‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’ selected as VCU’s 2016 Common Book

As part of a yearlong, universitywide Common Book initiative, thousands of incoming Virginia Commonwealth University students will read “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” a 2014 book that tells the true account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, provides a window into the lives of those he has defended, and makes an argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

“Just Mercy” is by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children in need facing the criminal justice system. It tells the story of one of Stevenson’s first cases, that of Walter McMillian, a young man who had been convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he insisted he did not commit.

“The selection committee thought the compelling and powerful story that Stevenson tells of his path from an undergraduate student to a Harvard Law School graduate’s dedication to serving marginalized communities would engage first-year students, who are on the front end of their own academic journeys and discoveries,” said initiative director Shelli Fowler, Ph.D., interim dean of University College and associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

The selection committee was also struck by Stevenson’s ability to invite all readers to explore the complexities of mercy and justice in society, and students and faculty alike felt that the book supported VCU’s ongoing commitment to inclusive excellence and creating a welcoming campus for all, Fowler said.

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Ahead of the game: Students Today Alumni Tomorrow, or STAT, aims to create lasting connections between current students, alumni and the university

For his application interview with STAT, the Students Today Alumni Tomorrow organization at Virginia Commonwealth University, Eric Hogarth’s hosts requested he dress in a way that was representative of both himself and his relationship to the VCU community. Hogarth, a mechanical engineering student at the time, arrived wearing a nice suit and black-and-gold VCU-themed face paint. Business on the body, rowdy on the face.

Questions during the subsequent interview covered topics both straightforward (How do you view VCU? What role does VCU have in the community?) and unorthodox (What kind of fruit would you be?).

Hogarth reveled in the opportunity to demonstrate both his thoughtful, academic side and his spirited, fun-loving side in the same meeting. The interview was illustrative of an organization determined to both improve and support VCU and find creative ways for its members to enjoy themselves. Today, Hogarth, who works for engineering consultancy WSP in the Washington, D.C., area, says his experience with STAT was a critical part of his education at VCU, revealing to him the diversity of people and opportunities on the university’s campuses and showing him how he could play a bigger part in fostering that environment.

“STAT really opened doors for me that I hadn’t seen as accessible before,” Hogarth said.

STAT was founded to promote interaction between students and alumni and to strengthen the student experience at VCU. The organization has expanded quickly, growing to more than 1,200 members since its inception in 2009, making it the largest student organization on campus. It has already attracted prestigious accolades, including two national awards last year at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Conference for Student Advancement.

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Social work students deliver ‘extraordinary’ help to families at pediatrician’s office

From left: Stephanie Lizama, a senior social work major; Ted Abernathy. M.D., of Pediatric & Adolescent Health Partners; and Sarah Presley, a second-year Master of Social Work student.

From left: Stephanie Lizama, a senior social work major; Ted Abernathy. M.D., of Pediatric & Adolescent Health Partners; and Sarah Presley, a second-year Master of Social Work student.

It was one of the worst days ever experienced by the staff at Pediatric & Adolescent Health Partners in Midlothian. That morning, a young patient had died from an illness, and everyone was grieving. And in the evening, a parent losing custody of her children was scheduled to transfer custody to the father at the pediatrician’s office.

“The staff was dealing with the death of this child, we were trying to get all of our work done and at the same time seeing our kids in the office,” said Ted Abernathy, M.D. (M.D.’70/M), who founded the practice and graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “And then a dad [in a divorce situation] walked in with a stack of medical records that was at least 2 1/2 inches high. He told us that he had concerns that his child was in danger.”

With just a few short hours before the custody transfer and with the staff preoccupied with grief, Abernathy took the stack of medical records and handed them to the practice’s two interns, Sarah Presley and Stephanie Lizama, both students at the VCU School of Social Work.

“We had a full load that day with a lot of emotions,” Abernathy recalled. “I took that stack of papers and I put it on their desk and said, ‘Ladies, I need your help. I need you to go through these records, and figure out how we’re going to help this family.’”

Presley, a second-year Master of Social Work student, and Lizama, a rising senior social work major, dug into the child’s medical records, placing a sticky note on each page to track every medical visit that might be relevant to any possible danger facing the child.

“They jumped right into it as a team,” he said. “When they were done with it, they handed it back to me and I was able to quickly go through the chart and figure out what was wrong. We now were able to report this to the authorities – and they did it all. They talked to the authorities, they talked to the lawyers, they talked to all the people involved.”

“That day, with everything being so horrible, they went to just extraordinary lengths to help these people,” he said.

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Virginia’s campus law enforcement leaders honor VCU’s police chief

From left: Chief Craig Branch of Germanna Community College, the immediate past president of VACLEA; VCU Police Chief John Venuti; and Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security.

From left: Chief Craig Branch of Germanna Community College, the immediate past president of VACLEA; VCU Police Chief John Venuti; and Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s chief of police has been honored by his state peers for outstanding contributions to campus law enforcement.

VCU Police Chief John Venuti received the Robert C. Dillard Award on June 9 from the Virginia Association for Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

According to VACLEA, the award honors “an individual who has made a significant sustained contribution to the advancement of campus law enforcement or security practices in Virginia.” The award is named for retired University of Richmond Police Chief Robert C. Dillard, who served as a leader in campus police professionalism in Virginia for more than 40 years.

“Chief Venuti actively supports law enforcement across the commonwealth, serving on various task forces to reduce sexual assault and raise awareness about mental health issues on campus,” said VACLEA President David McCoy. “As a colleague, he is always available to provide his insight, debate an issue, or assist when needed, which are traits that support the core values of VACLEA.”

Venuti currently serves as VCU’s assistant vice president of public safety. Since starting as chief of the VCU Police Department in 2010, he has implemented numerous initiatives to further the university’s commitment to maintaining a safe, inclusive environment:

  • In 2012-2013 he oversaw the implementation of an extensive security camera system upgrade that has yielded photographic and video evidence in nearly 1,200 instances.
  • VCU Police launched the LiveSafe app in 2013. The app has more than 12,000 users who can send texts, photos and videos directly to emergency dispatchers.
  • Patrol officers started wearing body-worn video cameras in 2015 in an effort to increase transparency with the community.
  • Since 2012, Venuti has used a perception of safety survey to get detailed feedback about safety concerns from students, faculty and staff. In spring 2016, 97 percent of respondents reported feeling “safe” or “very safe” on VCU’s campuses.

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VCU opens rare university-based sterile compounding pharmacy

Students prepare an antibiotic to demonstrate the capabilities of the new Center for Compounding Practice and Research space.

Students prepare an antibiotic to demonstrate the capabilities of the new Center for Compounding Practice and Research space.

At the ribbon-cutting for Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy’s Center for Compounding Practice and Research, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., spoke to the room of faculty, staff, students and state legislators about the university’s innovative approach to education.

“We are trendsetters,” Rao said. “We have to be ahead of the change so that others who are behind us can follow.”

On Friday, VCU celebrated the opening of the sterile medication compounding facility. The academic pharmacy is one of only a handful of its kind in the country.

“Completion of this center puts us at the forefront of schools of pharmacy around the country in terms of compounding training,” said Joseph T. Dipiro, Pharm.D., dean of the VCU School of Pharmacy. “It will propel VCU to become a regional and national training center for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, industry personnel and pharmaceutical regulators.”

Pharmacy compounding is the art and science of preparing personalized medications for patients. Compounded medications are made based on a practitioner’s prescription in which individual ingredients are mixed together in the exact strength and dosage form required by the patient. At one time, nearly all prescriptions were compounded, but with the advent of mass drug manufacturing in the 1950s and ‘60s, compounding rapidly declined and most pharmacists were no longer trained on how to compound medications. Compounding has thus become a specialization and, while many pharmacy schools still teach it, it is often reduced to a few lessons.

“Specialized medications, patient-specific medications and drug shortages have led to an increase in our need to be able to compound medications,” said Barbara Exum, Pharm.D., director of the new center. “This increase has led to the need to educate our pharmacists and give them advanced training in safely compounding medication for our patients.”

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Student catalogs VCU Libraries’ collection of pre-1800 books, greatly enhancing their research value

Julian Neuhauser, a VCU English graduate student, has been cataloging VCU Libraries' collection of books published before 1800, greatly enhancing their research value and discoverability.

Julian Neuhauser, a VCU English graduate student, has been cataloging VCU Libraries’ collection of books published before 1800, greatly enhancing their research value and discoverability.

The stacks of books in Julian Neuhauser’s office in James Branch Cabell Library are very old and very rare. There is a tiny book, dating back to 1709, that is bound with tortoise shell. There is an early goatskin-bound copy of “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the original dictionary by Samuel Johnson. And there is a 1723 edition of “Daimonologia, or, A Treatise of Spirits,” an occult text from the personal library of Richmond fantasy author James Branch Cabell, namesake of the James Branch Cabell Library.

These rare books have long been available to researchers as part of VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, but now, thanks to the efforts of Neuhauser, a graduate student in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, they are more accessible than ever before.

Over the past year, Neuhauser has been cataloging VCU Libraries’ trove of books published before 1800, allowing researchers to not only search by author, title and subject, but also now by a wide variety of material features.

“Especially with older books, one thing that’s interesting to book historians like me is the material aspects of the books,” Neuhauser said. “Now that we have opened up the catalog to be searched by material terms, you can, say, look for all of VCU Libraries’ books that have a certain type of paper, or that have a specific type of binding, or have gold tooling, or have gilt edges and things like that.”

For book historians, he said, studying the physical properties of books provides insight into the printing processes and bookselling industry of a period, which opens up new culturally significant literary readings.

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Five named to VCU Board of Visitors

Left to right are Shantaram Talegaonkar, M.D., Keith T. Parker and H. Benson “Ben” Dendy III.

Left to right are Shantaram Talegaonkar, M.D., Keith T. Parker and H. Benson “Ben” Dendy III.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has appointed three new members to the Virginia Commonwealth University Board of Visitors and reappointed two others.

H. Benson “Ben” Dendy III, Keith T. Parker (B.A.’90/A) and Shantaram Talegaonkar, M.D., will join VCU’s governing body on July 1. Reappointed to a second four-year term on the board are John A. Luke Jr. and Robert Holsworth, Ph.D. Talegaonkar will fill the unexpired term of Sudhakar Shenoy.

Dendy has served as a senior staff member for two Virginia governors, holding positions as diverse as secretary of the commonwealth, secretary to the governor’s cabinet and special assistant to the governor. He began his career in state government in 1978 as a legislative assistant to the lieutenant governor. Dendy currently serves as president of Vectre Corporation, a lobbying firm. He is chair of the board of trustees of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, among other board positions.

Parker is the general manager and CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, the nation’s ninth-largest transit system. Previously, Parker served as the CEO for transit systems in San Antonio and Charlotte. Parker serves on President Barack Obama’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council, among other appointments. Parker is a VCU alumnus, with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree. He also holds an MBA from the University of Richmond.

Talegaonkar is a board-certified ophthalmologist who started practicing in the Richmond region in 1975. Talegaonkar serves as a member of the board of trustees of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, among other board appointments. He is also a founding member of the Hindu Center of Richmond. Talegaonkar is a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a recipient of the Humanitarian Award from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.

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Evolving science: VCU Rice Rivers Center hosts seventh annual research symposium

Students present research during the afternoon poster session at VCU Rice Rivers Center

Students present research during the afternoon poster session at VCU Rice Rivers Center

A new frog species, a look at songbird population dynamics in the nonbreeding season, a device to simulate sea-level rise, and how urbanization could be affecting inchworms were among the topics presented at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium last month.

More than 80 scientists and researchers filled a room overlooking the James River to hear 10 presentations and watch two short films at the symposium. The afternoon included a poster session and a tribute to Leonard Smock, Ph.D., director of VCU Rice Rivers Center and interim vice provost of VCU Life Sciences, who is retiring this year.

Smock noted the evolution of life sciences research over the years. “When we started the wetland restoration, the only research going on out there was plant ecology,” Smock said. “Now, it has matured considerably to take in global climate change and rising sea level impacts on the wetlands.”

He credits an investment in environmental technologies for expanding the scope of what researchers can do.

Dong Lee, Ph.D.(B.S.’05/B), postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has been building electronic devices to assist biologists in their work. In his presentation he emphasized that commercial devices often do not answer the needs for a researcher’s specific work, may be cost prohibitive or could be both. Lee’s solution is to make your own. He demonstrated his DIY approach with a project to build a water pump that simulates sea-level rise in tidal freshwater wetlands.

“I’m thinking a lot of these students and faculty are saying, ‘Hey wait a minute. I can use a sensor to do XYZ. I’m going down to the lab and see if he can’t build that for me,’” Smock said.

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‘Macbeth: Unhinged’ to screen at 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival

Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts has announced its feature film “Macbeth: Unhinged” will make its international festival world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 15–26. This year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which is celebrating its 70th year, is featuring the work of Scotland’s top film artists.

“Macbeth” is a collaboration between the VCU School of the Arts and Angus Macfadyen (“TURN: Washington’s Spies,” “Braveheart”), the film’s writer, director and lead actor. The School of the Arts served as the film’s producer, with faculty members and students from the Cinema Program working as the production company that handled all of the production and post-production work.

“The VCUarts Cinema Program prides itself on fostering firsthand experiences in film production so our students can cultivate the skills they need to succeed as future film professionals,” said Rob Tregenza, Ph.D., program director and executive producer of the film. “This project enabled our students the opportunity to work alongside professional filmmakers as fellow collaborators in the creative process. The relationship we’ve fostered through working with the Virginia Film Office has bettered our students and workforce development efforts across the commonwealth.”

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Shedding light on a vaping trend: Researchers study the use of e-cigarettes for illicit drugs

Joey Stone, who just graduated with a master’s degree in forensic chemistry, demonstrates the team's technique for testing e-cigarettes' efficacy for using illegal drugs.

Joey Stone, who just graduated with a master’s degree in forensic chemistry, demonstrates the team’s technique for testing e-cigarettes’ efficacy for using illegal drugs.

In a Department of Forensic Science lab at Virginia Commonwealth University, a contraption mechanically puffs on an e-cigarette loaded with methamphetamine, testing how much of the illegal drug is contained in the vapor cloud.

“We are still in the process of looking at meth, so we’re not ready to draw any definite conclusions other than, yes, it’s in the vapor, and, yes, it’s present in ‘reasonable’ concentrations — or unreasonable, depending on your viewpoint — meaning that it’s vaporizing easily and it’s easy to detect,” said Michelle Peace, Ph.D., assistant professor and associate chair of forensic science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “We haven’t tested THC [the primary psychoactive component of marijuana] or heroin yet, but we should be running those later in the summer.”

An interdisciplinary team of VCU researchers led by Peace received a roughly $339,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice to launch one of the first studies exploring how drug users are increasingly using e-cigarette devices to vape illicit drugs. Her team includes faculty and researchers from both VCU campuses and from the Departments of Forensic Science, Chemistry, Pathology, and Pharmacology and Toxicology, and undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Forensic Science.

The grant, “Characterization and Abuse of Electronic Cigarettes: The Efficacy of ‘Personal Vaporizers’ as an Illicit Drug Delivery System,” set out to test e-cigarettes’ viability as a method to vape marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs — a trend that has been heralded widely in recent years by drug users in online forums, blogs and videos.

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