Keeping up with the Fulbrights

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A record 11 Virginia Commonwealth University scholars received Fulbright awards last year — making VCU a top producer of Fulbright student scholars for 2016-17, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. VCU News caught up with six Fulbrights as they conducted research in Brazil, Canada, Greece, Mexico, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

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Across the world: Alumna’s passion for art spans three continents

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Guido Alvarez, Ph.D. (M.F.A.’04/A; Ph.D.’15/H&S), teaches typography, motion graphics, visual expression and studio skills at Wenzhou Kean University in Wenzhou, China. He’ll be taking over VCU Alumni’s Instagram the week of May 29, giving you a look into what it’s like to teach and live in the city of Wenzhou.

What sparked your interest in art?

Well, my father is a professional watercolorist and was a professor of architecture at the University of Cuenca [in Ecuador]. He also served as dean of the schools of architecture and arts at the university and founded a local school of design.

I grew up in an environment where art was always present and that pushed me to attend a painting academy as a child.

What was your journey to VCU from Ecuador?

When it came time for me to choose a career, I wanted to become a photographer but, to this day, there are no schools of photography in Ecuador The closest professional path to follow was architecture, but after a semester of studying it, I decided that it wasn’t for me and transitioned into studying design and English at the University of Cuenca.

I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship in 1999 and was given three program choices: the Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Chicago told me I didn’t have the skills, and Yale told me I didn’t have the money, but VCU said, “Come over and have a partial scholarship.” That was enough for me, so my wife at the time and I packed what we owned and moved to the States. I arrived to a city I knew nothing about and a university completely unknown to me in a country that I loved but knew nothing about except the language. Little did I know, it would become such an integral part of my life, education and identity.

What was your time at the university like?

Odd, weird, strange and unique in its own way. My first semester in the M.F.A. program was rough. I knew what I was capable of, but I wasn’t ready for the different expectations. Each professor was unique and challenged me, helping me transform from a designer and computer operator to a design thinker, culture-maker and conceptual thinker.

Outside of the classroom, things weren’t easy. Money was scarce, and we often had to live off of credit cards. We had our first child during my first year in the U.S. and trying to live within the salary of a teaching assistant was hard. However, the experiences I had in Richmond and the people I met made a radical difference in our lives. I still consider Richmond to be my true home. It’s where I met the people I call my American parents, Bob and Wilma, who embraced me and my family and gave us unparalleled generosity.

I moved back to Ecuador for five years after completing my master’s degree and worked as director of the design program at a transnational university, but it wasn’t the right fit for me so I returned to VCU for my doctorate [in media, art and text].

My second time at the university was much more demanding. From writing with the rigor of academia to commuting two hours a day from Louisa County, where I took care of a property and two lap dogs in exchange for living space for me and my family, it was extremely different. I left Richmond in 2006 to teach at St. Olaf College in Minnesota but returned to VCU twice to defend my Ph.D.

Where did you go after earning your Ph.D.?

Well, during the time it took me to defend my thesis I applied to jobs all over the world. When I was finished, I moved back to Minnesota to be close to my kids, and while I was there, I was offered a position at Wenzhou Kean University. Without any other options, I said yes and flew into the unknown once again.

Being in Wenzhou has been an extremely transformative experience. It wasn’t an easy path, but it was worth pursuing. China is a beautiful country, with a rich culture and great food. The problem is that many aspects of the country are unknown to the rest of the world, and I wish that were different.

What projects are you working on now?

When I’m not teaching, I’m learning Chinese, word by word, character by character. It’s a beautiful language, yet nearly impossible to master.

I’m also preparing a presentation for the World Design Summit in Canada this October called “Typography Education with Multicultural Perspective,” where I plan to show the gaps between Western and Eastern cultures from the perspective of visual communication and, particularly, graphic design.

I’ll also be back in Richmond starting in June conducting research at Cabell Library while preparing for an exhibit of my drawings that will take place in Ecuador in July. It will integrate a robotic drawing device with my handmade work with the subject matter being China, of course.

How has VCU made an impact on your career?

It made everything possible. I recently got a red paper dragon tattoo on my arm while in Shanghai, a first for me. I’ll get my next one while in Richmond, and it will be “VCUarts.” It means that much to me.

Inspired by her adopted Chinese siblings, VCU student earns Critical Language Scholarship to study in China

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Abigail Byram.

Abigail Byram, a computer science student at Virginia Commonwealth University, has four great reasons to study Chinese.

“I did independent study because my family has adopted four children from China. They were adopted as older children, and I needed to speak Chinese to be able to help integrate them into the family,” Byram said. “That’s what sparked my interest in Chinese, and it’s continued from there into more of an academic interest.”

This summer, she will take a major step by studying in China with support from a Critical Language Scholarship. Byram is presently taking a 200-level Chinese course at VCU. She plans to add a minor in Asian and Chinese Studies.

Byram will spend eight weeks in Dalian, China, studying Mandarin with a heavy dose of local culture. The program condenses a year of academic study.

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VCU’s commitment to LGBTQ+ students recognized

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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

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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

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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

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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’

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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

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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

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“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.