Scientist, artist, inventor, dean: The many sides of Shawn Brixey

After two semesters at VCU, Shawn Brixey sees the School of the Arts in the position of upholding a large legacy, while at the same time projecting into the future.

At first glance, Shawn Brixey’s lab looks like any other in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering.

For starters, there are optical isolation tables, lasers, video microscopes, circuit board printers, oscilloscopes, and computer numeric control machine tools. It looks and feels a lot like a hybrid physics/engineering lab.

Brixey, dean of the VCU School of the Arts since July, is perhaps the first art school dean to have a laboratory rather than a studio. To be sure, Brixey is a rarity — equal parts artist and scientist.

With strong arts, design, science and engineering knowledge — and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology education — Brixey is equally comfortable among scientists as he is with artists. He recognizes that scientists share the same sense of awe and wonder, derived from the same place, as artists.

“We use different methodology and we approach creative problem solving differently,” he said. “But one of our fundamental goals is as we experience the structure and behavior of the world around us through observation, experiment, intervention and expression, we both want to discover what it means to be human and then document that in ways that no one’s ever really imagined.”

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VCU forensic science professor’s breakthrough in cell imaging could have major impact in crime labs

Unlike traditional forensic testing methods, Christopher Ehrhardt’s procedure can be used to identify different cell types in a sample without damaging the sample.

A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has developed a procedure for identifying the source of cells present in a forensic biological sample that could change how cell types are identified in samples across numerous industries.

Many traditional techniques for distinguishing between saliva, blood, skin or vaginal tissue in an evidence sample are based on microchemical reactions that can be prone to false-positive or false-negative results, according to the researcher, Christopher Ehrhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Additionally, they may be difficult to use on aged or heavily degraded samples.

“The information is often limited,” Ehrhardt said. “And when using conventional methods, you have to be prepared to consume part of the sample in most cases, which decreases the value of it.”

A new positioning system invented by a VCU professor delivers where GPS fails

Wei Cheng’s system allows a group of devices to know where they are in relation to one another, and could have hundreds of practical applications, from finding a friend at a concert to locating a Lyft driver at the airport.

A Virginia Commonwealth University computer science professor has developed a system that could change how we find friends in crowded places, Uber drivers in busy cities, and even family spread across a cruise ship.

Unlike GPS, which provides location data based on latitude and longitude, this new system — invented by Wei Cheng, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering — tells users where they are compared to others.

The system allows a group of devices to know where they are in relation to one another, what direction each device is traveling, and how fast each is moving.

“Think of this technology like a swarm of bees,” Cheng said. “The bees all know where the other bees are, and where they’re going.”

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Community remembers Rebecca Tyree, beloved VCU music educator

Rebecca “Becky” Tyree.

When organizers of a memorial service for Rebecca Tyree decided to form a makeshift chorus for the occasion, they put out a call for volunteers. Tyree had served as an assistant professor of choral music education and choral ensembles in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts until her death on May 24 after a bicycle accident, and the chorus seemed like a fitting tribute to her work. The organizers’ intentions were modest.

“We thought, ‘Oh, maybe some people will want to sing,’” said Erin Freeman, D.M.A., director of choral activities at VCU.

Then the replies started to come in. Former and current students from VCU. Her faculty colleagues. Local high school students she privately tutored. Performers from the Richmond Symphony Chorus. Representatives of SPARC Live Art, where she oversaw a program for special needs children. Members of the RVA Street Singers, a choir of homeless people she helped organize. Even former students and colleagues from Hermitage High School, where she had taught nearly 20 years ago.

By the time rehearsal started in the sanctuary of Second Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, more than 170 people had assembled to sing in Tyree’s honor. Freeman said the astonishing turnout was an apt illustration of Tyree’s profound and wide-ranging impact on the Richmond music community and her ability to heal others, even after her death.

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How do we view the Syrian refugee crisis? A new study looks to Instagram and Pinterest for answers

Sentiments about the Syrian refugee crisis are increasingly being expressed on social media. A new study led by Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, provides new insight into what and how information about Syrian refugees is being shared.

As millions of Syrians have fled their country’s civil war, the influx of refugees has prompted both humanitarian efforts to help them as well as growing views of refugees as a threat to the receiving countries’ security and autonomy.

Sentiments about the refugee crisis are increasingly expressed on social media. A new study led by Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’17/M), an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, provides new insight into what and how information about Syrian refugees is being shared.

The study, “Welcome or Not: Comparing #Refugee Posts on Instagram and Pinterest,” was a quantitative content analysis of a random sample of 750 Instagram posts and 750 Pinterest posts to evaluate and compare visual and textual messaging surrounding the crisis.

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VCU professors join elite biomedical engineering group

Three Virginia Commonwealth University professors have joined the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, an elite group that comprises the top 2 percent of medical and biological engineers nationally.

AIMBE inducted Gregory Buck, Ph.D., of the VCU School of Medicine, and B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’00/,H&S) and Lukasz Kurgan, Ph.D., both of the VCU School of Engineering, into its prestigious College of Fellows Class of 2018 on Monday at a formal induction ceremony during AIMBE’s 27th annual meeting.

These inductions bring the university’s total number of AIMBE Fellows to 12.

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Angell named dean of the School of Social Work at VCU

Beth Angell, Ph.D.

Beth Angell, Ph.D., has been named dean of the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University, effective July 16.

Angell comes to VCU with nearly two decades of experience in the field of social work. She currently serves as associate professor and chair of the faculty for the School of Social Work at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

“We are delighted to have Dr. Angell join the VCU leadership team,” said Gail Hackett, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs at VCU. “Her prolific and widely recognized work within her field of research, as well as her leadership in faculty development, will add to the momentum of VCU’s School of Social Work in reaching its next level of success.”

Angell previously served as assistant and associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, Center for Mental Health & Aging Research.

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Aashir Nasim named new VP for inclusive excellence at VCU

Aashir Nasim, Ph.D.

Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., a respected scholar and academic administrator, has been named the vice president for inclusive excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University, effective April 2.

Nasim currently serves as interim senior vice provost for faculty affairs and director of the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry & Innovation (iCubed) at VCU. In his new position, Nasim will lead the Division for Inclusive Excellence and implement a newly adopted Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Action Plan designed to fulfill VCU’s vision of becoming a model university for inclusivity.

“Aashir is a respected scholar who is admired around the nation and who brings an important lens of diversity and inclusion to his work and to our university community,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “He is a thoughtful and passionate leader who embodies VCU’s mission of tackling difficult problems to serve the public good. I have valued his leadership over the past decade and look forward to working closely with him as he advances our commitments to diversity and inclusion everywhere and ensures that VCU will always be a place where all people can succeed.”

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Grace Harris, a transformative figure in VCU’s history, dies at 84

Grace E. Harris, Ph.D.

Grace E. Harris, Ph.D. (M.S.W.’60/SW), whose leadership helped shape Virginia Commonwealth University during a pioneering 48-year career at the university, died on Monday at the age of 84.

Harris joined the social work faculty at Richmond Professional Institute in 1967, a year before the school merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU, and she would prove to be an integral part of the university’s foundation and growth in the ensuing decades. Over the course of her career, Harris would rise to the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at VCU, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as the chief academic officer at a four-year public university in Virginia.

“Throughout our 180-year history, a handful of people have been so vital to the story of Virginia Commonwealth University that their names are forever linked with ours,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “One of those people was Grace Harris. She was a giant in legacy and in character, a woman whose contributions to VCU and to the countless lives we touch are truly immeasurable. She helped us become one of the nation’s premier urban public research universities and, maybe more than anyone, personified our commitment to serve the public good.

“Dr. Harris lived as her name implied, with the utmost grace, even in the face of personal and professional indignities. May we all dedicate ourselves to living, working, and caring in the same profoundly meaningful ways that Grace did: with compassion, character, and — always — with grace.”

When Harris was first hired at RPI, she was one of the three African-American faculty members hired that year – the first black faculty members in the school’s history. Harris was named dean of the School of Social Work in 1982 and was later promoted to vice provost for continuing studies and public service. She served as provost and vice president for academic affairs from 1993 to 1999, while also assuming the role of acting president in 1995 and 1998.

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VCU bids a fond farewell to a true ‘alumni star’

Diane Stout-Brown

Diane Stout-Brown counts the “Tableith” sculpture honoring RPI as a proud accomplishment of her tenure at the university.

By Julie Young

In 1988, Virginia Commonwealth University celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding with an event known as Founders Day. The VCU Alumni Association subsequently started the Alumni Stars program to honor accomplished graduates during the annual celebration. Since 2008, the Alumni Stars ceremony has been a stand-alone biennial event, recognizing graduates from each VCU school who have a record of professional or humanitarian achievements.

Orchestrating the event throughout the years was an energetic VCU alumna, Diane Stout-Brown (B.S.W.’80/SW). To any colleague or graduate who worked alongside her, attended an event or met her in person, Stout-Brown was the real alumni star.

The senior director of VCU Alumni retires Dec. 20 after 30 years of university service. She began her VCU career as assistant director for student/alumni engagement, working her way up to her current position, even serving as interim executive director of the alumni organization.

Her responsibilities have included student programs, alumni engagement, membership and marketing, volunteer development and coordination, and special events development. Before joining VCU, she developed skills in fundraising, special events and programs with nonprofit organizations, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the American Cancer Society.

Before retiring, Stout-Brown shared some favorite memories and her second-act plans, which include selling real estate.

How did your social work degree help prepare you for relating to alumni?

When I came to VCU, I was a suburbanite who grew up in conservative, homogenous Chesterfield County, Virginia. The School of Social Work and VCU taught me that the world is incredibly multicultural. It viewed others with an open and accepting mind, something I value highly. I felt like I was finally in an environment where I belonged.

Tell us how you transitioned from working at nonprofits into alumni engagement.

My field placement in the School of Social Work was with the Voluntary Action Center at the United Way, where I placed volunteers in a variety of service agencies. It led the way to other positions in nonprofits working with volunteers.

I worked with a good number of grass-roots volunteer boards for the American Cancer Society and other organizations. I enjoyed working with people who gave their time, talent and resources because of a passion or cause they believed in. I wanted to return to my alma mater because of the diversity and open-minded philosophy. When I started, the VCU Alumni Association was a nonprofit, run by a volunteer board with numerous committees. There were very few programs in place and so I had the opportunity to create some wonderful programs to engage alumni and students.

Tell us about your favorite event/moment and what made it memorable.

There are a lot of special memories. I think the most special ones are the ones where I’ve been absolutely frantic and nervous and then things came together at the end. Alumni Stars has been fantastic over the years. I especially enjoyed the years when we allowed alumni to speak from the heart because it put special meaning into the event. It showed how much of an impact higher education made on someone who went on to use their knowledge and gifts to make the world a better place. It was also fun to connect with our School of the Arts faculty and put together interesting entertainment.

The core of your success would seem to be how deeply you care about all alumni. How did you ensure that Richmond Professional Institute graduates were not overlooked through the years?

RPI graduates are extremely devoted and passionate. How can we not support this? This group of alumni has a high regard for their education and the experiences they had at RPI. They thirst for engagement and involvement. They cherish their history and want to be a proud part of VCU today. My role has been to help guide and facilitate projects with them so they can have a lasting legacy. I’ve developed some good friends from this group.

In all of the events you’ve overseen, there must have been a few bloopers or crazy tasks along the way.

Where do I begin? I guess the most memorable is when we were planning an alumni Life member reception at Robertson House. It was to be held before a Jay Leno performance in the Siegel Center. Everything was all set, and then a hurricane came through and there was no power in the city. I had to purchase lanterns and battery-operated lights for the bathrooms.  The caterer had to change the menu to cold items instead of hot. It actually turned out to be very nice and certainly gave everyone a conversation topic.

What are your plans and hopes for retirement?

I’m looking forward to giving my 88-year-old parents more of my time. They live independently in their home, and I want them to get the care and attention they gave me over the years.  Whenever I was stressed before some event, my mom would always ask if there was anything she could do to help out. She even volunteered to direct traffic when I was coordinating the state tournament of Odyssey of the Mind. Of course, I didn’t take her up on it, but she has given much to me over the years and allowed me to work a full-time job with peace of mind while my kids were little.

VCU has been a huge part of life and now I’m eager to explore other parts of the world. I want to travel, go to museums and concerts, drive to the beach in the middle of the week, read, do crafts, learn to play the violin, hike, organize my house and, of course, take lots of walks with my dog, Andy. Most importantly, I want to enjoy leisure time with friends and family and not have to always be in a rush or worried about not getting something done. I won’t be 100 percent retired because I have obtained my real estate license and will be working as a Realtor, helping people find their dream homes.

What is the one thing you would like to leave with the VCU Alumni staff as you start the second journey of your life?

Our staff is so amazing that I don’t know of anything they don’t have already. I would say to keep the alumni close, always stand behind them while they shine and always embrace VCU for the institution that it is. You are ones who have the benefit of having the most insight when it comes to VCU’s alumni. Don’t hesitate to stand up for them and to help others understand that even things that seem insignificant can blossom into much, much more.

What would you like your legacy to be? 

I think my legacy has been ensuring that the RPI alumni were able to get their sculpture and history wall installed on campus so they will be remembered in perpetuity. Bob Lindholm (B.S.’50/H&S) was the first RPI Alumni Council chairman. When Bob became ill and was dying, I asked his daughter to let him know I was thinking of him. His daughter sent me an email telling me what Bob had dictated to her on his death bed. He dictated the sweetest note and as I think about it, I can still hear his gentle voice. He was so appreciative of me, VCU and the support we had given RPI during his term as chairman. He was extremely grateful that we were able to get the sculpture “Tableith” (to honor RPI) installed. I know Bob would be so proud today if he could see the “RPI” on VCU’s seal.

My other legacy would be the Alumni Stars program, which grew from Founders Day in 1988 into a university tradition that has honored more than 250 alumni who are stars in their professions.

VCU has been a grand journey. I am forever grateful to my VCU family and all of the alumni I have met along this journey. Please stay in touch and feel free to reach out to me at dianesb@comcast.net.

Founders Day gala

Students, alumni, faculty and deans enjoy an early Founders Day gala, where the Alumni Stars were first honored.