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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VCU students travel to Peru to provide medical assistance, build a much-needed staircase

The MEDLIFE team, including 23 students from VCU, celebrate the completion of a staircase they built in Peru, alongside community members and MEDLIFE staff.

Twenty-three Virginia Commonwealth University students traveled to Lima, Peru, earlier this month as part of a volunteer trip to provide medical services and education, and to build a staircase that will allow local residents to better navigate their very hilly neighborhood.

The trip was organized by the VCU chapter of Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere, or MEDLIFE, which aims to improve the health and welfare of families and communities in Ecuador, Peru and Tanzania by providing medical services and education, as well as community development projects.

The chapter was co-founded last summer by Megh Kumar, a junior majoring in biochemistry and psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Shwetha Kochi, a junior biochemistry and bioinformatics major. They both wanted to give VCU students a new opportunity to help provide medical care in low-income countries.

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Study co-authored by VCU undergraduate reveals new insights into the dining habits of toucans

The keel-billed toucan was one of two species of toucans that were documented by the team to prey upon eggs of ground-nesting birds in Costa Rica.

While Toucans’ diets consist primarily of fruit, new research co-authored by a Virginia Commonwealth University biology major suggests the bird species’ dining habits are actually more opportunistic than previously believed and include the eggs of ground-nesting birds.

Maria Vera, a student in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was part of a small team of undergraduate students and researchers who traveled to Costa Rica last summer for a nine-week National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to conduct a nest predator study.

As part of the study, the team built artificial bird nests on the forest ground and monitored the fake nests with camera traps. The cameras picked up two species of toucan descending to the ground to consume the eggs, marking what the team believes may be the first report of the bird preying upon nests on the forest floor.

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Afghanistan native hopes to pursue justice in legal career

Axana Soltan.

Axana Soltan.

Axana Soltan wants to give a voice to the voiceless and advocate for those who have no champion.

“I am so fortunate to be here,” said the native of Afghanistan, who came to the United States eight years ago with her family. “I am blessed to be a citizen. This country has given me so many opportunities, and I want to help those who aren’t as fortunate.”

Soltan, a criminal justice major in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, aspires to a career in law. “I’m interested in working with juveniles or international law. I’m inspired by prosecutors who stand up for justice and help people.”

The Honors College student, who describes herself as focused and motivated, has a 3.9 GPA and typically carries 17 to 19 credits a semester. She hopes to graduate in under four years this December. She’s the president of the Pre-Law Society. When she is not studying or working as a teaching assistant in the Department of Statistics, she is preparing for her LSAT exam.

She credits the Wilder School’s professors and their passion for learning as a key factor in her academic success. “My professors inspire me. They’re also so friendly, kind and willing to help.”

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Real research: Alexander Ip is studying how the silk from silk moth cocoons can be used to make a structure for growing stem cells

Alexander Ip

Alexander Ip

Alex Ip knew he wanted to study stem cells when he was a sophomore in high school in Northern Virginia. It was 2009, and the FDA had just approved using embryonic stem cells in the first human clinical trials.

“The promise of literally being able to grow any type of cell from one stem cell just shocked me,” Ip said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’” Fast forward seven years and Ip, a junior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences and Honors College student at Virginia Commonwealth University, is doing exactly that.

Through VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, he started his research project last summer studying the process of making three-dimensional silk fibroin-based scaffolds, a relatively new platform on which to grow stem cells. Raj Rao, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, is his mentor.

It’s a good fit for Ip, who is on track for medical school. “Students on the pre-med track are interested in doing research in my lab because what we do really is the future of personalized medicine,” Rao said.Rao’s lab is focused on human pluripotent stem cells, which are used to grow any of the 200 different cells that constitute the human body. By incorporating them into the silk matrices, the cells can be proliferated and then used for clinical applications that involve curing any type of disease.

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Next in line: Legacy students forge fresh paths at VCU


For some parents and other family members who attend Virginia Commonwealth University’s Family Weekend Oct. 23-25, they won’t be visiting campus for the second or third or even fourth time — they’ll be coming home. That’s because many VCU students follow in the footsteps of other relatives who attended VCU before them and make their own memories on their family members’ old stomping grounds.

Legacy students often bond with their relatives through their shared experiences at VCU — all while experiencing the university in their own unique way. Below are a few of their stories.

The Etiennes

Darice Etienne is the sixth member of her family to attend VCU, a tradition that goes back three generations and five decades. The legacy began with Darice’s grandmother, Carol Belton-Bynum, who studied education at what was then the Richmond Professional Institute in 1966, followed by Darice’s mother, Sheronda Bynum, who graduated with a degree in fashion and merchandising in 1999. “Actually, my mother had me while she was going to school here,” says Darice. “I even remember going to her graduation when I was 4 years old.”

Darice’s father and uncle, twin brothers Derrick and Darrell Etienne, studied mass communications and played soccer for VCU from 1995 to 1997 before starting professional soccer careers, while her aunt on her mother’s side, Sheila Bynum-Coleman, graduated with a B.S. in political science in 2010.

You might say Darice was destined to be a Ram, but she wasn’t convinced until her mother gave her the grand tour of campus. On her one-woman guided tour, Sheronda pointed out the highlights that remained from her time at VCU in the ’90s, such as the Pollak Building where she studied and John Chandler and Kat Farley’s Mobile Munchies campus food kiosk. But she also noted the array of new buildings to show her daughter how VCU had developed in the past 20 years.

Read more about the Etiennes and other legacy families.


RamsOnVacation-FBsquareWill you be in any picturesque locations this summer? Pack your VCU gear!

We want to share pictures of you in your VCU best all summer long as part of Rams on Vacation. Share your pics with us via social media or

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Undergrads learn flexibility in community-engaged research

Early this summer, Eric Prince’s undergraduate research appeared to be going great. A Virginia Commonwealth University senior majoring in health, physical education and exercise science, Prince had just been awarded one of the university’s three undergraduate fellowships for community-engaged and translational research.

With financial backing for his research — a rarity for undergraduates — Prince was working with Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s Teaching, Encouragement, Exercise, Nutrition and Support (T.E.E.N.S) weight management program.

“We hoped to find whether or not the overhydration of fat-free mass (bone, muscle, minerals) returned to normal following the weight management program,” Prince said. “In adults, this overhydration of the fat-free mass typically remains the same following weight change, so a finding that differed in adolescents would be very important.”

Prince measured participants’ overall fitness at the beginning of the program and planned to measure again three months later, but at the three-month mark he noticed something unexpected: Many of the research participants weren’t coming back.

“I definitely felt frustration — frustration at the situation and frustration that the research wouldn’t be completed,” Prince said.

Despite the presumed setback, Herb Hill, director of VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, said Prince was in exactly the right situation.

“When we talk about success with a student research project, we’re not talking about whether students got the results they expected or whether they got from point A to point B without any problems,” Hill said. “For a student at the undergraduate level to have an opportunity to engage with challenges and have to adapt as obstacles present themselves is really what these fellowships are all about.”

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The Freshman Research Institute

In mid-August, freshman Michael DiGiacomo arrived on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus eager to catch a glimpse of what a future in research could look like.

For one week, just before the new school year started, DiGiacomo and 20 other new honors students had the unique opportunity to participate in the Freshman Research Institute. The VCU Honors College program, now in its eighth year, is designed to introduce incoming freshmen to undergraduate research at VCU.

As a student with an undeclared major, DiGiacomo had hoped the Freshman Research Institute could open his eyes to a field of study with fascinating research opportunities.

He got that, and more.

“Before attending the Freshman Research Institute, I really had no concept of how important and simple it is to get involved with research as an undergraduate student,” said DiGiacomo, a native of Stafford, Virginia.

“I now know how integral it is to the educational experience that VCU offers. My favorite part of the institute was definitely seeing all of the facilities the school has to offer. I know many other students do not get to do that in the very beginning of their academic career.”

During the week-long program, DiGiacomo and his fellow students toured the medical campus and visited the Life Sciences laboratories and the da Vinci Center, in addition to field trips around Richmond. Additionally, there were opportunities to visit the Cabell Library, where students learned how to locate scholarly articles.

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