Author of ‘Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States,” to speak at VCU

Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Ph.D., author of “Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States” (NYU Press 2016), will deliver the Powell-Edwards Lecture for Religion and the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Khabeer, a scholar-artist-activist and an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan, will speak Tuesday, March 27, at 4 p.m. in the James Branch Cabell Library third-floor lecture hall. Her lecture will be free and open to the public.

“Dr. Khabeer’s work on the interconnections between religion, racial identity and artistic expression highlights the value of interdisciplinary research and conversation, demonstrating how valuable the humanities are in helping us to understand our contemporary world,” said Richard Godbeer, Ph.D., director of the Humanities Research Center in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

The Humanities Research Center is hosting the Powell-Edwards Lecture Series for Religion and the Arts in partnership with the Religious Studies Program in the School of World Studies.

“The programming at VCU of events like this that encourage informed and constructive conversation about the world of Islam is particularly important at the moment as misinformation and misunderstanding about Muslim beliefs and culture are widespread,” Godbeer said. “The Humanities Research Center is happy to partner with the Religious Studies Program in this endeavor.”

Khabeer’s lecture is part of the Humanities Research Center’s spring speaker series that has featured a variety of topics, including the rise of podcasting and literary and cinematic depictions of the 2007 financial crisis.

Small particles, big implications

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Patricia Turpin (B.S.’17/H&S; B.S.’17/LS) credits her high school math teacher, Mr. Kaiser, for teaching her to appreciate the certainty that came with math and science.

“When I’d write an English essay, there was always room for answers to be partially correct,” she says. “But with math, there was always one true answer, and I really liked that.”

Turpin enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University after high school, following a trend that began with her grandfather William H. Turpin. He served as director of VCU’s mass communications school, known today as the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, and as professor for 16 years. Her parents, Gregory (B.S.’87/GPA) and Cheryl (B.S.’88/E), also met and graduated from the university.

“Listening to my family’s stories about [VCU] definitely had an impact,” Turpin says. “I fell in love with campus and the feel of the city the moment I got here.”

Turpin took an interest in computer programming and immersed herself in classes that taught programming languages, quantitative analysis and statistical modeling.

“[Patricia] was an exceedingly bright student driven by a deep curiosity about how things worked” says Tarynn Witten, Ph.D., professor and director of research development in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at VCU Life Sciences . “She was also exceptionally ardent, and her work was always top of the line.”

In 2017, she graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, one in statistics and the other in bioinformatics, and soon after landed a laboratory technician position at the California Institute of Technology in the lab of Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology. There, she’s working alongside one of the lab’s postdoctoral fellows researching the link between the causes for retained introns and genetic disorders and cancers.

RNA, a nucleic acid present in all living cells, acts as a messenger to carry instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins. RNA is composed of two types of sequences, introns and exons. While introns typically remain in the nucleus of a cell, exons are eventually turned into proteins. “Occasionally introns attach themselves to proteins and leave the nucleus, and there isn’t a commonsense answer as to why they do,” Turpin says. “We’re hoping to figure out why by suppressing certain genes that we think affect these retained introns” and then see if there is a link to genetic disorders and cancers.

After Turpin’s yearlong position at Caltech ends, she plans to start a doctoral program in bioinformatics, though she is still deciding on whether to pursue a career in academia or go into the professional industry.

“[VCU] gave me the confidence to say that I actually know things,” she says. “I’m not sure of my exact path just yet, but I know my time at the university has prepared me for anything.”

VCU launches public history certificate program, providing skills and hands-on experience at historic sites in Richmond and beyond

Emily Jones, a master’s degree student in the Department of History, is interning with the St. John’s Church Foundation, conducting independent research into their cemetery. Internships like Jones’ will be a key component of VCU’s public history certificate program.

Between the 1740s and 1820s, an estimated 1,300 people were buried at Richmond’s historic St. John’s Church, but only a small percentage have been identified. Those who have, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s first editor, Thomas W. White, are typically buried at the highest level and have grave markers. The rest have no headstones, and many are buried around the foundation of the church.

Emily Jones, a graduate student in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, is interning this semester with the St. John’s Church Foundation to identify as many of the people buried at the church as possible, learn what she can about their lives and build a publicly accessible database of the findings.

“We hope to find exciting stories of past Virginians that can be included in St. John’s tours or literature, and to be able to share these records with the public,” Jones said.

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At the Richmond Symphony, VCU students will offer tonight’s audience an inside look

Amy Comstock, a junior print and online journalism major, will be part of a team of VCU students operating video cameras during tonight’s Richmond Symphony performance.

At Friday night’s performance of the Richmond Symphony, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University student volunteers will be manning an array of cameras stationed on stage that will feed live video to an LED wall, providing the audience with a rare glimpse of what it’s like to be amid an orchestra as it performs.

“It will be almost like you’re sitting on stage,” said Laura Bordner Adams, director of orchestral operations for the Richmond Symphony. “You’ll be able to see the trumpet player as he’s playing two feet away as he’s playing the most famous passage of the piece. You might be able to see the conductor from the front and see his facial expressions as he’s conducting, which you never get to see as you’re sitting in the audience. The idea is that this will really give you an insider look.”

The Richmond Symphony’s experiment with live videography is the result of a partnership between the symphony and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

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VCU anthropology professor hunts for fossils of humans’ earliest origins

Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., and Omar Abdullah show off hominin teeth fossils that they found in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., just returned from a research trip to Ethiopia where she served as part of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project that in 2013 discovered a fossil of the earliest member of the genus Homo, pushing back the origin of humans’ genus to 2.8 million years ago.

Rector Verrelli, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was one of a team of researchers from Arizona State University, Pennsylvania State University, George Washington University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hunting for fossils in the Afar region of Ethiopia, between the Ledi and Geraru rivers.

“It has deposits that are between about 1 million and 3 million years ago, so the goal is to look for fossils of our ancestors from that time period,” Rector Verrelli said. “In that area, that usually means Australopithecus afarensis (famous for the Lucy skeleton), but in 2013 project scientists discovered the earliest member of our genus, the genus Homo.”

Researchers in 2013 found a partial hominin mandible with teeth from the Ledi-Geraru research area, thereby establishing the presence of Homo between 2.8 million and 2.75 million years ago. The find extended the record of recognizable Homo by at least a half-million years, shedding new light on human evolution.

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VCU researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018

M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D.; and Arun Sanyal, M.D., at the 2018 Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University researchers were recognized Thursday as Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam at the annual Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

The awards, which have been presented by Virginia governors for more than 30 years, recognize individuals for their contributions in science, technology, engineering and math. Six were honored at Thursday’s event: three researchers for longtime contributions to their fields and three budding scientists.

“Celebrating the academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit of these Virginians helps showcase how STEM innovations tie into our everyday lives,” Northam said. “It also highlights the profound contribution that STEM makes to Virginia families and our economy. I thank these extraordinary awardees and everyone who works hard to make Virginia a leader in these important fields.”

Arun Sanyal, M.D. (H.S.’90/M), a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine; and M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D., commonwealth professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, were two of three researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018.

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VCU student Tatenda Ndambakuwa selected as a potential leader in the future of food security

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has a long list of projects at the intersection of food security and technology.

A Virginia Commonwealth University student is one of only 27 students from around the world selected as part of the Next Generation Delegation that will attend the Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is part of a select group of students studying agricultural development, social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship, and other food security related disciplines. She was selected to attend the symposium from an applicant pool of more than 800 students attending 364 universities in nearly 90 countries. As a member of the delegation, she will attend the conference, participate in symposium discussions and interact with business and policy leaders, civil society, and social entrepreneurs working on agriculture, food and nutrition issues.

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Brittany Jones combines two loves: history and teaching

Brittany Jones teaches World History I and Government at John Marshall High School.

When she was a student in Richmond Public Schools, Brittany Jones (M.A.’14/H&S; M.T.’16/E) assumed that all of her classmates had parents who made them do their homework. Her parents sure did. Both were teachers who placed a high value on education.

Jones herself was a history buff. As a child, she dreamed of being a history professor, so it’s no surprise that she majored in history as an undergraduate student at Longwood University. She loved it so much that she decided to pursue her master’s degree in American and African-American history at Virginia Commonwealth University.

To make ends meet, she got a job at a local school, tutoring students in history.

“That’s when I realized how much I enjoy working with kids,” she recalled. “I got more and more interested in becoming a teacher, in having my own classroom and having my own set of kids.”

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Dancing into the sunset: Alumna Sheena Jeffers takes a lifelong passion everywhere she goes

Alumna Sheena JeffersBy Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Dance has been at the heart of everything Sheena Jeffers (B.S.’08/MC; B.A.’08/H&S) has done since she took her first ballet class when she was 5.

“It’s the one thing I’ve never moved on from, and I absolutely love it more than anything,” says the Richmond, Virginia, native. “No matter what city or state I’m in, and even when I travel, I find a drop-in dance class to join.”

From those first lessons, Jeffers danced competitively for seven years and was accepted to the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, where she graduated in 2004. When it came time to apply for college, Jeffers wanted a school surrounded by art.

Citing the Richmond Ballet, visits from Broadway shows and a budding modern dance scene, Jeffers applied to and was accepted into Virginia Commonwealth University. Though dance was her first love, she chose to pursue a different path in college. Growing up, her grandfather, a Baptist preacher, would frequently encourage her to write by giving her writing journals, and she would often sit in his library and watch him write his weekly sermons.

“I still have journals from when I was younger that recount all the things I’ve gone through,” Jeffers says. “When I got to [VCU], I knew I wanted to explore writing as much as I had [already explored] dance.”

While double majoring in English and mass communications, with a focus in journalism, she made it a point to take as many dance classes as possible and spent three years as a member of VCU’s dance team, Gold Rush. In addition, Jeffers worked as news editor for the student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, and interned at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“[Sheena] was thoughtful, dedicated and relentlessly upbeat while she was working at the VCU Capital News Service,” says Jeff South, associate professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies in the VCU Robertson School of Media and Culture. “Reporters often get the door slammed in their face, but she had a keen eye for stories and never let anything discourage her.”

VCU English professor Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., echoes South’s praise of Jeffers.

“She was always an enthusiastic and engaged presence in the classroom,” Ingrassia says, “Her infectious good nature and ability to connect with everyone always made her a dynamic part of every class.”

Jeffers blended her passion for dance with her passion for writing after college, first starting an internationally-recognized dance blog and then writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as the paper’s dance critic. Then, in 2010, she went back to school to earn a master’s of science in arts integrated education from Old Dominion University, graduating in 2014.

Her dance card has been full ever since. She founded Well Women Inc., a corporation that helps women with personal and professional development, worked as an adjunct professor of dance at ODU and spent nearly three years as arts integration director for Young Audiences of Virginia Inc., where she helped develop school curriculums that integrate literacy with art and dance.

“I know firsthand that having early access to art helps you visualize a better world and become a stronger person,” Jeffers says. “Through art, we’re able to break down barriers and educate, empower and uplift the world around us.”

Now working as a freelance writer for clients such as the U.S. Department of Energy and, Jeffers has continued to forge her own path.

Recently, she and her partner restored an aging 43-foot catamaran, and the two live full time on the vessel. They set sail in late November and are sailing down the East Coast to Central America, where Jeffers is writing and teaching yoga to traveling families at ports along the way. Jeffers recently took over the VCU Alumni Instagram account, offering a glimpse into what it’s like to live on the open ocean.

No matter where her travels take her, Jeffers is confident that her hard work has prepared her for this new journey.

“It’s empowering to know that the knowledge I gained at VCU has given me transferrable, global skills,” she says. “I say this often, but it was at [VCU] where I learned it’s OK to take the road less traveled, make bold choices and follow my dreams.”

VCU’s new La Esperanza Lab to study health disparities, impact of immigration policy on Richmond’s Latinx population

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Growing up in Arizona as the son of Mexican immigrants, Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D., saw firsthand how the United States’ immigration policies could affect Latinx communities.

Now, as a new faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, Moreno is gearing up to study how policies — including access to health care, immigration restrictions and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — are affecting Latinx students at VCU, as well as the growing Hispanic population of the Richmond region.

“The reason why I do this is because I feel heavily involved with these communities. I come from a Latin community myself. I was raised in Phoenix, the hub of immigration policies [that were characterized by] discrimination constructs, prejudice and institutional biases,” said Moreno, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Now all that’s on a national platform, impacting communities like Richmond.”

Moreno’s La Esperanza Lab (“esperanza” is Spanish for “hope”) at VCU aims to understand and address health care disparities in the United States that affect individuals from low-income and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

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