VCU researchers identify unexpected functions in the determination of height

Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Engineering

Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Engineering

An interdisciplinary research team led by the deans of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Schools of Medicine and Engineering has for the first time explained the association between human height and a specific protein-coding gene that is found in sperm.

Although the sperm associated antigen 17 (SPAG17) gene has been linked to human height in previous studies, it was not clear how the gene influences linear growth and skeletal development until now. VCU researchers found that a targeted mutation in the gene leads to skeletal malformations in mice, such as a shortened hind limb length, fused segments of the sternum and defects in bone mineralization.

Humans have the SPAG17 gene and genetic variants in that gene are associated with stature. “The mouse tells us the relationship between SPAG17 and bone length, which would explain why there is an association with height,” said Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine.

Strauss is a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and researchers in his lab encountered the SPAG17 gene while they were investigating genes that affect male infertility. SPAG17 is one of the genes that controls sperm motility, so the researchers created a mouse that does not produce SPAG17, expecting to find a phenotype that exhibited male infertility.

“It turned out that this animal had other defects that we hadn’t anticipated,” said Maria Teves, Ph.D., who is a postdoctorate researcher in Strauss’ lab and was the first author in a study titled “SPAG17 Deficiency Results in Skeletal Malformations and Bone Abnormalities,” which will be published in PLOS ONE journal at 2 p.m. on May 27. “The animals died within 12 hours of birth, their tibia and femur were shorter than the wild-type mice, and they had skeletal malformations and bone mineralization defects.”

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Business: Startups get summer acceleration

Sixto Cancel, founder of Think of Us

Sixto Cancel, founder of Think of Us

A group of Virginia Commonwealth University students is getting a taste of startup life this summer.

Seven student-run startups are part of a summerlong College of Humanities and Sciences’ “Go For It!” program that will help the businesses acquire customers, refine prototypes and practice investment pitches. Each business receives a $5,000 stipend as part of its participation.

The program was started by VCU and designed by Lighthouse Labs, which launched in 2013. Companies meet one night a week at the 804RVA co-working space.

Todd Nuckols (B.S.’93/B), director of Lighthouse Labs, said the summer program is similar in structure and content to the full-time Lighthouse accelerator program.

“We use some of the same mentor base, and we introduce them to the community,” Nuckols said. “Hopefully, this will help create companies that could be candidates for acceleration in the fall.”

Lighthouse is in the midst of an expansion. The accelerator will receive state funding this fall that will allow it to work with 10 companies a year, up from the six it trained in 2014.

The Lighthouse expansion will be funded in part by a $125,000 state budget grant to VCU’s innovation and entrepreneurship programs. Nicole Colomb (M.B.A.’02/B), the enterprise and economic development executive at VCU, said this summer’s program features students who range from undergraduates to doctoral candidates.

Read more from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Education: School receives more than $3M in grants

Lisa Abrams, Ph.D.

Lisa Abrams, Ph.D.

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded grants to VCU School of Education professors totaling $3,089,017.

The Institute of Education Sciences awarded Kevin Sutherland, Ph.D., $1.49 million over three years, and Lisa Abrams, Ph.D., and Therese A. Dozier, Ed.D., $399,017 over two years. Additionally, the Office of Special Education Programs awarded Colleen Thoma, Ph.D., $1.2 million over five years.

“These awards, which were obtained following a competitive process, represent the broad reach of the VCU School of Education and our faculty,” said Deborah Speece, Ph.D., associate dean of research and faculty development in the School of Education. “They provide the investigators a means to address the critical linkages between practice and research, which is a focus for us. These grants will allow our faculty to prepare a new cohort of doctoral students who can connect research with disability policy, study how teachers use data to improve their instruction, and learn how to best extend an evidence-based practice from preschool classrooms to elementary school classrooms.”

Sutherland, professor of special education and disability policy, and co-investigators Bryce McLeod, Ph.D., of the VCU Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Maureen Conroy, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, will use the funds to expand BEST in CLASS — a program for young children in early childhood classrooms who exhibit chronic problem behavior — into early elementary school classrooms (K-2).

“BEST in CLASS has demonstrated very promising results in a multisite cluster randomized controlled trial, particularly related to the reduction in problem behavior and improved task engagement, among young children with chronic problem behavior,” Sutherland said. “BEST in CLASS-Elementary will extend this program into early elementary school, and this project will allow us to adapt BEST in CLASS to better meet the developmental, behavioral and academic needs of young students in K-2 who are exhibiting problem behaviors early in school.”

The funds will allow the investigators to adapt the intervention in year one, pilot test the intervention in year two and conduct a randomized controlled trial in year three in order to test the efficacy of the model.

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Athletics: VCU wins automatic berth in NCAA tournament

With his team in a slump and in danger of not making the Atlantic 10 tournament three weeks ago, VCU coach Shawn Stiffler was looking for something to spark his team.

So he made a few lineup changes. One involved moving freshman Daane Berezo and his high on-base percentage to the second spot and dropping junior James Bunn to eighth.

VCU now is on an 11-game winning streak and headed to the NCAA tournament. And Bunn turned out to be the right man in the right spot in Saturday’s A-10 championship game.

Bunn delivered a go-ahead RBI single in the bottom of the eighth as the fifth-seeded Rams took advantage of a two-base error on a routine fly and pushed across two runs. Bunn helped finish it in style with the first of two diving catches in the ninth to claim a 5-3 victory over Rhode Island, their first A-10 baseball championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

VCU (37-22) will make its first NCAA appearance since 2010 and its 11th overall. The pairings for the 16 regional sites will be announced Monday at noon on ESPNU. The four-team regionals begin Friday and run through Sunday.

“Wow. Just a super exhilarating feeling,” said third baseman Darian Carpenter, who had a two-run triple that put VCU ahead 3-1 and was named the most outstanding player. “To see where we were and the odds we were facing, to just block it out and know we’re good enough to do what we wanted to do to get to our goal, it’s breath-taking. It’s amazing.

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Medicine: New course focuses on transgender health care

When you’re transgender, finding a doctor who understands your specific needs can be a challenge, so now the VCU School of Medicine is taking a new step to help.

Rob Phillips’ Chesterfield consignment store continues to grow, and now along with professional success he can finally celebrate who he is personally too.

“It’s awesome. I feel more at peace,” says Phillips, explaining that he began transitioning from female to male three years ago after decades of feeling different.

Weeks after starting testosterone, the now 43-year-old suffered a stroke, ended up in the hospital and faced the unimaginable.

“I felt like I was on exhibit of some sort while I was there,” Phillips recalls his first hospital stay as a trans male. “They actually started funneling a lot of people in. I felt like a freak show almost.”

“Health care and the transgender population have not been friends, and there are a lot of horror stories,” says VCU professor Tarynn M. Witten, Ph.D. (M.S.W.’03/SW).

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Robertson: Journalism major awarded coveted internship

hands leonardDuring past summers, journalism major Matt Leonard has worked as a raft guide in Richmond and in his home state of North Carolina. He sees parallels between that job and his intended profession.

“One of the most important qualifications for both a raft guide and a journalist is the ability to earn trust,” said Leonard, who grew up in Sylva, North Carolina, and graduated from Smoky Mountain High School. “The passengers in a raft have to trust they’re in safe hands, while readers of an article have to trust they’re reading honest work.”

During the coming summer, Leonard will trade a fast-moving river for a fast-paced newsroom: He has been awarded a prestigious Dow Jones News Fund internship to work as a digital journalist at The Denver Post. It’s a coveted opportunity that may carry him into his career after he graduates in December from the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“My career plan is to go into print or online journalism,” said Leonard, who will turn 22 this month. “I want to write stories that help readers better understand the community they live in and hold people in power accountable. The digital internship with the DJNF is a step in that direction.

“As news outlets move from print to Web, I need to be prepared for the transition. This will be an important part of preparing for and continuing that transition. While at The Denver Post, I hope to acquire skills that will improve my storytelling ability, my computer capabilities and the ability to bring readers to a story.”

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Nursing: VCU first Virginia university to offer D.N.P. degree focused on quality and safety

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia this week approved Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing to offer a post-master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. The school is the first in the commonwealth to offer a D.N.P. degree primarily focused on quality and safety in health care. Classes are scheduled to begin in the fall semester.

An alternative to the school’s existing research-focused Ph.D., the D.N.P. is the highest academic degree in nursing with a focus on clinical practice. The degree prepares nurses to translate research into evidence-based practice and to lead teams of health care professionals toward improving patient outcomes.

“The American Association of Colleges of Nursing and other nursing authorities have recommended that nurses in advanced practice be prepared at the highest academic level to address the increasing complexity of patient care,” said Ann Hamric, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of academic programs, VCU School of Nursing. “We are excited to be addressing the demand for more D.N.P.-prepared nurses who can take on greater leadership roles and implement quality and safety improvements in the health care system.”

The new program consists of 10 courses that are structured in a hybrid format of mostly online courses with minimal on-site experiences. Courses will be taught by doctorate-level faculty who are nationally recognized for contributions to education and advanced practice. Students will attend classes on campus three times a year for two-to-three days at the beginning of each semester, with the remainder of instruction being offered online. The degree can be completed in five semesters full time and in eight semesters part time.

Although the focus is on quality and patient safety, the D.N.P. curriculum also covers leadership, health policy and organizational systems to equip graduates with the skills they need to improve health care in a wide variety of settings. In addition, the D.N.P. program will have a unique partnership with the Langston Center for Quality, Safety and Innovation, which opened at the School of Nursing in October with a mission to support and disseminate innovative practices leading to enhanced quality and safety in health care.

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Engineering: Fulbright scholarship takes alumna to Australia

Eng Hayward-1-feature

Less than a year after her graduation from Virginia Commonwealth University, Laura Hayward (B.S.’15/En) is filling Eppendorf tubes with DNA and centrifuges with tubes in a lab down under.

The 23-year-old is looking for a way to make life-saving treatments accessible to everyone. By manipulating and sequencing DNA, she hopes to improve the tools doctors use to diagnose and treat patients with cancer or other diseases.

She doesn’t yet know all of the answers to make her experiment a success, but this only motivates her.

Hayward used to fear what she didn’t know.

And when she came to VCU as a freshman in 2010, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

So, she started asking questions. No matter what she didn’t understand or how much temporary embarrassment it brought, she kept asking questions.

That simple tactic took Hayward from confusion to clarity, from the classroom to the laboratory, and from Richmond to Brisbane, Australia, where the Fulbright scholar is working to fashion technology in an effort to improve personalized medicine.

“This has definitely been a life-changing experience,” said Hayward, a 2014 graduate of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, part of the School of Engineering. “I have grown as an individual and been able to explore a part of the world that seemed too out of reach.”

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Startup roundup

Entrepreneurship, particularly the development and launch of a startup business, requires robust reserves of energy, smarts and guts. Virginia Commonwealth University students and alumni have demonstrated a willingness to test themselves and their ideas in this highly competitive and demanding realm, and interest in the startup world is growing at the university — as are the resources VCU and its entities are making available to students who have the drive to pursue their business plans.

A 2014 survey revealed that 51 percent of VCU students have a high or moderate interest in starting their own company. In that same survey, 15 percent said they had already started a company, had a business idea or were actively pursuing business formation. At VCU’s May commencement ceremony, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe praised VCU as “a great training ground for the real world,” while citing the university’s high number of entrepreneurial-minded students.

Eric Edwards, M.D., Ph.D., a VCU alumnus and one of the founders of kaléo, a young pharmaceutical company, said the university is a natural incubator for the startup-inclined.

“As a diverse, urban university where opportunities for mentorship, networking, creativity and entrepreneurial education are becoming increasingly a part of VCU’s DNA, it is refreshing to see the university taking a leadership role in the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Edwards said.

Here we profile five recent VCU alumni who have embraced the wide-open possibility of startups while remaining unbowed — maybe even thrilled — by their inherent uncertainty.

H&S: VCU graduate overcomes hardship, heads to Nepal

hands brian josephBrian Joseph (B.S.’15/H&S) was halfway through his junior year at Virginia Commonwealth University when tragedy struck. Fire had broken out in his family’s home in Midlothian.

“The fire started in my own room. So pretty much lost all my clothes, my bed, the TV, everything in that room. Also, we lost a lot of stuff in the hallway and we also had a lot of damage from the smoke as well,” he said.

Joseph, who was living in a dorm at the time, helped his family move into a hotel and then an apartment over the course of six months. During this same time, he also dealt with one of his close friends being hospitalized after a car accident, and another friend taking his own life. At his lowest point, he found the strength to keep going.

“A lot of people had looked up to me at that time. I had taken up a lot of leadership roles on campus. So, you know, if I was able to strengthen myself and get through this time, then I could help other people that maybe were dealing with the same problems,” Joseph said.

Things started to turn around. His family moved back into their home, his grades improved, and he graduated from VCU earlier this month.

Now Joseph hopes to set off on an 11-month, 11-country mission trip that will involve working in orphanages and helping people recover from drugs, abuse, and sex trafficking. The trip will include a visit to Nepal to help the victims of the recent earthquake. For Joseph, it’s the culmination of everything he’s been through.