VCU School of the Arts, ICA, Department of African American Studies announce racial equity initiative

In fall 2017, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, one of the nation’s leading arts schools; the new Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, opening in spring 2018; and the VCU Department of African American Studies will launch the Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Transdisciplinary Core, an initiative founded through the VCU Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation, known as iCubed.

Artists Meghan K. Abadoo and Paul Rucker, and scholar Onaje X.O. Woodbine will join the group as it explores efforts to redress social disparities and inequities within VCU and the broader Richmond community while drawing on the transformative potential of arts and culture.

“VCU is committed to recruiting faculty of exceptional quality who can help to reshape our educational landscape through their teaching, scholarship and service,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., director of iCubed. “Meghan, Paul and Onaje will contribute to a pedagogy that promises to advance student learning in meaningful and productive ways, and encourages the community to become engaged as part of the process, leading to new findings relevant to our city and beyond.”

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz to give a public reading at VCU

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz will give a public reading at VCU in September.

Acclaimed author Junot Díaz will give a public reading at Virginia Commonwealth University on Sept. 12.

Díaz will speak at 6 p.m. in the third floor lecture hall of James Branch Cabell Library. The reading will be followed by a Q&A, a book-signing and a reception. Admission is free and open to the public.

Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of “Drown”; “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and “This Is How You Lose Her,” a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist.

He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The event is co-sponsored by the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean for Humanities and Sciences and the Creative Writing Program of the Department of English.

VCU volunteers help critically ill children from developing countries feel welcome in Richmond

Betty Balanos (left) and VCU Spanish professor Anita Nadal read a picture book to Ana Sophia Balanos, 2, who has been undergoing craniofacial surgeries at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and who was brought to Richmond by the World Pediatric Project. (Brian McNeill)

Ana Sophia Balanos, a 2-year-old from Belize, has undergone three major craniofacial surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU since she was brought to Richmond earlier this summer by the World Pediatric Project. She has one more surgery to go, but she is giggling and excited as she receives a visit from Spanish professor Anita Nadal (B.A.’05/H&S; Cert.’07/H&S) and her Virginia Commonwealth University students.

“¡Hola, princesa!” Nadal says, as she gives Ana Sophia a picture book as a present. “We’re here to spoil la princesa. Es muy importante.”

Nadal, a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and students taking her class on understanding language and Latin American cultures this summer have been volunteering with the World Pediatric Project, which brings critically ill children from developing countries to the United States for medical care.

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Organization co-founded by VCU student teaching chess, patience to Richmond youth

Legacy Chess Academy serves youth in Richmond and is aiming to serve more schools and organizations in the surrounding region.

In a Henderson Middle School classroom, dozens of Richmond children between the ages of 12 and 14 are paired off, each huddled over chess boards and playing intensely.

“Chess helps me think,” says Avery White, 12, a student at Falling Creek Middle School. “It’s a very patient game. It helps you think a few steps forward because if you make a wrong move, your opponent can get an advantage on you.”

The students were participating in a chess program run by Legacy Chess Academy — an organization co-founded by Virginia Commonwealth University senior Corey Hancock — and offered as part of the Richmond Police Athletic League’s summer program for Richmond youth.

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New book co-written by VCU English professors tells the story of Japanese scientist’s unexpected path to the Nobel Prize

Osamu Shimomura received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for his discovery and development of Green Fluorescent Protein, which has become an important tool for studying the biological process in cells.

A new book co-written by Virginia Commonwealth University professors Sachi Shimomura, Ph.D., and John Brinegar, Ph.D., along with Shimomura’s father, Osamu Shimomura, Ph.D., tells the life story of the elder Shimomura, from his time growing up in wartime Japan and his eyewitness account of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki to his postwar research into jellyfish bioluminescence that ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008.

The book, “Luminous Pursuit: Jellyfish, GFP, and the Unforeseen Path to the Nobel Prize” (World Scientific 2017), narrates the life and scientific career of Osamu Shimomura, detailing his travels around the world to collect and research more than 15 bioluminescent species. He received the Nobel Prize for the discovery and development of Green Fluorescent Protein — which has become an important tool for studying the biological process in cells — as he was the first person to isolate GFP and the protein aequorin from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in the early 1960s.

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Up in the air with ASPiRE graduate Georgia Cipriani

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Georgia Cipriani (B.S.’16/H&S), a flight attendant for American Airlines, spends a lot of time flying between Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., but her job also sends her to many new and exciting places around the world. She’ll be taking over the VCU Alumni Instagram account next week giving us a glimpse into her travels.

What was your time at VCU like?

I fell in love with VCU from my first visit. There are so many amazing moments that I wish I could go back in time and relive. I loved being an RA, had great professors, loved being a part of my sorority and graduated from the ASPiRE program!

I also had the chance to study abroad in Perugia, Italy. Not only did I learn a lot of Italian, but I had a blast and met so many new people who I still talk to today. Having the opportunity to study abroad got me out of my comfort zone and I honestly still benefit from that experience to this day. When you’re introduced to a new lifestyle, it lets you learn a lot about yourself.

On top of it all, the study abroad office at VCU was so helpful whenever I had any questions; it really gave me peace of mind.

How has VCU tied into your career path?

My aunt is a child psychologist, and she’s always been a major role model and influence in my life. She sparked my interest in studying psychology early on, so when I got to VCU I knew exactly what I wanted to study, and I plan on continuing my education and eventually getting my master’s.

While you don’t need a specific major to become a flight attendant, I think VCU gave me all the right tools I need to excel at it. I believe the airline industry is one of the most diverse industries to work in, not only because we fly all over the world but also because our passengers are from everywhere around the globe.

VCU’s diversity got me accustomed to being surrounded by people from different cultural backgrounds, and now I can’t think about ever working in an environment that doesn’t offer that.

What is the day-to-day like working for an airline?

As a flight attendant, you have to give up all expectations of a “typical day” or routine. You may think you are going to Los Angeles and end up in Tulsa, Oklahoma; there are no promises ever. My bag always has an umbrella, a bathing suit and a jacket because I can never be too sure of where I’m headed, so I wake up every morning ready for anything!

Where has been your favorite travel destination?

Since working for American, I’ve been able to travel all over the U.S. and a ton of countries in Europe. My favorite place has to be Italy because that’s where I was born and where half of my family is from. I also absolutely loved Copenhagen, Denmark, and cannot wait to go back.

Fraternity scholarship extends an engineering student’s legacy

Dillon Hensley, who received his physics degree in May and plans to pursue an M.S. in the subject at VCU, is the first recipient of Triangle Fraternity’s Chris Ducic Scholarship.

Dillon Hensley (B.S.’17/H&S) completed his bachelor of science in physics with help from a program named for an outstanding engineering student: the Chris Ducic Scholarship. Hensley is the first recipient of this award, which was established by VCU’s Triangle Fraternity, a social fraternity for science, engineering and architecture students. The scholarship is named for Chris Ducic (B.S.’16/E), an academic standout in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering and founding member of Triangle who died during his senior year in 2015.

“The best way to remember Chris is by remembering his work ethic and intellect. He had a big personality — that’s for sure — but also a very strong intellect. A scholarship named after him keeps that idea front and center,” said Zachary Cullingsworth, a graduate student in mechanical and nuclear engineering and Triangle member.

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VCU lab 3-D scans mastodon fossils, helping researchers around the world study the massive Ice Age animal

Jerre Johnson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of geology at the College of William and Mary, brought a number of mastodon fossils, including this tooth, to VCU last week to be 3-D scanned.

Boxes upon boxes filled with the fossilized remains of a mastodon that died in Virginia more than 18,000 years ago are being hauled up the steps to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, where the massive Ice Age animal’s fossils — including the tip of a tusk, a very worn tooth, toe bones, a rib bone and a mandible — are slated to be 3-D scanned.

“Mastodon,” said Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of the lab, which specializes in 3-D scanning and printing of historic and archaeological objects. “It’s what’s for breakfast.”

The fossils, dating to 16,260 B.C., were excavated from a site near Yorktown between July 2015 and last November and are the most significant mastodon remains to be found east of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The mastodon’s tooth was first discovered in 1983 by a bricklayer named Lawnell Hart, who then enlisted the help of College of William and Mary geology professor Jerre Johnson, Ph.D. Hart and Johnson visited the site again and found additional fossils, but the property owners would not grant them permission to conduct a proper excavation.

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Two VCU Honors College students awarded Boren scholarships

Sarah Sweeney, left, and Theresa Dinh.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University students will study language in Asia with support from the Boren Scholarship. Theresa Dinh will study in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, Vietnam, while Sarah Sweeney will study at Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Boren Scholarship, part of the National Security Education Program, supports undergraduate students who wish to study less commonly taught languages. Dinh and Sweeney will spend an academic year abroad. Participants commit to a year of federal government service upon graduation.

Dinh, an international studies major in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is also a member of the Honors College and VCU Globe. She will study human trafficking and other topics at Hoa Sen University and in the State University of New York-Brockport’s Da Nang program.

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An unexpected journey: Peace Corps takes alumnus from Richmond to southern Africa

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

December 2014 marked six months since Anthony Muron (B.S.’14/H&S) had interviewed with the Peace Corps. He spent those months keeping busy, volunteering with Commonwealth Catholic Charities and working the house painting job he had held for five years. In fact, he was 30 feet in the air on a ladder when he got the email.

Muron still remembers the feeling that brisk December day, climbing down the ladder teary-eyed to tell his co-workers that he had been invited to serve.

“I called my mother immediately to tell her the good news,” he says. “If it wasn’t for [her], I would have completely lost my way and may not have even gone to college. All my hard work had finally paid off.”

His father helped him pay his way through college, but it still  took a few years for Muron to strike a balance between studying and working during his time at Virginia Commonwealth University. By his third year, he was so concentrated on work that graduating on time was not an option. He knew that if he didn’t refocus on his schoolwork, his only other option would be to drop out of college.

“That was the moment where I told myself to pull up my bootstraps and put myself on the right track,” Muron says.

Wanting to make the most of his college experience in his senior year, which he paid for himself, he hit the ground running and signed up for every extracurricular activity that came his way. He re-joined Students Today Alumni Tomorrow, VCU Alumni’s student organization, serving on its Leadership Council and later its board of directors. He also became a member of the Student Government Association, Honor Council and Psychology Anonymous.

“Being involved with STAT was a huge turning point in my college career,” he says. “I was constantly working, zipping around campus on my bike, and attending meetings on both campuses right up until my last day as a student.”

Brendan Hood (B.S.’15/B), who worked with Muron on STAT’s board of directors, praised him for his work ethic.

“[Anthony] is a proud VCU alumnus, who always put others before himself and leads the way in showing the world how far loyalty, friendship and positivity can go,” says Hood.

Less than a year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Muron was on a plane to Mozambique. He has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for the past two years, working closely with local hospitals to counsel HIV patients about treatment options, to form patient help groups to ease medication distribution, to search for patients who have missed consultation dates and to educate the public about malaria and nutrition.

He also works on the Jovems Unidos no Trabalho do Oportunidades e Successo (United Youth in the Work of Opportunities and Success) project that meets weekly with local youth ages 13 to 23 to discuss health-related topics, to practice theater and to dance and play games. Youth also learn English through the English Theater Network where children from all 10 provinces in Mozambique come together annually to perform a play centered on various health and social topics.

“They’re a great group of kids,” Muron says. “Each one of them is active in their community, and they all have bright futures ahead of them.”

Last summer, Muron had the opportunity to pursue another one of his interests, environmental sustainability, while continuing his work with the Peace Corps. After visiting Mount Namuli in the heart of the country’s Zambézia province, he learned about the work that the Legado Initiative, another nongovernmental organization, was doing to introduce perma-gardening and sustainable agricultural activities in the area.

“Local leadership knows the damage that is being done to the rivers and streams through unsustainable farming methods and that preventing them requires a collective effort and alternative economic resources,” says Muron, who volunteered to help with the initiative. “The Legado: Namuli team realized this as well and wanted to use education as the first step.”

With support from government leaders, the team is working to identify change agents who can stop farmers from using the slash-and-burn agriculture method and recruit them to help introduce sustainable farming techniques.

“So far we’ve held training sessions in each of the six Namuli communities and reached 15 leaders in each, many of whom have already begun to implement perma-farm techniques in their own farms,” Muron says. “The key is perseverance and communication. There will be a lot of resistance and setbacks, but without pain there’s no progress.”

Today, the project has agreements with community leaders to stop the farming and burning of high-elevation forests in exchange for agricultural development, income generation and infrastructure building as well as funding from multiple private organizations that will help Legado accomplish its goals.

Over the next decade, the Legado: Namuli project will continue toward its goal of protecting one of Mozambique’s most ecologically diverse and important environments while at the same time ensuring that future generations will have adequate access to natural resources and freshwater supplies.

“If you give corn to a community, it will go hungry the following year; but if you teach them to grow corn, they’ll have food for generations,” he says. “We’re not saving these communities. We’re providing them the means to save themselves. That’s the purpose of sustainable development.”

In August, Muron will become Mozambique’s Northern Regional Peace Corps Volunteer leader where he’ll provide Volunteer and organizational support and develop sites for new Volunteers to live. Although he’s leaving the Zambézia province, he knows that the work he’s done will continue and is excited for the next step in building a better future for the country.

“I haven’t changed the world, the world has changed me,” Muron says. “The people I’ve encountered in this part of the world have taught me so much more than I’ll ever be able to teach them.”