VCU’s commitment to LGBTQ+ students recognized

Ted Lewis, executive director, Side by Side; Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves, associate vice president, Division for Inclusive Excellence; and Michael Thorne-Begland, board chair, Side by Side. (Photo by Jeffrey Ocampo)

Virginia Commonwealth University was honored recently with the 2017 Catalyst Award by Side by Side, an organization dedicated to creating supportive communities where Virginia’s LGBTQ+ youth can define themselves, belong and flourish.

Side by Side specifically cited efforts such as VCU’s Lavender House, an inclusive living-learning community for first-year LGBTQ+ students, and the Lavender Empowerment Summit, a weekend forum aimed at empowering LGBTQ+ students to pursue individual and community leadership roles. Side by Side also noted efforts spanning student affairs, athletics, courses offered in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Safe Zone workshops.

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This VCU grad’s company may provide the next level in computer science instruction

Michael Smith – who graduated earlier this month from VCU’s Master of Product Innovation program, shows off a piece of Radiant RVA’s prototype learning system that will teach users how to program for wearable technology.

A company that emerged from the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University has built a prototype device that may soon teach aspiring programmers how to write code and develop for wireless systems, Bluetooth technology and the internet of things.

Radiant RVA, co-founded by Michael Smith (M.P.I.’16/B), who graduated earlier this month from VCU’s Master of Product Innovation program, is aiming to roll out a curriculum along with an interactive device that will teach programming skills to students of all ages, preparing them for computer science projects and future careers.

“Our focus is on doing something in the digital world and seeing it come to life in the physical world,” Smith said. “With this device, you’re going to learn hardware programming techniques. So, if I do some coding, I can turn the lights on and off. You’re learning how to do coding that interacts with the real world. It’s tangible. You’re able to see it, touch it and hear it.”

The company’s learning system device, called the Vector iQ Learning System, looks a bit like a series of model rocket ships, each featuring lights and sounds. The student will use a smartphone to wirelessly connect to the system, and will write code that manipulates the device — turn the lights on and off, change the lights’ colors, make tones and sounds — all while completing lessons from the accompanying curriculum. As the student progresses through the curriculum they will unlock more advanced modules that cover topics ranging from sensors and data collection to cyber-security principles.

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Massey doctors first in the world to use internal radiation implant to treat pancreatic cancer

The CivaSheet is a flat, flexible membrane that provides unidirectional radiation to the site of the tumor.

Doctors at VCU Massey Cancer Center are the first in the world to successfully implant a bio-absorbable, internal radiation device known as CivaSheet to treat early stage pancreatic cancer.

In March, a team of Massey experts led by Emma Fields, M.D. (Cert.’16/E), radiation oncologist; Brian Kaplan, M.D., surgical oncologist; and Dorin Todor, Ph.D., medical physicist, completed the procedure on 70-year-old William Grubbs Jr., of Varina, Virginia, and have reported no complications after six weeks.

Grubbs returned for a follow-up appointment with Kaplan more than one month after the seven-hour surgery, and said he felt no pain related to the implantation.

”If I wasn’t told the CivaSheet was there, I wouldn’t know it was inside me,” Grubbs said.

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This VCU graduate is finding ways to improve access to dental care

Sydney Brown.
Photo courtesy of Posters on the Hill

Affordable and convenient access to adequate dental care is a major public health obstacle in the United States. The U.S. greatly lags behind other industrialized nations with more than 45 million adults and children living in areas with poor access to dental care, according to a 2014 report by The Commonwealth Fund.

That’s a problem Sydney Brown (B.I.S.’16/H&S) is trying to solve through independent research. Brown, who graduated Saturday with a degree in interdisciplinary studies from the College of Humanities and Sciences, was honored at the Council of Undergraduate Research’s annual Posters on the Hill event in April. The competitive research conference featured the work of 60 undergraduate researchers from across the country, chosen out of hundreds of applicants to showcase their work to policymakers in Washington, D.C.

Brown and other researchers shared their findings with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin.

“It was an honor to be able to advocate for the importance of undergraduate research,” Brown said. “I also wish I could speak to more policymakers about improving access to dental care. It’s amazing how much policy impacts public health.”

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An interview with Anna Journey, author of ‘An Arrangement of Skin’

When Anna Journey (B.F.A.’04/A; M.F.A.’07/H&S) was a student in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, she attracted international news coverage for her discovery of an unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath in the archives at Indiana University. The poem, “Ennui,” was published in November 2006 in Blackbird, an online literary journal of the VCU Department of English and New Virginia Review Inc.

Today, Journey continues to attract attention, but it is her writing rather than her research that is the source of her renown. Journey is the author of the essay collection “An Arrangement of Skin” (Counterpoint) and three books of poems: “The Atheist Wore Goat Silk” (LSU Press), “Vulgar Remedies” (LSU Press) and “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” (University of Georgia Press), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have drawn praise from such luminaries as the film director David Lynch, who called Journey’s poetry “really magical,” and the poet Erin Belieu, who said Journey “brings me surprise after surprise in language so vivid, peculiar, truthful, and moving, that I gulp the poems down, a glutton for their strange energies and observations.”

Journey holds a B.F.A. in art education from the VCU School of the Arts, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She’s currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. “An Arrangement of Skin,” which was published in March, is Journey’s latest work. In his praise for the book, Mark Doty, the National Book Award-winning poet, said Journey “might be our first Southern Gothic essayist, and she invigorates the form with both a poet’s lyricism and the distinctive signature of her character: a vulnerable heart wedded to an acute, comic, unsparing eye.”

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School of Medicine alumnus treats the neediest patients in some of the world’s most dangerous countries

Adrian J. Holloway, M.D. (M.D.’06/M) has traveled the world — to some of the most dangerous countries, by State Department reckoning — as an educator and cardiac intensivist. He is treated children fleeing ISIS in Northern Iraq, malaria victims in Malawi and earthquake survivors in Haiti.

What has he learned?

“No matter where you go, mothers are the same,” said Holloway, a 2006 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “They know when their child is sick, and they know when their child is healthy.”

Holloway, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, plans to make sure more of them stay healthy. It’s part of his work as program director of the Global Health Pediatric Critical Care Fellowship, the first of its kind, and it’s given him the chance to assist in coordinating efforts to develop the first pediatric intensive care unit in Malawi.

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Tim Kaine tells VCU graduates to become better listeners

“We live in a society where there is a lot of talking and not much listening. It seems like everyone is doing a monologue and there is not much real dialogue going on,” Kaine said. “A key for your success will be to be as good a listener as you can be. Focus on what people are really saying, undistracted by your electronics or own impatience to jump in to say what you have to say. And even change your mind. People will really notice this.”

Kaine was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012 and is a member of the Armed Services; Budget; Foreign Relations; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. First elected to office in 1994, Kaine served on the Richmond City Council and later was mayor of Richmond. He became lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2002 and was inaugurated as Virginia’s 70th governor in 2006. He also was the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice president in the 2016 presidential election.

Students received professional, graduate and undergraduate degrees at the ceremony. In all, VCU awarded nearly 5,000 degrees.

Kaine said he relishes the opportunity to speak at as many commencement ceremonies as he can.

“Not every day do you get the honor of being with someone on a day that is going to be one of the best days of their lives,” Kaine said. “And graduation is going to be one of the best days of your life.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., told the graduates that it will be critical for them to remain open to new ideas as their lives progress. He said the ability to change one’s mind through time and experience was critical to evolving and improving as a person.

“When we ignore a new truth, when we refuse even to consider the legitimacy of something with which we might disagree, it limits our ability to experience new things,” Rao said. “And that holds back humanity, because it blocks our beliefs about what may be possible for any of us to achieve.”

The Edward A. Wayne Award, which honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions or provided exemplary service to VCU, was presented to Pam and Bill Royall. Sogand Karimian received the Board of Visitors Award, which recognizes the achievements of an outstanding undergraduate student who represents the distinctive attributes of a VCU student: outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and service to the university and the community at large. Karimian, a nursing major, will receive a one-year scholarship equal to in-state tuition and fees.

Globe-trotter: Esther Johnston travels the world to provide health care to underserved populations

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Esther Johnston, M.D. (M.D.’11/M), has spent more than a decade traveling across continents providing health care for underserved populations.

She dreamt at an early age of becoming an investigative reporter, but as she entered high school, her passion shifted to medicine. She says she knew a career in health care would constantly challenge her and lead to a lifetime of learning.

“From the moment I realized it, I knew it was the right fit,” says Johnston, director of family medicine programs for the Boston-based nonprofit Seed Global Health and faculty member with the Wright Center Family Medicine Residency at HealthPoint in Auburn, Washington. “I wanted to do something where I would wake up feeling good every morning.”

Johnston attended the University of California, San Diego for her undergraduate degrees while working with the Flying Samaritans. The group works with a clinic in Ensenada, Mexico to improve access to health care in the community. It was there that she first witnessed the radical differences in health care outside of the U.S.

After graduating from UC San Diego with bachelor’s degrees in animal physiology and neuroscience and history, Johnston took a year off from school and traveled east to Charlottesville, Virginia. She split her time between working in the University of Virginia’s biomedical department and working as a coordinator for the Charlottesville Free Clinic before enrolling in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

“I chose VCU because there weren’t a lot of schools in the country at the time with programs like the [International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program] focused on helping underserved populations,” she says. “Being a part of that laid the foundation for a lot of the work I’ve done since.”

In her first year, one of her lifelong mentors, Mark Ryan, M.D. (M.D.’00/M; H.S.’03/M), assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health and medical director of the I2CRP program, helped Johnston start a Spanish-language learning group, the Spanish Table, to encourage medical students to develop a working understanding of the language so they could better serve patients.

“When I first met her, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to add much to her training because of all the experience she already had, but she was willing to share that knowledge to teach others and strengthen their abilities as well,” Ryan says. “There are some students where one can feel grateful for having been part of their learning, and that you develop lasting relationships, and I am very glad that I can count [Esther] among my friends and colleagues.”

For Johnston, the feeling is mutual.

“[Dr. Ryan] inspired me to work both internationally and domestically with underserved populations,” Johnston says. “I feel like there are so many people around the country who are grateful to have met him and just have him as a teacher.”

That same year, Johnston met Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H. (H.S.’00/M), the Fletcher Emory Ammons Professors in Surgery in the School of Medicine, chair of the Division of Acute Care Surgical Services and medical director of the VCU Trauma Center, who played a large role in her decision to pursue a career in public health.

After completing her second year of medical school, Johnston left VCU to earn a master’s in public health at John Hopkins University. Her degree focused primarily on international health and for most of that year, she worked on a water quality and safety project within the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

With her M.P.H. in tow, Johnston returned to VCU, and by her fourth year, she was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under a CDC-Hubert Global Health Fellowship to develop a pandemic influenza surveillance program in Nairobi, Kenya.

“It turns out, within a few days of arriving, there was an outbreak of measles within the refugee population we worked with, and I had to switch focus to figure out what the barriers to immunization were for those refugees in the capital,” Johnston says. “I was extremely grateful for the strong support I had from VCU to work on this project while I was still finishing school. They did everything possible to make sure I had everything I needed to complete my degree and still finish my work with the CDC.”

Johnston earned her M.D. in 2011 and completed her residency at the University of Arizona’s Continuity Clinic less than 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, where she served a large refugee population in a hospital-based training environment. Afterward, she joined the Global Health Service Partnership, run by Seed Global Health and the Peace Corps, to teach pediatrics and child health at Hubert Kairuki Memorial University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

“It was challenging at times, but it was an incredibly fulfilling experience,” she says. “When I finished the trip, I was given the opportunity to continue my involvement with Seed Global Health, and I love it.”

With her time split between Seed Global Health and the Wright Center at HealthPoint, Johnston still keeps VCU close to her heart as the place where she found her calling with the help of her two mentors, Ryan and Aboutanos.

“It was exhilarating to be surrounded by people who were passionate about the same things I was,” Johnston says. “I’ll never forget my time at VCU.”


Jon-Phillip Sheridan, assistant professor of photography and film, lectures during a class at the Depot.

Commuters and pedestrians at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets often gaze up at the gravity-bending Institute for Contemporary Art. Now, those stuck in traffic have something new to admire thanks to the VCU Green Walls Class.

The low-key building shared by VCU RamBikes and the Office of Sustainability has been transformed with vertical planters — commercial, stick built and even made of recycled and adapted materials — in the culmination of a class meshing students from the School of the Arts, School of Engineering and College of Humanities and SciencesDepartment of Biology.

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English professor discovers, digitizes historic slave manuscript in Library of Congress

Katherine Bassard, a professor of African American literature in the Department of English, found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

Fields Cook was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1817, and though he died more than 100 years ago, his life and most intimate thoughts survive and were recently revived.

“A Scetch of My Own Life by Fields Cook” is one of the few, if only, surviving manuscripts written before the Civil War by a slave still in bondage. The historic document recently was discovered by Katherine Bassard, Ph.D., (M.A.’86/H&S). senior vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of African American literature in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

With the help of Joshua Eckhardt, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and two dedicated graduate student workers, Bassard is turning the manuscript into a digitized, searchable, and freely downloadable file.

“It’s the first enslaved writer of an autobiography, the first slave narrative with manuscript provenance, and the first African American writer writing primarily for an audience other than white northerners,” Bassard said.

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