VCU Health celebrates ribbon-cutting of new children’s mental health facility

Renderings of the new Virginia Treatment Center for Children.

VCU Health and Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University on Fridaycelebrated the ribbon-cutting for their new Virginia Treatment Center for Children. The new VTCC is the result of $56 million in funding from the Virginia General Assembly and a dedicated community of donors and mental health advocates.

One in five children will experience a serious mental health issue, but 75 percent of them will not receive the care they need, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. VTCC is an acknowledgement that national issues surrounding children’s mental health need to be addressed and VCU’s Department of Psychiatry is leading the charge.

The facility is transformational for children’s mental health care, bringing VTCC’s services out of a 50-year-old institutional space and into a modern facility with an inspirational design that incorporates natural light, green space and unique safety features important to modern mental health care. Based on research and the unique profile of the pediatric psychiatric patient, the facility design features a soothing aesthetic, warm and bright color palette, and comforting, home-like furnishings.

“It eases the stigma surrounding mental illness and improves access to care,” said Marsha Rappley, M.D., CEO of VCU Health and vice president of health sciences at VCU. “We’re also doubling space to train future generations of children’s mental health providers and conduct innovative research initiatives that will enhance treatment and prevention efforts. Our work here in the commonwealth will have a ripple effect across the country.”

VTCC serves children from across Virginia, with nearly 50 percent coming from outside Richmond and surrounding counties. With new telemedicine programs, VTCC physicians will extend their reach across Virginia, particularly in rural areas.

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VCU launches newly expanded pre-accelerator program, called VCU Pre-X, to better support student innovators and entrepreneurs

Hilton Bennett (B.S.’16/En; Cert.’16/B), then a senior engineering student and now a Master of Product Innovation student at VCU, pitches a business idea last fall to VCU’s pre-accelerator program. Bennett’s idea was centered around an invention he designed to allow mountain climbers to practice indoors.

The da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University is looking for entrepreneurial and innovative students, as well as mentors from the Richmond area’s business community, to take part in a newly expanded and revamped pre-accelerator program that helps VCU students turn their promising ideas into viable startup companies.

VCU’s pre-accelerator program launched in 2015 to identify, support and launch high-growth and high-potential startups and student founders. Over four cohorts, the program’s teams raised more than $2 million in investment and revenue, and three student-run companies went on to be accepted into Lighthouse Labs, the Richmond region’s startup accelerator program.

Now called VCU Pre-X, the pre-accelerator program has shifted to a new model in which all VCU students who meet the minimum requirements will be able to access the program’s curriculum, tools and mentorship. As they progress through the program, participants will have to meet benchmarks and compete with one another for funding.

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Capturing a far-off place: A conversation with wildlife photographer Trevor Frost

Trevor Frost and his father on the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya, on a trip to see the annual migration of wildebeest across the plains.

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Trevor Frost (B.S.’06/LS) is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006 at the age of 16, has gone on to work with National Geographic. We caught up with Frost recently to learn about his love of the wild, storytelling and his time at VCU.

What was it that made you so interested in wildlife?

I was always interested in wildlife growing up. They’re just as complicated as us, and while they’ve adapted to live in a human world, they still live completely differently from us. Both of my parents were biologists; they actually met each other in the Galapagos and spent time living in the Venezuelan rainforests.

I grew up watching slideshows of howler monkeys and scarlet macaws. When we moved back to the city, [my parents] often did talks at my elementary school where they’d show off artifacts from their travels and share slides of animals you could find in the rainforest.

Another big reason was the amount of time I spent outdoors. I worked for Passages Adventure Camp, which is based out of the local Richmond rock-climbing group Peak Experiences. I went there as a camper one summer and came back for years as a volunteer and even worked there while I was attending school.

Did you always envision yourself as a photographer?

I originally wanted to be a biologist, and sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps, and stayed on that route through college because I saw it as a natural path. You get your degrees, defend your thesis and there’s always a way forward. It’s far from easy, but it’s different from the path you go in the creative world.

I started taking pictures when I was around 12 years old. My father’s sister was getting married on a cruise to St. Maarten, and while cruise ships aren’t really my thing, I decided I’d make the best of it and bring along a point-and-shoot camera. Afterward, I kept taking pictures, eventually upgraded to a DSLR and shot on film for around 10 years.

What was your time at VCU like?

I really enjoyed it here! I was a kayaker, volunteered to work with coastal ecosystems and the Rice Rivers Center and traveled out of the country by myself for the first time.

VCU was instrumental to my success because it was different than a lot of the other schools I had previously looked at. There were so many continuing education programs, and I had a lot more flexibility to learn the way I wanted to; that was the secret to my success.

You know, I dropped out of public school in seventh grade. I was lucky enough to come from a family that was decidedly middle class, and I had parents who were willing to take the risk. My mom really championed the idea, because she knew that I had to learn in a way that was right for me. I spent a year doing all of the things that a boy dreams of, like riding my bike, building tree forts and exploring the wetlands behind my house, but the novelty wore off. I still had a thirst for knowledge. A year and a half later, I started at VCU at 16.

I had a lot of freedom and my advisers were open to veering off the standard path if they felt it enhanced my education. I’ll never forget the time my adviser, J. Clifford Fox, Ph.D., J.D., went out of his way to grant me permission to do an independent study because I came to him hesitant about taking a required environmental economics class. It was those kinds of experiences for people like me, who don’t quite fit into a traditional learning mold, that allow us to succeed. Without that, I may have never went to class and not finished my degree, but he made it a point to support me and it made all the difference in the world.

How did you get your start with National Geographic?

After graduating, I took two big trips, one to Africa for six months and a second to South America for seven months. I was always keeping my eyes open for field research jobs where you volunteer and they basically cover your costs while you help other researchers collect data. The plans I had to work in Africa fell through so I just backpacked and saw things as you do, but in South America I landed a position with the local wildlife conservation society helping with camera trap studies of jaguars in a new nature reserve. I was also becoming more serious about taking pictures.

When I came back to the States, after a bit, I went on another trip to the Middle East and realized that while these trips were fun, I was having new experiences and learning new things, the novelty began to wear off. I started thinking about how I could travel — because we’re all a little curious about the world and self-serving — and tell these stories. I stumbled across National Geographic’s Young Explorer program, they call them Early Career Grants now, where they’d give you between $1,000-$5,000 to fund science, photography or video projects. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in Richmond at summer camp with one of the people who received one of the first grants, and he encouraged me to apply.

Inside Grotte de Lembamba cave, in the northwestern corner of Gabon.

My application was to find, explore, map and photograph caves in the west-central

African country of Gabon. I tried to think about what was going to interest National Geographic, so I did my research and learned that the two least explored places on the planet are the “underworld,” or cave systems, and the deep ocean. Now exploring the ocean takes a lot of expensive boats and equipment so I’ll leave that to the team at Discover Titanic, but there are cavers all around the world in practically every country.

I’ve been rock climbing for about 10 years and know my way around the equipment, so I reached out to cavers and got experience caving in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I ended up getting the grant and spent two months in Gabon exploring 14 caves. We ended up finding around 11 new caves and further mapped a cave that had already been explored, finding out that it was much longer than previously thought, and it ended up being the longest cave in the entire country!

What does telling a story mean to you?

I want to tell stories that change the world. Even if they just change the hearts and minds of a few hundred people, then I’ve done something. Your story needs to be guided by how much you think about it, how much it rules your day. If you go to bed dreaming about it and wake up thinking about it then you’re on the right path. That passion will result in stories that are meaningful and will resonate with people around the world, whether you’re a pianist, a sculptor or if you just dream of far-off places.

Some friends of mine recently did an expedition to the Arctic and turned it into a film called “In Between Galaxies.” It had nothing to do with conservation or science; it was just an adventure. One of them broke her back midway through but continued on through this incredibly physically demanding expedition to make it through to the end. When I saw what they went through, and how they triumphed despite it all, it lifted me up. I think that’s what it comes down to. Good stories are born out of people that go after it with everything they can and sacrifice everything they have to make their dreams a reality. It starts, and ends, with relentless obsession.

VCU recognizes veterans

Timothy P. Williams, adjunct general of Virginia, provides remarks at Friday’s event.

Virginia Commonwealth University celebrated military veterans Friday at a Veterans Appreciation Reception held at the Commons Theater.

The event, which doubled as the launch of the VCU Military Veterans Alumni Council, featured remarks from Saif Khan (B.A.’07/H&S), an Iraq War veteran and a graduate of the College of Humanities and Sciences; Timothy P. Williams, adjunct general of Virginia, who commands the Virginia Army National Guard, Virginia Air National Guard and Virginia Defense Force; Stephen Ross, director of VCU Military Student Services; and Dan-Viggo Bergtun, president of the World Veterans Federation.

Khan is the first president of the VCU Military Veterans Alumni Council, which offers an opportunity for VCU alumni to connect with one another and the current student body through their shared bond of military service.

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A covert operation: How alumna Eva Dillon learned a Cold War secret

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

As a child, Eva Dillon (B.M.’82/A) moved all around the world. She and her six siblings would fall in love with a country, and a few years later, her father’s job would take the family somewhere new.

“I was born in Berlin, Germany, four years before the [Berlin] Wall went up,” she says. “I remember being frightened by the guards, the barbed wire and German shepherds, but our parents felt it was important that we see it.”

The family also lived in Mexico City and Rome before returning to the States shortly after the conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. When Dillon was 17, the family moved to New Delhi. It was 1975, the year a bombshell, tell-all book called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary” was published. The book listed the names of 250 CIA officers, and her father, Paul Dillon, was on that list.

“We always thought he worked for the State Department, but when we saw a news article identifying him, we learned the truth,” Dillon says.

The book was written by former CIA officer Philip Agee who worked for her father when the family lived in Mexico City seven years earlier. In it, Agee revealed that Dillon’s father was an operations officer in the Agency’s Soviet division.  Eventually Dillon learned that he handled the CIA’s highest-ranking double agent, Gen. Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov.

Going her own way

A year later, Dillon returned to the U.S. to attend the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, graduating with a music degree focused on composition and theory. Though music was her passion (she still sings to this day), Dillon realized that she wanted to go in a different direction.

“Five of my siblings attended VCU. We all lived in the Fan,” she says. “Just about all of us worked at Strawberry Street Café. It was how we worked our way through college. We had an amazing experience!”

After graduation, Dillon worked as a roving assistant at National Geographic, where she eventually landed in the advertising department. She loved the publishing industry and decided to pursue a career in business operations. She moved to New York City and got a job at a trade magazine in advertising sales, marketing and circulation. From there, she worked at TV Guide, Glamour, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, later becoming president of Reader’s Digest.

Putting pen to paper

With 25 years of experience in the publishing world, Dillon was ready to write her own book, one that told the story of her father and Polyakov. After learning that the general’s son, Alexander Polyakov, had emigrated to the U.S., she sought him out, and he was willing to share his stories with her.

She began to collect material written about Polyakov from newspapers, magazines and various books, and with his son’s help, she also gained access to information from Russia that she had translated. Combining that information with interviews she had from her father’s former colleagues and friends, she filled in the details of the story.

The resulting book, “Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War,” paints a broad picture of the Cold War, the issues and the political environment and tells various stories about government operatives and assets. The book also delves into further detail about what life was like for both the Dillon and Polyakov families unknowingly growing up in the family of spies.

“With [Alexander’s] help, I was now able to tell the story from two sides,” Dillon says. “General Polyakov worked on behalf of our country for 18 years. I felt it was important people know what he did for us.”

Dillon returns to VCU on Dec. 6 for a talk at James Branch Cabell Library to discuss the book and reveal additional insights into Cold War politics. The talk will be followed by a Q&A, book-signing and a reception.

VCU researchers receive $4.2M NIH grant to study treatment for chemical attacks

With the backing of a five-year award of approximately $4.2 million in total costs from the National Institutes of Health, Robert DeLorenzo and a team of Virginia Commonwealth University researchers are studying and developing ways to treat and prevent human fatalities and morbidity that could result from chemical attacks on U.S. soil.

DeLorenzo, M.D., Ph.D., the George Bliley Professor of Neurology in the VCU School of Medicine, is the principal investigator on the team that received the grant from the NIH Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats program. CounterACT supports basic and translational research aimed at identifying medical countermeasures against chemical threats.

DeLorenzo said public safety is the key goal behind the research. He is working with Robert Blair, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’98/M), and Laxmikant Deshpande, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’06/M), assistant professors in the VCU School of Medicine Department of Neurology, as well as Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D., the Eric Lipman Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine, and Matthew Halquist, Ph.D., assistant professor and laboratory director in the Department of Pharmaceutics in the School of Pharmacy.

Back in black and gold

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’15/MC)

You might recognize Summer Griffin (B.A.’16/GPA) from the numerous Rowdy Rams photos of her wearing a flower crown at basketball games. When she’s not at work, as a logistics coordinator for K Line, she can be found on the soccer field coaching a rec league with the Richmond Kickers. She’ll be back on campus and taking over the VCU Alumni Instagram starting Monday as Homecoming 2017 kicks off.

Why did you choose to attend VCU?

I loved the campus after getting a tour in high school! I had never seen a school that was set up throughout the city the way VCU is, and I knew it would be a nice change for me to go from living in Suffolk, Virginia to living in a “big” city like Richmond. Also, the amount of diversity that I saw on my tour was something that I hadn’t quite seen at any other school. Lastly, we have an incredible homeland security and emergency preparedness program that isn’t available at every school; it was the program I was interested in studying, and I had read great things online about it.

What was your time like at the university?

VCU has provided me with some of the best years of my life. I was very active on campus. I was the leader of the Rowdy Rams, I was on STAT’s Leadership Council, and I worked for VCU for three years as a Gold Line caller. I was also in a College Panhallenic Council sorority for two years.

All of these different outlets that I was involved with provided me with leadership skills, long-lasting friendships and amazing memories. One of my favorite memories was walking in the Homecoming parade my senior year, waving VCU flags throughout the city. I went to the tailgate that year and enjoyed one of my last basketball games as a student. Homecoming is such a magical time at any university, but I’m super excited to celebrate Homecoming as an alumna for the first time!

What sparked your interest in homeland security?

My interest in homeland security sparked from the events of 9/11 and the way the country was affected by it. I was very young when it happened, but it stuck with me and made me realize I wanted to help prevent something like that from happening again.

After being in the homeland security program, I realized I had an interest in policy and its effect on the country as well through the courses I had to take for my degree. In the end, I took more political science courses and got a minor in the field.

How has VCU tied into your career path?

VCU showed me how important it is to not only be a good leader, but also a good leader within your community. VCU and Richmond are all about community involvement, and I’ve learned to really appreciate and truly care about that. Getting to where you want to be in your career takes a lot of patience and hard work, and I’ve been working toward being in a position where I’m becoming a leader and servant to the Richmond community.

School of Business graduate’s foundation helps communities realize their full potential

Sean Powell, a 2011 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation the same year.

Sean Powell (B.S.’11/B) sees family beyond family.

Powell’s mother began fostering children when he was 10 years old. Interacting with his foster siblings — who battled disabilities and misfortune — awakened in Powell a sense of social responsibility. He didn’t know it then, but this led him to find his passion in life: helping others discover their passions.

Powell champions the concepts of community, fellowship, brotherhood and mentorship — the idea of sticking together and experiencing life’s hardships and celebrations, and passing down new information and values along the way.

“If people around me need something to develop or grow, I always make it my effort to provide them access to the resources they need,” he said. “If I can’t provide that personally, then I’ll look into my network to see who I can connect them with so they can reach their goals.”

Powell, a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation in 2011. The community-based organization connects college students to their communities, and encourages them to work with families and kids on campus and in the neighborhood. Two of its main goals are developing successive generations who understand their purpose and identity, and reducing the costs of government assistance needed by unstable families. Engage has spurred growth in communities by holding fundraisers, development programs, workforce programs and other special events.

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Startup launched by VCU Engineering alumni transforms industries through the internet of things

VCU School of Engineering alumni Skylar Roebuck, left, and Luke Libraro, right.

Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering alumni Luke Libraro (B.S.’10/En) and Skylar Roebuck (B.S.’10/En) are co-founders of Rocket Wagon, a rapidly growing consultancy firm based in Chicago with a focus on the internet of things, also known as IoT.

Through the addition of sensors to objects, “We create new data, opportunities and experiences that allow us to completely re-imagine businesses and unlock opportunities for our clients,” said Roebuck, the company’s chief digital officer. “At Rocket Wagon, we do this every day — we’re makers who create products that transform entire industries.”

Libraro, the company’s chief technology officer, said, “By making everyday objects ‘smart’ and connecting them to the internet, IoT is making people’s lives easier and their businesses more agile in very significant ways.”

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Medical school alumna is a voice for all children

Colleen Kraft, M.D.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then Colleen Kraft, M.D. (M.D.’86/M; H.S.’89/M), might say it takes a pediatrician who knows that village to heal one.

Kraft, who earned her medical degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in 1986, believes spending time in the community is what opened her eyes to the daily issues and concerns facing the children and families she cared for in the office. Nothing, Kraft says, can replace the education you receive when you observe a child’s everyday environment. Some of her greatest insights came during conversations at the park, visits to the local library, school nurse’s office, daycare centers and church nurseries.

“Kids spend 15 minutes in the [doctor’s] office but they live in the community,” she said. “Your investment in the community is what really makes a difference.”

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