Startup launched by VCU Engineering alumni transforms industries through the internet of things

VCU School of Engineering alumni Skylar Roebuck, left, and Luke Libraro, right.

Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering alumni Luke Libraro (B.S.’10/En) and Skylar Roebuck (B.S.’10/En) are co-founders of Rocket Wagon, a rapidly growing consultancy firm based in Chicago with a focus on the internet of things, also known as IoT.

Through the addition of sensors to objects, “We create new data, opportunities and experiences that allow us to completely re-imagine businesses and unlock opportunities for our clients,” said Roebuck, the company’s chief digital officer. “At Rocket Wagon, we do this every day — we’re makers who create products that transform entire industries.”

Libraro, the company’s chief technology officer, said, “By making everyday objects ‘smart’ and connecting them to the internet, IoT is making people’s lives easier and their businesses more agile in very significant ways.”

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VCU Engineering boosts percentage of women in computer science and electrical and computer engineering

A VINE workshop at the VCU School of Engineering.

“Stereotype threat” is a self-fulfilling phenomenon in which people — usually women and minorities — think they are at risk of being negatively stereotyped and end up conforming to those very stereotypes. For instance, studies have shown that even mentioning gender caused girls to perform worse than boys on math tests, said Lorraine Parker, Ph.D., the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering director of diversity and student programs.

Parker cites one study in which both boys and girls took a math test and performed the same. Later, they were given another test but were asked to indicate their gender at the top of the paper. The girls tested much lower this time.

“It was just a very subtle reminder that, ‘Hey, you’re a girl,’ and suddenly the women did far worse,” Parker said. “[Society] says that women aren’t as good at math as boys. And if you remind them of that, even indirectly,” it can have detrimental effects.

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VCU Engineering’s Medicines for All awarded $25 million to increase access to lifesaving medications

B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D. Photo by Dan Wagner, courtesy VCU School of Engineering

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering has been awarded a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish the Medicines for All Institute and to fund the institute’s work on a wide range of essential global health treatments. With this grant, the institute can help increase access to lifesaving medications for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases around the world.

B. Frank Gupton, Ph.D., the Floyd D. Gottwald Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering in the VCU School of Engineering, will continue to lead and serve as principal investigator for Medicines for All. Over the past four years, the Gates Foundation has awarded nearly $15 million to Medicines for All. During this time and with this support, Medicines for All has developed an innovative model that reduces the cost of manufacturing AIDS treatments such as nevirapine by accelerating the creation of more efficient ways of synthesizing the active ingredients in the medications. The institute has also worked closely with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and other implementation partners to transfer the new processes to manufacturers so that more medications can reach communities in need.

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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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Engineering student immerses herself in the creation of a promising grocery-shopping app

Sierra Semel.

Sierra Semel, a second-year mechanical engineering student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, is constantly coming up with creative ideas for new products. Last fall, what started as an ordinary class assignment grew into an unexpected opportunity to see what it takes to bring an entrepreneurial idea to life.

The assignment required Semel and her classmates to submit an idea to OpenIDEO, a global community of innovative thinkers exploring solutions to problems through online challenges. Each challenge runs for several months at a time and focuses on a specific issue. This time, it was reducing food waste.

Drawing inspiration from personal experience, Semel laid out the initial plans for a mobile app called Expire.

“As a busy college student, I often lose track of exactly when I buy my groceries,” Semel said. “I wondered what would happen if, somehow, I could be alerted when the groceries I bought were about to go bad.”

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Inspired by her adopted Chinese siblings, VCU student earns Critical Language Scholarship to study in China

Abigail Byram.

Abigail Byram, a computer science student at Virginia Commonwealth University, has four great reasons to study Chinese.

“I did independent study because my family has adopted four children from China. They were adopted as older children, and I needed to speak Chinese to be able to help integrate them into the family,” Byram said. “That’s what sparked my interest in Chinese, and it’s continued from there into more of an academic interest.”

This summer, she will take a major step by studying in China with support from a Critical Language Scholarship. Byram is presently taking a 200-level Chinese course at VCU. She plans to add a minor in Asian and Chinese Studies.

Byram will spend eight weeks in Dalian, China, studying Mandarin with a heavy dose of local culture. The program condenses a year of academic study.

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A SHOT OF COLOR

Jon-Phillip Sheridan, assistant professor of photography and film, lectures during a class at the Depot.

Commuters and pedestrians at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets often gaze up at the gravity-bending Institute for Contemporary Art. Now, those stuck in traffic have something new to admire thanks to the VCU Green Walls Class.

The low-key building shared by VCU RamBikes and the Office of Sustainability has been transformed with vertical planters — commercial, stick built and even made of recycled and adapted materials — in the culmination of a class meshing students from the School of the Arts, School of Engineering and College of Humanities and SciencesDepartment of Biology.

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New capstone collaboration: Engineering and business students join forces to build startups

From left, Wesley Bosman, Majid Al Ashari, Jon Dyke, Marcus Massok, Ashraf Al Gumaei, James Walters and Justin Artis (not pictured) are one of 11 interdisciplinary teams of engineering and entrepreneurship students collaborating on capstone projects this year. They are designing — and commercializing — a wearable cardiac arrest detection device. (Courtesy photo)

Students in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s Capstone Design course are building entrepreneurship skills alongside students in the VCU School of Business thanks to a new program that teaches engineering and business students how to create a startup.

VCU Engineering’s yearlong Capstone Design course immerses all senior engineering students in the hands-on process of solving real-world problems. This year, 11 VCU Engineering Capstone Design teams have also joined the business school’s two-semester entrepreneurship capstone course, New Venture Strategy and Initiation, to learn the process of launching a new company. The goal is a cross-disciplinary learning experience that results in innovative products — and viable platforms for getting them to consumers. The engineering and business students will team up to present their innovations at the School of Engineering Capstone Expo on April 28 at VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.

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School of Engineering and Newport News Shipbuilding launch distance master’s program

The School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering is partnering with Newport News Shipbuilding to offer the company’s engineers a commute-free path toward a master’s degree in VCU’s signature hybrid mechanical and nuclear engineering program.

Newport News Shipbuilding is the only designer, builder and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and one of two providers of U.S. Navy submarines. VCU is providing instruction to a 55-member cohort of NNS employees. Content is delivered synchronously, allowing the students to take master’s level classes remotely, but in real-time with the VCU professors.

“Newport News Shipbuilding has been a valued partner in the growth of our School of Engineering,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Engineering. “We are pleased that we can thank them for their confidence in us by providing their engineers with the opportunity to earn an M.S. degree through this innovative use of distance learning.”

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VCU’s nuclear engineering program celebrates 10th anniversary

Supathorn Phongikaroon, associate professor of nuclear engineering.

Ten years ago, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering added nuclear engineering to its program offerings, bringing comprehensive nuclear engineering education to Virginia. Today, VCU is the only university in Virginia with an accredited undergraduate nuclear engineering concentration, as well as M.S. and Ph.D. programs in mechanical and nuclear engineering.

These programs are making robust intellectual contributions to the discipline while also meeting significant industry needs. The idea to create them originated when industry and academia came together to solve a problem.

“Around 2007 or so, Dominion Resources’ nuclear business unit employed a lot of people who had come in with bachelor’s degrees in engineering, but they had to leave the state to go any further into their education in nuclear engineering,” said Kerry Basehore, who was director of nuclear analysis and fuel for Dominion from 1997 to 2016. “We looked at the situation, and at the fact that the VCU School of Engineering had opened 10 years earlier, and we said, ‘Why don’t we start a night program?’”

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