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 Answers.com, 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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VCU recognizes veterans

Timothy P. Williams

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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In new book, VCU alumnus reveals 190-year history of Richmond’s notorious, iconic Virginia State Penitentiary

Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was incarcerated at the Virginia State Penitentiary for five years in 1954 on grand larceny charges.

A new book by Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Dale Brumfield (B.F.A.’82/A; M.F.A.’15/H&S) reveals the history of the Virginia State Penitentiary, the Richmond prison that was built in 1800 and that the ACLU at one time called the “most shameful prison in America.”

Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” is the latest book by Brumfield, who earned a B.F.A. in painting from VCU’s School of the Arts in 1981 and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from VCU’s Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2015.

Brumfield is the field director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, as well as a digital archaeologist and the author of eight books, including two histories of the underground press — “Richmond Independent Press” and “Independent Press in D.C. and Virginia: An Underground History.”

He will give a reading and sign copies of “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” on Sunday, Oct. 29, from 4–6 p.m. at Babe’s of Carytown’s back room, 3166 W. Cary St. in Richmond.

Brumfield recently discussed his new book, and explained what made the Virginia State Penitentiary so notorious.

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Novelist David Baldacci and wife, Michelle, give $1.1M to VCU for scholarships, experiential learning

From left: David Baldacci; Michelle Baldacci; Montse Fuentes, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences; and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

Bestselling novelist and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus David Baldacci (B.A.’83/H&S; H.L.D.’01) and his wife, Michelle, are making a $1.1 million gift to VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences that will establish a scholarship for political science students and will create a fund to provide students with a variety of experiential learning opportunities.

“Our continuing partnership with VCU is incredibly meaningful to us both,” said David Baldacci. “The endowed fund and endowed scholarship will provide direct support to any university’s most important asset: its students. We look forward to helping VCU students in achieving their full potential as students and in their endeavors after graduation.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said the Baldaccis’ gift is an invaluable contribution in support of VCU students’ education.

“Michelle and David’s support of the College of Humanities and Sciences beautifully illustrates their belief that our students are committed to contributing to the common good now and in the future,” Rao said. “Along with my colleagues, I look forward to watching our students learn, discover and flourish as a result of the Baldaccis’ endowed scholarship and fund.”

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‘I bring this life with me wherever I go’ — an interview with author Katy Resch George

Katy Resch George.

When Katy Resch George (M.F.A.’12/H&S) was a creative writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, she distinguished herself with both her vivid, honest storytelling and the generous, insightful feedback she offered her classmates. Now, Resch George, who earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Department of English, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU, has published her first book, “Exposure,” a collection of short stories from Kore Press that brings readers into the tense lives of an assortment of flawed, compelling characters so sharply drawn as to seem summoned from real life.

Allison Titus, a poet, novelist and fellow alumna of the VCU creative writing program, said, “The stories in ‘Exposure’ sear like light trails, glimmering and striking their lyrical, luminous pitch. Resch George’s characters are searchers, feeling through the darkness of their suburban lives to the edges that shape a deeper truth by which to reckon their experiences and their desires — always conscious of the pulse beneath the surface.”

Resch George answered questions from VCU News about her book and her experiences as a student at VCU.

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VCU physicists discover a tri-anion particle with colossal stability

A rendering of protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom.

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have achieved a feat that is a first in the fields of physics and chemistry — one that could have wide-ranging applications.

A team in the lab of Puru Jena, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has created the most stable tri-anion particle currently known to science. A tri-anion particle is a combination of atoms that contains three more electrons than protons. This discovery is novel because previously known tri-anion particles were unstable due to their numerical imbalance. These unstable particles dispel additional electrons, interrupting chemical reactions.

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Seeds of War and Peace: At Monroe Park Campus Learning Garden, a VCU history class explores the roots of rationing, Victory Gardens and wartime food policy.

Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of History, (center) and students tend their garden bed.

The students were talking about tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant, but they weren’t filling plates in a dining hall — they were in a special topics class, exploring Victory Gardens and the role of food during World War II.

Victory Gardens — planted outside private homes and in public parks — sprouted across America during World Wars I and II, providing locally grown produce during a time when food was rationed.

“World War II had a big impact on food policy, nutrition and the American diet long after the war,” said Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

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Gold compounds could lead to new approaches in HIV drug development

An artist’s rendering of a gold compound interacting with a zinc protein on the cover of the scientific journal Chemical Communications by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom. Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D. has found that gold compounds impede a specific zinc protein’s role in HIV infectivity.

Virginia Commonwealth University researchers have discovered that gold compounds can be effective at reducing the infectivity of HIV in laboratory experiments.

The experiments have shown gold compounds may inhibit HIV by binding to an essential zinc-based protein and changing the shape of the protein, which prevents its attachment to DNA and RNA. The zinc-based proteins occur widely in nature and have roles in the progression of many diseases.

“This finding could eventually lead to HIV-fighting therapeutics and open up a new direction in the field of medicinal inorganic chemistry,” said Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D., principle investigator on the experiments and a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Previous studies from other researchers have shown some anti-HIV activity for gold compounds, which have a long history in medicine and also have been used to specifically to treat rheumatoid arthritis. But Farrell’s work elucidating the mechanisms of gold compound and zinc protein interactions suggests new pathways for this action. His research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gold fingers

Before the zinc protein was exposed to the gold compound, zinc was bound in looped, finger-like structures to sulfur and nitrogen atoms in the protein’s cysteine — an amino acid that contains sulfur. The gold compound, which also takes on the finger-like quality of zinc, binds to cysteines because it has a high affinity for sulfur. The protein then changes from a tetrahedral shape (a pyramidal form) to a linear form. As a result, the protein is no longer able to bind to DNA and RNA, which impedes viral infectivity, Farrell said.

The researchers also used the diagnostic technique of mass spectrometry to identify the exact way gold replaces zinc in the protein. Mass spectrometry identifies and quantifies a specified molecule based on the molecule’s composition. A novel use of ion mobility mass spectrometry allowed the VCU researchers to separate the possible types of protein formed after interaction with the gold compound and to examine protein structure.

Top honors

Farrell’s findings were detailed in two papers — one featured in Chemical Communications at the beginning of 2017 and one featured in Angewandte Chemie this spring. The paper published in Angewandte Chemie was named a “Hot Paper,” which means it was chosen by editors for its importance in a rapidly evolving field of high interest.

Co-investigators on the initial paper include: Sarah R. Spell, Ph.D., and Erica J. Peterson, lab manager in the VCU Department of Chemistry; John B. Mangrum, Ph.D., and Daniele Fabris, Ph.D., in the Department of Chemistry at the University at Albany; and Roger Ptak, Ph.D., senior program leader of In Vitro Antiviral Drug Development at the Southern Research Institute.

Farrell was joined on the second publication by postdoctoral fellow Zhifeng Du, Ph.D., visiting graduate student Raphael E.F. De Paiva, Ph.D., in the Department of Chemistry and Kristina Nelson, Ph.D, director of the Proteomic Mass Spectrometry Core Facility and research assistant.

The pursuit of ‘hoppiness’: Couple drafts a plan for success, opens Twisted Ales Craft Brewing

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

A need for adventure brought Debbi (B.A.’12/H&S; B.A.’12/H&S; Cert.’15/B; M.B.A.’17/B) and Jason (B.S.’17/B) Price to Richmond, Virginia. The couple had lived in California for more than 20 years, but when life started to feel the same, they pulled out a map of the East Coast and threw caution to the wind.

“We put our hands together and made a pointer, closed our eyes and said wherever our fingers landed was where we were going to move,” Debbi says. “When we opened our eyes, we had landed on Richmond. Everything else is history.”

In four months’ time, the Prices sold their home, picked up their two children and moved across the country, sight unseen, arriving in Virginia in 2004, just before Hurricane Gaston hit Shockoe Bottom.

“We turned on the news and saw cars floating down the streets,” Debbi says. “It was quite the first day, but we couldn’t turn back.”

Several years later, Jason started working at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory as a Web developer, and he fell in love with the university and the diversity it offered. Having completed a two-year degree program at Riverside City College before leaving California, he wanted to obtain his bachelor’s in business. VCU was the perfect fit.
“I started in 2006 and had to learn to balance a full-time job, being a parent and going to school one class a semester,” Jason says. “I had more than 20 years of development experience behind me, but it was great to see the educational side of things, and I’m grateful I was able to impart some of my knowledge to my fellow students as well.”

Debbi, who had been studying at the University of Virginia, transferred to VCU where she took classes full time and immersed herself in the college experience. As an undergraduate, she double majored in history and international studies, founded the student organization History Now and served as a senator in the Monroe Park Campus Student Government Association.

She has worked as an academic adviser and administrative specialist in the VCU Department of History since 2013 and has earned both a Certificate in Business Administration and a Master of Business Administration from the VCU School of Business.

“VCU is a microcosm of the world,” Debbi says. “I love the fact that at every turn you can experience something new and culturally diverse. We’re very lucky to have that [on campus].”

Nearly a decade had passed since the family had arrived in Richmond, and the couple had developed a love for craft beer. After some convincing from his wife, Jason eventually decided he should learn to make his own.

“The closest thing we had to [craft beer] growing up in California was Corona and lime, so this was an incredibly new experience for me,” Jason says. “We entered some of our first batch into a competition and got second place. I just couldn’t stop after that.”

The Prices developed more recipes and entered more competitions, and as their success grew so did their ambition. Thinking it would be great if they could run a family business, they drafted a plan and set out to open their own brewery.

“Our oldest son has autism and suffers from a seizure disorder,” Debbi says. “Being able to provide him stable and safe employment was a huge factor in deciding to open a business on our own.”

This past June, nearly two years after that initial conversation about starting a business, their dream became reality when Twisted Ales Craft Brewing opened to the public in the trendy Manchester area of South Richmond. Named for Jason’s want to push the creative limits that craft beers are judged by in competitions, the community has welcomed them with open arms.

The couple is planning an autism awareness fundraiser and is working with a group of VCU School of Pharmacy students who approached them to raise money for The Daily Planet,. The Prices are also partnering with Richmond’s Pink Ink Fund, which provides aid to those needing assistance with post-mastectomy tattoos.

“[Opening a business] hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had our ups and downs,” Jason says. “Regardless of what people tell you, you’re never really ready until it happens.”

With a successful business launch under their belts, the Prices are considering bottling and canning their brews and distributing them within the state, but they remain focused on doing what they can in Manchester.

“You know, there’s no grocery store in Manchester, so we’ve been talking about bringing in a farmer’s market,” Debbi says. “For us it’s more than beer, it’s a place where community can come together.”