today.

Fiscal year 2018 has been the best fundraising year of the campaign so far, with $105.6 million raised to date. The university’s fiscal year ends June 30.

The campaign, which began with a quiet phase in July 2012 and launched publicly in September 2016, is the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history. It counts all funds raised through June 30, 2020.

Gifts to the Make It Real Campaign for VCU support critical university initiatives and growth in three areas: people, innovations and environments.

“This is an incredible milestone in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU and in the history of VCU as a whole,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Our goal is ambitious, but so is our vision. Gifts made to this campaign help us continue transforming the lives of our students, fueling research that improves the human situation, and driving economic development long into the future. I am so grateful to our alumni and friends for the generosity and leadership that enables us to be a public university for the public good.”

Funds raised so far in the campaign have established 261 new endowed scholarships and student support funds, 52 new endowed professorships and chairs, and 72 new endowed faculty support and research funds. They have also supported a number of new buildings, including the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Markel Center, the Inger Rice Lodge at the Rice Rivers Center and a new building for the VCU College of Health Professions.

Of the $105.6 million raised this fiscal year, $38.9 million came from VCU alumni — including 1,789 first-time alumni donors — an increase of 80.4 percent in the committed revenue raised during the same time last year. Fifteen of 19 colleges, schools and units have raised more than 60 percent of their individual campaign fundraising goals. The College of Engineering and School of Education have exceeded their campaign goals and are having their best fundraising years so far. The College of Humanities and Sciences, College of Health Professions and School of Business also are having their best fundraising years to date.

“We cannot thank our donors enough for their generous support of VCU and VCU Health during the Make It Real Campaign for VCU,” said Jay E. Davenport, vice president of development and alumni relations. “We have always had a very generous community, but in this record-setting year, the support has been second to none. It is particularly gratifying to see more alumni giving back. They may be part of our history, but their support is guaranteeing a robust future not just for the students and patients of today and tomorrow but in everything we do.”

For more information about the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, visit campaign.vcu.edu.