Giving with every swipe: Former Rams start new donation platform

Empower group

Rob Brandenberg (left), D.J. Haley and Jeremy Senseng created Empower Card to make charitable giving easy.

By Anthony Langley

In June 2015, Rob Brandenberg (B.I.S.’13/H&S) was visiting his friend and former Virginia Commonwealth University basketball teammate Darrell “D.J.” Haley (B.I.S.’13/H&S). The pair started discussing ways to give back to the Richmond, Virginia, community that had supported them so much during their time in college.

A short time later, Haley came up with the concept of Empowerment Through Action, an initiative that would allow people to change the world via charity. He knew Brandenberg would be the perfect partner to help him bring the idea to life. As student-athletes, Haley and Brandenberg spent time working with children in the communities surrounding VCU, reading to them and taking them shopping for Christmas presents, so creating a product with a charitable inclination was second nature for the duo.

While discussing ETA on Twitter, Haley was contacted by VCU alumnus Jeremy Senseng (B.S.’11/H&S), who was looking for a way to merge his skills in marketing with his degree in psychology, and the three decided to meet for dinner.

“We went out for kebabs, and Empower Card was born from that dinner conversation,” says Haley, the company’s founder and CEO.

Empower Card aims to make giving to local nonprofits easy, effective and transparent. Users link Empower Card to their debit or credit card and every time they shop, 5 percent of the total purchase goes to a cause of their choice. The trio believes that by making nonprofits more visible to the public, real change can occur.

“The entire project is rooted in giving back and making a positive change,” says Brandenberg, who serves as director of client relations.

While the company is in the early stages of development, four Richmond-area nonprofits are already registered to receive funds through the program: VCU Alumni, the Autism Society Central Virginia, Beds for Kids Inc. and Friends Association for Children. And Senseng, Empower Card’s director of marketing, has several verbal commitments from other companies wanting to use the platform.

Local consumers are excited about the launch, too, with more than 200 people requesting to be notified when Empower Card goes live. The team members are nothing but optimistic about the platform’s future.

“Us all being Rams, we have a great opportunity to change the world,” Haley says. “We want to leave a lasting legacy, knowing that we helped people.”

Anthony Langley is a VCU senior majoring in mass communications.

VCU becomes first Virginia university to offer Ph.D. in oral health research


A new Ph.D. program at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry will provide training for students who wish to pursue research in oral health or the biomedical sciences.

The Doctor of Philosophy program in oral health research, which is focused on cancer, infection and stem cell engineering, will welcome its inaugural class in the fall semester. VCU is the first university in the state to offer a Ph.D. program focused on oral health research.

“The importance of good oral health, and its relationship to overall human health, is well documented,” said David Sarrett, D.M.D., dean of the VCU School of Dentistry. “The Ph.D. program in oral health research will emphasize these relationships in training future researchers, who will make discoveries and translate them to improved patient care by dentists and oral health care providers.”

Doctoral-level faculty primarily from School of Dentistry, and also from the School of Medicine and School of Engineering, will mentor students through cross-disciplinary research projects in the program, which emphasizes independent research and culminates in the completion of an original research project.

“While the program is based in the School of Dentistry, it will have active collaborations across the university allowing for mutual exchange of talent and expertise,” said program director Oonagh Loughran, Ph.D.

Read more.

Brandcenter alumni dominate Super Bowl 50


Last night, Johnny Roelofs (M.S.’13/B), a 2013 graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, felt like a proud papa when the Audi commercial he helped conceive aired during the Super Bowl.

“The excitement around knowing that almost every person I know will [have seen] the baby that I started working on eight months ago is unmatched,” said Roelofs, a senior strategist at Venables Bell & Partners. “There aren’t many professions where your work is seen by so many people on such a big stage at the same time, and it’s a privilege to be given that opportunity.”

This year, VCU Brandcenter graduates worked on 13 TV spots that aired during the Super Bowl. Twenty different alumni played a role in those ads.

Roelofs’ Audi spot promoting its new R8 V10 Plus vehicle points out that man’s greatest accomplishments and improvements come from moments of choosing risk. Putting a man on the moon was a risky decision, Roelofs said, but it led to personal computers, laser surgery and countless other technologies we use today.

“The R8 is Audi’s top car and represents a series of great leaps forward in design and engineering,” he said. “But many of those leaps forward were driven by risky decisions that went against the ‘normal’ way of doing things in luxury automotive. It was those decisions that led to our best-engineered car yet. … We wanted to illustrate how the best advancements come from moments of risk and show how that mindset lives in the car itself.”

Brandcenter alumna Morgan Aceino helped develop Omelet’s ad celebrating 20 years of Pokémon in the brand’s first-ever Super Bowl spot. The Omelet team infused the spot with the energy and finesse needed to properly honor the Pokémon empire. Since the story had to both speak to the Trainers – the people who catch, train, care for, and battle with Pokémon – who have been with the franchise for 20 years and to spark the imagination of the next generation, the team spent extra time speaking to people from both camps.

Read more and watch the alumni’s Super Bowl spots.

Beyond basketball: VCU stars Melvin Johnson and Mo Alie-Cox intern at the General Assembly


Mo Alie-Cox and Melvin Johnson

When they aren’t at practice, class or study hall or leading the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team to yet another win, Melvin Johnson and Mo Alie-Cox can be found this semester interning at the General Assembly, getting a firsthand look at Virginia’s legislative process.

Johnson and Alie-Cox, both criminal justice majors in the L. Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, are standout starters for a Rams team that has soared to a 17-5 record and sole possession of first place in the Atlantic 10. The internships appealed to them because they wanted to gain experience and a better understanding of criminal justice policy.

“At the time, I didn’t know too much about it, but I thought it’d be a good experience, given that I’m a criminal justice major and I want to get to know people in the field,” Alie-Cox said. “The other day Coach [Will] Wade came up to us and was like, ‘Do you realize [interning at the General Assembly] is a big-time thing?’ I hadn’t really realized that until now, sitting here in the meetings and seeing all the work being done.”

Wade praised Johnson and Alie-Cox for being excellent student-athletes.

“We’re thrilled Mo and Melvin have the opportunity to volunteer at the General Assembly this semester,” he said. “They’ve been terrific examples for the other guys in our program in terms of maximizing the educational resources available to them. They’ve embraced the student-athlete ideal, and they’re two of the hardest-working guys in our program on and off the court. They may be terrific basketball players, but they’re each going to be incredibly successful in something other than basketball.”

Read more.

VCU School of Nursing student and alumna selected as a Jonas Scholar


Christina Wilson

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing announced that Christina Wilson, RN, WHNP-BC (M.S.’13/N), a Ph.D. student, was selected for the highly competitive Jonas Nurse Leader Scholars Program of the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare. She is one of 425 doctoral students nationwide chosen for the 2016-2018 cohort.

The mission of the Jonas Scholar program is to increase the number of doctorally prepared faculty available to teach in nursing schools nationwide and the number of nurse leaders providing direct patient care and filling roles as clinical faculty. Sponsored by the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare, the program provides financial assistance, leadership development and networking support to expand the pipeline of future nurse faculty and advanced practice nurses.

As a Jonas Scholar, Wilson will receive a $10,000 scholarship, matched by the VCU School of Nursing, to support her doctoral studies. She joins more than 1,000 future nurse educators and leaders at 140 universities across all 50 states supported by Jonas Center programs, the Jonas Nurse Leaders Scholars Program and Jonas Veterans Healthcare Program (JVHP). These scholarships support nurses pursuing Ph.D.s and DNPs, the terminal degrees in the field, as part of a national effort to stem the faculty shortage and prepare the next generation of nurses, which is critical as a clinical nurse shortage is anticipated just as an aging population requires care.

Read more.

VCU engineering professor named one of Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists of 2016

Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D.

Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D., Commonwealth Professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, has been named one of Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists of 2016.

Bandyopadhyay, who teaches in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at VCU, is the international leader in spintronics, the science of using the quantum mechanical spin properties of electrons to store, process and communicate information. His work extends into nanostructured devices, in which he pioneered the electrochemical self-assembly of nanostructures and co-holds a patent on this invention.

“VCU is fortunate to have esteemed professors such as Dr. Bandyopadhyay, whose commitment and enthusiasm for advancing scholarship helps the university achieve its deserved recognition among national research universities,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “We are proud that he has received this esteemed honor for his important contributions to research and academia.”

Read more.

First all-black comic book added to VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection


All-Negro Comics No. 1 was the first comic book written and drawn exclusively by African-American comics creators.

VCU Libraries has acquired an extremely rare copy of All-Negro Comics No. 1, the first comic book written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists.

“It’s one of the holy grails of comics,” said Cindy Jackson (B.S.’93/B; B.A.’01/H&S; M.A.’05/H&S), library specialist for comic arts, who oversees VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection, which has roughly 175,000 items, including more than 125,000 comic books. “It is so important to the history of comics. I’ve been in this job for 20 years and I never thought I’d ever hold one of these in my hands. And now we have one in the collection for researchers to use.”

All-Negro Comics No. 1 is a 48-page anthology comic published in June 1947 and remembered not only for being the first comic by African-American creators, but also for its positive portrayal of African-American characters — such as detective Ace Harlem and Lion Man, a college-educated, scientist superhero — in an era in which most African-American comic book characters were racist caricatures.

“It’s the first time you see respectful treatment of African-American characters,” Jackson said. “It is a time capsule. It is a very of-the-1940s comic, but it shows the African-American characters doing things that previously had only ever been done by white characters — things like solving mysteries and being the hero, not the sidekick.”

All-Negro Comics was published by Philadelphia newspaper reporter Orrin C. Evans along with two partners. Evans, who died in 1971, was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2014.

Tom De Haven, a creative writing professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the author of “It’s Superman!” and “Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies,” among other novels and graphic novels, said that All-Negro Comics No. 1 is “one of the very rarest of the rare.”

Read more.

In South Africa, VCU-led delegation sparks social change through soccer


A delegation led by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership is in South Africa this week and next as part of a U.S. Department of State-backed effort to boost cultural understanding and spark social change through the country’s passion for soccer.

“It’s sport diplomacy,” said Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D., executive director of the center, which is part of the VCU School of Education. “The goal is to basically increase cultural understanding between the U.S. and people of South Africa through sport. Our other goal is positive social change.”

The two-week trip is part of Project PUSH — or “Play Until Something Happens” — a partnership between the VCU Center for Sport Leadership and the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club, as well as the Boys & Girls Clubs of South AfricaRagball International and Grassroots Soccer. It is funded by a $200,000 grant from the U. S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ International Sports Programming Initiative.

Last June, 14 youth soccer coaches from South Africa visited Richmond to work with the Center for Sport Leadership and the Richmond Strikers to learn how sport can be used as a teaching tool in the areas of leadership, teamwork, education, responsibility and lifelong learning.

Also as part of their training in Richmond, the South African coaches developed action plans to use soccer to address specific social challenges facing their communities back home, such as teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, and HIV/AIDS education.

Now, the eight-person delegation from the United States is visiting Johannesburg and Cape Town to meet with the organizations and clubs of the coaches who visited the U.S. last year and to observe and assess implementation of their social change action plans.

Read more.

New research suggests alternative treatment target for schizophrenia

Javier González-Maeso, Ph.D.

Javier González-Maeso, Ph.D.

A new study by Virginia Commonwealth University researchers suggests that dysregulation in the way two G protein-coupled receptors talk to each other may be responsible for some symptoms of schizophrenia and could lead to new treatment targets.

The study “Allosteric signaling through an mGlu2 and 5-HT2A heteromeric receptor complex and its potential contribution to schizophrenia,” was published in the journal Science Signaling in January.

GPCRs are proteins that sense signaling molecules such as hormones and neurotransmitters and are the targets of many prescribed drugs. Healthy brain function relies on GPCR signaling, and alterations in this process can result in various diseases and ailments, including hypertension, diabetes and pain, as well as neurological and psychiatric disorders.

In this case, researchers analyzed the structure of two GPCRs involved in schizophrenia and antipsychotic drug action: serotonin 5-HT2A and glutamate mGlu2.

Until relatively recently, these GPCRs were assumed to function as monomeric signaling units. Monomers are proteins made up of a single polypeptide chain. In a 2008 study published in Nature by the same team, researchers discovered that these two GPCRs were actually assembled as heteromeric complexes, which contain two or more polypeptide chains, and are located in close molecular proximity at the cell surface. This structure functions in a different way than the monomeric complex and changes the way therapeutic drugs affect it, too. Building on that knowledge, researchers in the new study were able to characterize the mechanism for how 5-HT2A and mGlu2 crosstalk within the receptor complex and show that this crosstalk is altered in both lab mice and postmortem brain tissue samples of schizophrenic patients.

“We found that if you activate only the mGlu2 receptor in single cells expressing both mGlu2 and 5-HT2A, you have both Gi signaling and Gq signaling,” said Javier González-Maeso, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the VCU School of Medicine. However, when you activate the mGlu2 receptor in animals without the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor, Gq signaling doesn’t occur. The brain tissue samples of schizophrenic patients indicated the same thing: Gi signaling but no Gq signaling.

Read more.

Study: Shorter hospital stay for hip fracture associated with increased odds of survival

Stephen Kates, M.D.

The longer a hip fracture patient stays in a hospital, the more likely that patient will die within 30 days of leaving, according to a study led by Stephen Kates, M.D., chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

The study, published in a December 2015 issue of the British Medical Journal, refuted conclusions from a February 2015 BMJ article that had reported that longer hospital stays lead to increased odds of survival following hip fracture. The original study, which was published by a research team from Sweden, found that Swedish patients who spend less time at the hospital are more likely to die after they leave compared with those who stay longer at the hospital.

“The Swedish study said that the longer the patient stays in the hospital, the better,” Kates said. “I felt that was a harmful finding to transmit to the medical public in the U.S.”

There are about 340,000 hip fractures in the U.S. in a year, with the majority of patients between the ages of 81 to 85 years old. The research team from the University of Rochester, where Kates served as a Hansörg Wyss Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery before joining VCU in November, looked at a sampling of more than 188,000 patients admitted to hospitals for hip fracture in the state of New York from 2000 to 2011. Researchers found that hospital stays of 11 to 14 days for hip fracture were associated with a 32 percent increased odds of death 30 days after discharge, compared with stays lasting one to five days. The odds of death increased to 103 percent for stays longer than 14 days.

Read more.