50 years after Virginia’s first heart transplant, $1M gift breathes new life into historic lab

The former laboratory of Richard Lower, M.D., the pioneering surgeon who performed the first heart transplant in Virginia in 1968, will be transformed into a $5 million suite of research facilities.

How in the world do you thank anyone for saving your life three times?” It’s a poignant question for David Cottrell.

When Cottrell arrived at VCU Medical Center, he thought he had the flu. He had no idea just how ill he was — or how much time he would spend in the hospital. His actual diagnosis: a staph infection, which led first to bacterial spinal meningitis, then spread to his heart valves. He experienced multiple strokes and began to experience multisystem organ failure.

The outlook seemed bleak, but a large, diverse team at VCU Medical Center oversaw Cottrell’s care, navigating each challenge and complication that arose. Through the most harrowing times of his illness, he and his wife, Christy, never gave up. “We never lost faith in the quality of the care or team that surrounded us,” Christy Cottrell said. And the couple took advantage of the academic health center’s collaborative approach, listening to the team and knowing that the team was listening to them. After 10 months and four surgeries ­­— including three open-heart procedures — David Cottrell was truly on the road to recovery.

“I have been able to retire, spend more time with my family, travel and focus on the things I love,” Cotrell said of his life today. “I was able to walk my daughter Leah down the aisle. I owe the teams at VCU my life.”

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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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With a $1M gift, alumna Iris Harrell and wife Ann Benson create a new scholarship for gender, sexuality and women’s studies at VCU

Ann Benson and Iris Harrell have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to support students studying in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

When Iris Harrell’s (M.E.’75/E) parents got divorced during her junior year at what is now the University of Mary Washington, her college education was left in jeopardy. She didn’t have enough money to supplement the scholarships that had allowed her to be the first member of her North Carolina farming family to attend college.

“But [Mary Washington administrators] went into a back room and found some scholarships that they hadn’t awarded,” Harrell said. “They just gave it to me and I was able to finish school. And my life has been way different — and better — because I got a college degree.”

Harrell, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education in 1975, taught for several years, was a touring folk musician and ultimately founded a successful construction and remodeling company in California with her wife, Ann Benson, is now giving back to help students like her obtain an education.

Harrell and Benson have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to create the Harrell-Benson Scholarship for students in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

“Scholarships are about your legacy,” Harrell said. “I got mine. I want to make sure that the next generation of people get theirs.”

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VCU College of Engineering breaks ground on new research building and makerspace

From left: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Barbara Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering; and VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., break ground on VCU’s Engineering Research Building.

Virginia Commonwealth University leaders and dignitaries gathered Tuesday to break ground on a 133,000-square-foot research building that will significantly expand the College of Engineering’s laboratory capacity and serve as a collaboration hub for students and faculty.

The new Engineering Research Building, scheduled to open in 2020, will support advanced research and economic development with a design that emphasizes makerspaces, collaborative research facilities and flexible gathering areas. Richmond-based architecture firms Baskervill and Smith McClane Architects and Boston-based firm Goody Clancy designed the $93 million building, which is being financed by investments from the state, VCU and private support. Washington, D.C.-based Page/SST Planners designed the laboratory spaces.

“The college was established as a public-private partnership with a mandate to educate engineers who will fuel economic development in the region. The ERB reflects our commitment to meeting this goal,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Chair. “Virginia’s support of this critical addition to our teaching and research mission is a strong vote of confidence in our program. We are proud to step into this next phase of our development with the commonwealth as our partner.”

The building will support student-centered learning, meaningful research, workforce development and a culture that promotes creativity, entrepreneurship and global perspectives.

The ERB’s entrance at Cary and Belvidere streets, designed by Smith McClane Architects of Richmond, will continue the college’s tradition of architectural details that refer to past eras of engineering advances. The building’s pavilion design alludes to the 19th-century dawn of industrial engineering with a roofline that features updated smokestacks. A brick-and-glass pavilion and large courtyard will feature power-equipped seating areas so students can research and collaborate outdoors as well as in the large internal atrium.

The building’s first floor will include the office of Engineering Career Services and economic development resources for the college’s internship and co-op programs. A 9,000-square-foot Innovation Maker Facility, supported by a gift from Altria, will foster hands-on engineering and prototype development skills essential for transition into careers in industry. With resources that include 3D printing, bench electrical fabrication, tabletop equipment and hand tools, the makerspace will stimulate knowledge-sharing, collaborative problem-solving and the rapid design of new ideas.

Floors two, three and four will house faculty research labs, offices, spaces for graduate and undergraduate student research and interactive areas for group seminars. Multidisciplinary and collaborative faculty research “neighborhoods” will be furnished with wet laboratory facilities for biomedical research and dry laboratory spaces.

High-resolution renderings of the building are available for download on the college’s Flickr page.

Make It Real Campaign for VCU passes $600 million

Funds raised so far in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU have established 261 new endowed scholarships and student support funds.

Virginia Commonwealth University has raised $613.5 million toward its $750 million goal in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the university announced today.

Fiscal year 2018 has been the best fundraising year of the campaign so far, with $105.6 million raised to date. The university’s fiscal year ends June 30.

The campaign, which began with a quiet phase in July 2012 and launched publicly in September 2016, is the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history. It counts all funds raised through June 30, 2020.

Gifts to the Make It Real Campaign for VCU support critical university initiatives and growth in three areas: people, innovations and environments.

“This is an incredible milestone in the Make It Real Campaign for VCU and in the history of VCU as a whole,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Our goal is ambitious, but so is our vision. Gifts made to this campaign help us continue transforming the lives of our students, fueling research that improves the human situation, and driving economic development long into the future. I am so grateful to our alumni and friends for the generosity and leadership that enables us to be a public university for the public good.”

Funds raised so far in the campaign have established 261 new endowed scholarships and student support funds, 52 new endowed professorships and chairs, and 72 new endowed faculty support and research funds. They have also supported a number of new buildings, including the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Markel Center, the Inger Rice Lodge at the Rice Rivers Center and a new building for the VCU College of Health Professions.

Of the $105.6 million raised this fiscal year, $38.9 million came from VCU alumni — including 1,789 first-time alumni donors — an increase of 80.4 percent in the committed revenue raised during the same time last year. Fifteen of 19 colleges, schools and units have raised more than 60 percent of their individual campaign fundraising goals. The College of Engineering and School of Education have exceeded their campaign goals and are having their best fundraising years so far. The College of Humanities and Sciences, College of Health Professions and School of Business also are having their best fundraising years to date.

“We cannot thank our donors enough for their generous support of VCU and VCU Health during the Make It Real Campaign for VCU,” said Jay E. Davenport, vice president of development and alumni relations. “We have always had a very generous community, but in this record-setting year, the support has been second to none. It is particularly gratifying to see more alumni giving back. They may be part of our history, but their support is guaranteeing a robust future not just for the students and patients of today and tomorrow but in everything we do.”

For more information about the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, visit campaign.vcu.edu.

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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VCU receives $21.5M National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Science Award

Virginia Commonwealth University has been awarded $21.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to promote and expand research and improve access for Virginians to cutting-edge treatments for diseases, including cardiac disease, pulmonary disease and addiction. This is the largest NIH grant ever awarded to VCU.

The five-year Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) through NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) was awarded to VCU’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, allowing the center to support clinical research, integrate research and clinical practice and provide training to develop the clinical research workforce.

“As a governor and physician, nothing is more important to me than the heath of Virginians — the Wright Center’s historic grant is a huge boost to the commonwealth’s ability to bring innovations in clinical research that will result in better treatments and new cures,” Northam said. “This funding will support collaboration across the state and speed translation of research to patient care, and I look forward watching VCU solidify Virginia’s place as a research leader.”

Members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, which played an essential role in supporting the grant, celebrated the award Monday.

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VCU launches apprenticeship program, providing opportunities and valuable skills to future tradespeople

Melissa Yancey, one of five apprentices in VCU Facilities Management’s new apprenticeship program, is learning to become a steamfitter and working in the MCV Campus Steam Plant.

Only 1.6 percent of the nation’s steamfitters are women, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics. As part of a new apprenticeship program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Melissa Yancey is on her way to joining their ranks.

“I like working with my hands and I’m learning a new skill,” said Yancey, who began working in the MCV Campus Steam Plant in January. “I wanted to learn a trade, and to have a job that’s more physical than stationary. I guess I just saw a lot of potential to working at VCU.”

Yancey, who is the only woman working in the steam plant, has been learning how to weld, use a variety of tools, install and repair pipes, and troubleshoot the system that provides steam for the MCV campus, the VCU Medical Center and several nearby state government buildings.

“It’s been great,” she said. “They all treat me like one of the guys.”

Yancey is one of five apprentices hired this year as part of a new initiative of VCU Facilities Management to bolster the university’s workforce of skilled tradespeople. The apprentices are training to become a certified heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician, electrician, locksmith and plumber.

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VCU’s School of Allied Health Professions becomes the VCU College of Health Professions

Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Allied Health Professions is now the VCU College of Health Professions. The new name reflects the expanding breadth and level of academic programming, as well as the college’s increase in research, faculty and student enrollment.

“We are updating ourselves to current ways of identifying health profession colleges,” said Cecil B. Drain, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Professions. “The name change is going to pull us together within one college administration.”

The new name echoes another significant change on the horizon — construction of the new College of Health Professions building, which is scheduled to open for classes in fall 2019. The 154,000-square-foot building will provide a unified space for the college’s nine academic units, the doctoral program in health-related sciences, the dean’s office and the Virginia Center on Aging. The college’s top-ranked programs have occupied 13 buildings in the past 49 years and are currently scattered among five buildings on two campuses.

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These eight VCU students are the first in their family to graduate from college. Here’s how they did it.

From left: First-generation graduates Sophia Booker, Jaren Butts, Ricardo Rodriguez, Brandon Watts and Tammie Goode

They each have a story: Jeff Petraco (B.S.’14/N) earned his first degree 42 years ago and now finds himself in cap and gown again, at the beginning of a new career. Brandon Watts was raised in a home without internet and now aspires to start a data science company. Candace Moore had to put her education on hold twice and cashed out her 401(k) to pay for school. On Saturday, she will graduate with two degrees.

They come from different places and have different dreams. But they also share something in common: They are the first in their family to graduate from college. VCU News sat down with eight students in the weeks leading to commencement to discuss the moments that mattered on the way to their degrees.

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