VCU anthropology professor hunts for fossils of humans’ earliest origins

Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., and Omar Abdullah show off hominin teeth fossils that they found in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

Virginia Commonwealth University anthropology professor Amy Rector Verrelli, Ph.D., just returned from a research trip to Ethiopia where she served as part of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project that in 2013 discovered a fossil of the earliest member of the genus Homo, pushing back the origin of humans’ genus to 2.8 million years ago.

Rector Verrelli, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was one of a team of researchers from Arizona State University, Pennsylvania State University, George Washington University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hunting for fossils in the Afar region of Ethiopia, between the Ledi and Geraru rivers.

“It has deposits that are between about 1 million and 3 million years ago, so the goal is to look for fossils of our ancestors from that time period,” Rector Verrelli said. “In that area, that usually means Australopithecus afarensis (famous for the Lucy skeleton), but in 2013 project scientists discovered the earliest member of our genus, the genus Homo.”

Researchers in 2013 found a partial hominin mandible with teeth from the Ledi-Geraru research area, thereby establishing the presence of Homo between 2.8 million and 2.75 million years ago. The find extended the record of recognizable Homo by at least a half-million years, shedding new light on human evolution.

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VCU researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018

M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D.; and Arun Sanyal, M.D., at the 2018 Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University researchers were recognized Thursday as Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam at the annual Outstanding STEM Awards held at the Science Museum of Virginia.

The awards, which have been presented by Virginia governors for more than 30 years, recognize individuals for their contributions in science, technology, engineering and math. Six were honored at Thursday’s event: three researchers for longtime contributions to their fields and three budding scientists.

“Celebrating the academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit of these Virginians helps showcase how STEM innovations tie into our everyday lives,” Northam said. “It also highlights the profound contribution that STEM makes to Virginia families and our economy. I thank these extraordinary awardees and everyone who works hard to make Virginia a leader in these important fields.”

Arun Sanyal, M.D. (H.S.’90/M), a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine; and M. Samy El-Shall, Ph.D., commonwealth professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, were two of three researchers named Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists for 2018.

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VCU Medical Center reverified as Level I trauma center until 2020

VCU Medical Center is the only Level I adult, pediatric and burn trauma center in the region.

The American College of Surgeons has renewed its verification of VCU Medical Center as a Level I trauma center, recognizing the hospital’s dedication to the highest  quality care within and beyond hospital walls through teaching and research, as well as injury and violence prevention programs. VCU Medical Center is the only Level I adult, pediatric and burn trauma center in the region and the longest-standing, state-designated trauma center in Virginia.

“We have been honored to carry the highest recognition for any trauma center in the nation for 12 consecutive years,” said Marsha Rappley, M.D., vice president of VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System. “Being a Level I trauma center today is as much about excellence in patient care as it is about advancing medical research, teaching, community outreach and providing resources people in Virginia need to stay safe and healthy through prevention.”

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VCU Libraries celebrates addition of 3 millionth volume to its collection

“Rehabilitation After Traumatic Brain Injury,” by Blessen C. Eapen and David X. Cifu, chair of VCU’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, will be the 3 millionth addition to VCU Libraries’ collections.

VCU Libraries will celebrate the 3 millionth addition to its library collections with a trio of events and selections over the next two months. Three items have been identified for the celebration: an oral history collection featuring second-wave feminists in central Virginia (2,999,999th volume); a seminal new book about treatment of traumatic brain injury, co-authored by David X. Cifu, M.D., chair of VCU’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (3 millionth volume); and an art pop-up book by VCU alumna Colette Fu (3,000,001st volume).

The celebration of the 3 millionth volume coincides with VCU Libraries’ emergence as one of the leading research libraries in the country. Representing the maturity and depth of its collections, these acquisitions coincide with VCU Libraries’ inaugural year as a member of the Association of Research Libraries (joining the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech as the only ARL institutions in Virginia). The celebration also falls on the 50th anniversary of the creation of Virginia Commonwealth University, the 120th anniversary of the founding of Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences, and the recognition of VCU Libraries with the prestigious 2018 Association of College and Research Libraries Excellence in Academic Libraries Award.

“These three items represent the diversity and breadth of our collections and demonstrate the libraries’ commitment to advancing research, scholarship and creative expression throughout the university,” said University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider. “They highlight the key role that Tompkins-McCaw Library plays in patient care and research at VCU, demonstrate how books in academic libraries are evolving, and showcase how VCU Libraries engages in scholarship and collaborations to make rare and unique materials available globally.”

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Honors College revamps curriculum to emphasize collaboration and experiences, and to solve real problems facing Richmond

Instructor Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead (left) is teaching Humans of RVA and VCU this semester, a new course that will play a key role in the Honors College’s revamped curriculum in the fall.

As part of a new course in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honors College, students are working in small, diverse groups to interview Richmond residents and post their stories and photos to social media, with an eye toward gaining a better understanding of the many facets of the community.

Inspired by Humans of New York, the new course, Humans of RVA and VCU, provides students with the opportunity to study the nature of community, as well as community engagement and their role in it, said instructor Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead (M.F.A.’03/A).

“My students are learning about RVA and its history. They’re learning about community, humanity and social justice, and also about themselves and each other,” Gardinier Halstead said. “They’re looking forward to interviewing RVA residents after spring break. I can’t say enough about our students. They’re bright and inquisitive and thoughtful and creative, and they’re change-makers, too.”

Humans of RVA and VCU, which is being piloted this semester, will be a key part of a newly revamped curriculum for the Honors College that will go into effect this fall.

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Capturing the wild: VCUarts alumnus finds inspiration in Africa

Caldwell on his first safari to Tanzania, Africa in 2012.

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Wildlife artist Robert Caldwell (B.F.A.’00/A), owner of RL Caldwell Studio and Gallery, is known for his highly detailed, photorealistic paintings. His early works feature Northern American birds sprinkled with a few other types of animals he has observed on his travels around the country. In 2012, a trip to Africa sparked a new direction for his art, as if overnight elephants, zebra and monkeys appeared on his canvas. He has since returned to Africa three times, leading groups of professional artists as well as students from his Midlothian, Virginia, teaching studio on photo safaris. This Monday, he takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram account, as he makes his fourth trip to Africa.

What sparked your interest in art and wildlife?

I have always loved the outdoors and do whatever I can to get outside and see wildlife. Although I would much prefer to be in the African bush or on the side of a mountain in Colorado, I still search out and find small wildlife in any setting, even here in Richmond.

It was actually in college that I was sitting in the studio waiting for the professor to show up when I picked up a magazine called Wildlife Art and started flipping through its pages. It was that day that I was introduced to Robert Bateman and several other artists working in the wildlife art genre. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t that be a great and rewarding career?” I did not set out from that point to be a wildlife artist, but the seed had been planted.

Why did you choose to attend VCU’s art school?

Actually VCU chose me. In high school, I went to National Portfolio Day, and VCUarts was one of the programs that reviewed my portfolio. As the then-assistant dean of the School of the Arts started looking at my work, she began asking questions like “Were you helped with these drawings?” and “Did you trace them?” and a few others that I thought were odd. Odd because, of course, I didn’t have help, they were my creations.

While I was packing up my work, she asked if I could come back at the end of the day. When my parents and I returned, she asked me if I wanted to come to VCU. I answered yes without much thought, and the next thing I knew she accepted me on the spot.

In addition to being an artist, you’re also a teacher. How did that transpire?

Eight years ago, I was approached to teach a drawing class at a small art studio in Midlothian. That’s when I realized I liked teaching. Within a year, I was teaching four classes a week, which grew to six classes six months later. The studio I was teaching at decided to downsize, and it was about the same time that I was entertaining the idea of opening my own studio/school.

In 2016, I opened the doors to the RL Caldwell Studio and Gallery, where I teach, on average, 70 students a week in six different classes. Two of my former students have joined the school as instructors, and we now have classes Monday through Thursday. I leave Fridays and the weekends open so that we can hold art shows for the students and bring in outside instructors for special workshops.

When did you first go to Africa and what prompted the trip?

I went to Tanzania for the first time in October 2012. A friend of mine, Jan Martin McGuire, who at that point had been to Africa 18 times, kept telling me about all the wildlife, the habitat and just the sheer beauty of Africa. One day, after about an hour of conversation, she invited me to join her and her husband on their next safari to Tanzania. I was fortunate enough to pay for the trip by doing presales of new work I would create from my safari adventure.

What keeps you going back?

It’s simply the most amazing place to see and experience wildlife on a grand scale. As a wildlife artist, it is really important to continually observe animals in their natural habitat so that you can accurately depict them in your paintings and drawings. I feel very fortunate that I can now share Africa with my collectors, students and friends who join me on safari on yearly trips.

What has been one of your favorite moments in Africa?

My entire trip in 2012 was a life-changing event. Within the first hour of driving into Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, I saw my first wild elephants, impala, zebra, wildebeests and even a cheetah! I immediately saw a difference in the animals’ behavior and muscle structure and knew that I would never draw or paint another zoo animal again.

Of course, the fact that I even traveled to Tanzania was life-changing. It takes two very long flights, one eight hours and the other 10. This is where I mention that I’m petrified of flying, the type of petrified where you break out in a cold sweat and freak out at every strange noise and bump. I had also never been out of the country and was traveling by myself. That trip, and every one to Africa since, has completely taken me out of my comfort zone but it is worth it.

What stamp do you want next on your passport?

There are a few places I’d like to travel, and Africa continues to be high on that list. I have two safaris already planned for 2019, one to Botswana and the other back to Kenya with an extension to Rwanda. The Botswana safari will be another life-changing event as you have to take small bush planes to get from camp to camp (did I mention I hate flying?). The Kenya safari will introduce me to several new parks, including the Maasai Mara, but it’s the Rwanda extension that I’m really looking forward to. There, we’ll be spending time with mountain gorillas. What an adventure that will be!

Up next, though, is a trip this fall to Rome and Florence, Italy. Not a wildlife trip, but an art tip that several of the students at my art school have asked me to plan and schedule. I, of course, will be taking my camera and looking for urban wildlife.

VCU Massey Cancer Center finding could open doors to creating new combination therapies for an aggressive form of breast cancer

VCU Massey Cancer Center researchers have made a discovery that could lead to the creation of more effective therapies to treat HER2-positive breast cancer.

VCU Massey Cancer Center researchers have discovered why a molecule expressed with a protein known to drive 20 percent of breast cancers can lead to decreased effectiveness of a well-known targeted therapy.

They found that a molecule called microRNA-4728 prevents therapies targeting the HER2 protein from being effective. MicroRNA-4728 is co-expressed with HER2 in certain types of breast cancer cells, which means that when HER2 is overexpressed, so is microRNA-4728. Expression refers to the level of proteins in cells.

These targeted therapies, HER2 inhibitors, are currently administered with chemotherapies to boost effectivity, but chemotherapies can be extremely toxic to noncancerous, normal cells, said Anthony Faber, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research in the VCU School of Dentistry and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey Cancer Center.

The finding could lead to more effective combination therapies that inhibit the overexpression of HER2 and are relatively nontoxic, Faber said.

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VCU School of Engineering receives GO Virginia funding to support commercialization of pharmaceutical manufacturing technology

GO Virginia has announced that the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering has been awarded a grant intended to spur economic development across the region. The $500,000 grant will support commercialization efforts to implement FDA-approved, sustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing in Virginia using innovative, low-cost technologies while also increasing the highly skilled workforce needed to support the pharmaceutical industry.

This initiative will further demonstrate that new, advanced manufacturing technologies can help create an industry “cluster” or network of interrelated businesses to invent, build and grow highly efficient pharmaceutical manufacturing with the potential for wide-ranging benefits across the state.

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VCU Engineering is expanding: Announcing VCU’s new Engineering Research Building

The building’s first floor includes the office of career services for engineering students and economic development resources for the school’s active internship and co-op programs, as well as a 9,000 square-foot Innovation Maker Facility.

A state-of-the-art research building slated to open at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering in 2020 will significantly expand the school’s laboratory capacity and serve as a collaboration hub with large areas of open space.

The new Engineering Research Building will support advanced research and economic development initiatives with a design that emphasizes makerspaces, collaborative research facilities and flexible gathering areas. Richmond-based architecture firm Baskervill and Boston-based Goody Clancy are designing the 133,000-square-foot building, which will be financed with bonds issued by the state and VCU. The building, at the southeast corner of Cary and Belvidere streets, is in close proximity to Engineering East Hall and the VCU School of Business.

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VCU student Tatenda Ndambakuwa selected as a potential leader in the future of food security

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has a long list of projects at the intersection of food security and technology.

A Virginia Commonwealth University student is one of only 27 students from around the world selected as part of the Next Generation Delegation that will attend the Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is part of a select group of students studying agricultural development, social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship, and other food security related disciplines. She was selected to attend the symposium from an applicant pool of more than 800 students attending 364 universities in nearly 90 countries. As a member of the delegation, she will attend the conference, participate in symposium discussions and interact with business and policy leaders, civil society, and social entrepreneurs working on agriculture, food and nutrition issues.

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