Physician, pilot, average Joe?: How one VCU alumnus made his dreams come true despite struggling in school

Juk Ting stands in a victory pose near the turbine engine of an aircraft.

Juk Ting, D.O. (B.S.’90/H&S), enjoys a moment of fun near the turbine engine of an aircraft. Photo courtesy of Juk Ting.

By Erica Naone

Juk “J” Ting, D.O. (B.S.’90/H&S), 49, insists he’s an “average Joe.” Coming from a Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus who’s both a practicing physician and an airline pilot, the claim is a bit hard to swallow.

Ting worked as a stadium doctor at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for 11 years. His passion for flying became a career in 2016. He flew the Boeing 777 for Southern Air, which offers air freighter services, and is now flying the Boeing 747 for Kalitta Air, an American cargo airline. He didn’t trade medicine in for flying, though. Ting is Board certified in emergency medicine and is licensed to practice medicine in 22 states, which he does between flights through the telemedicine company Teledoc.

Behind the adventure and accomplishment, however, is a story of a person who struggled in school. An immigrant from Taiwan, Ting came to the U.S. in 1983 at age 14, speaking hardly any English. He applied to go to undergrad at VCU but didn’t get in. Instead, he attended Germanna Community College for two years, where his grades paved his way for VCU acceptance on his second try. After graduating with a B.S. in Chemistry, Ting was again disappointed when he wasn’t accepted into VCU’s School of Medicine. He carried on, attending the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“It’s OK if you’re not the brightest guy in your class,” Ting says. “If it takes you two years to do what people can do in one year, just try.”

To hear Ting tell it, he owes all his success to luck and the people around him. He has high praise for Audrey Jordan, Ph.D. (M.S.W.’90/SW; Ph.D.’99/SW), a counselor when Ting attended Germanna Community College, whose advice Ting continues to cherish. He credits his graduation from VCU to housemate Maulik Shah, M.D., Ph.D. (B.S.’91/H&S; Ph.D.’97/M), who he says “carried me along.” He either “got lucky” or opportunities “dropped in his lap” when he describes his medical career with the Los Angeles Dodgers or flying a Boeing 777 and 747 or the way telemedicine allows him to travel all over the country while practicing both his careers.

Listen to him long enough, and a suspicion grows that Ting’s story isn’t just about luck. “You will not believe the rejection letters I got,” he says, describing how he applied to more than 20 medical schools. Ting’s ability to speak fluent Chinese opened the door to his job with the Dodgers because, at the time, four Taiwanese players played on the team. Where Ting sees luck, others might see a key skill.

Juk Ting is in the pilot seat, surrounded by glowing consoles.

Juk Ting, D.O. (B.S.’90/H&S) looks back from the pilot’s seat of an aircraft. Photo courtesy of Juk Ting.

Ting began flying planes as a hobby but that interest blossomed into a career as a flight instructor and then as a professional airline transport pilot, and what Ting calls luck might be another man’s reward for experience and persistence.

Listen to his friends tell the story, and an even clearer picture emerges. Shah recalls making bets about academic achievements with his friend Nick Vahanian, M.D. (B.S.’91/H&S), in an attempt to motivate each other to do well at VCU. For example, whoever got the lowest score on the next test would have to buy Chinese food for the group. He says they invited others to join but “very few people would take us up on this other than J Ting.” Shah recalls Ting as shy, reserved, not confident in his English, but very much able to hold his own.

He also remembers unexpected generosity from Ting. Before they were close friends, Shah, who is color blind, was struggling in his histology class because some of the readings he needed to take required him to distinguish between red and green. Ting spent long hours helping Shah.

Soon, Ting became an integral part of the friend group. The group found keys to the roof of the biology building and dragged lawn chairs up to an old greenhouse there, which they turned into a clubhouse of sorts.

In the course of the friendship, Shah says, Ting began to influence him. “J Ting might be the only one of us who had an inkling of possibly going into medicine,” Shah says. “I think he helped us see medicine as a potential career.” Today, Shah, Vahanian and Ting are all licensed physiciansM.D..

Shah recalls another key influence from Ting: Though he hasn’t kept it valid, Shah also got his pilot’s license. “I’m sure that the birth of this started at a bar with the three of us talking about the joys of flying,” he says.

As Ting travels the world on the Boeing 777 and 747 planes that he flies for work, he is looking to reconnect with the people he credits with bringing him to where he is today. Shah hopes they can meet up in California, where Ting lives. Jordan, who has moved to Ting’s area, says they’ve talked about him taking her for a plane ride.

Ting isn’t sure of what to hope for next. He describes his story as “just a little immigrant guy from Taiwan, not very good in school, but before 50 years of age achieved all his dreams.” When pressed on what dreams the future may hold, Ting laughs and says, “I’m dreaming of flying just the L.A.-Honolulu route.”

Wilder alumnus hopes to make big change by starting small

Upper body photo of Javon Davis wearing a suit, while standing in front of a wall covered in street art.By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Javon Davis (B.A.’14/GPA; Cert.’15/GPA; M.P.A.’16/GPA), policy and government affairs manager for the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram tomorrow, Sept. 18.

Why did you choose VCU?

After growing up in a small town in southern Virginia, I was really looking for an urban environment for college. My uncle, a fellow VCU alumnus, lived in the Richmond, Virginia, area and I always loved coming to the city to see him and explore. While VCU had always been No. 1 in the back of my mind, it was a campus tour that really sold me. I instantly felt at home on campus and the welcoming, diverse community was everything I dreamed of. VCU is one of few schools in the country that offers a homeland security program, and with incredible opportunities in and out of the classroom, it was an easy choice for me.

What sparked your interest in public administration?

My father, uncle and grandfather all had public service experience in some capacity so it has always interested me. When I originally came to VCU, I studied homeland security and emergency preparedness in hopes of working in federal law enforcement with an agency like the FBI. However, through different experiences I had while interning around Richmond, I learned that instead of putting more people in prison, I wanted to be on the other side and help build strong communities that give people opportunities outside of crime.

After that realization, I worked to get a Master of Public Administration after I finished my undergraduate studies in 2014. Now I’m applying my degree by working in local government.

What was your VCU experience like over the years?

Nothing short of amazing. When I finished undergrad, I knew I wasn’t quite ready to leave yet, so I was extremely happy when I was awarded the Eva S. Hardy Scholarship in Public Administration and the L. Douglas Wilder Graduate Scholars Fellowship which allowed me to gain real-world experience working with the Virginia Department of Corrections while pursuing my M.P.A.

I think my experience at VCU definitely played a role in encouraging my call to work in government. From the moment I stepped on campus, I was floored by the diversity. I learned so much about language, religion, gender, sexuality and race from my peers. VCU opened my eyes to the fact that 32,000 people, all of whom come from different backgrounds, can still connect in a meaningful way. In many ways, I see VCU as a microcosm of what America could be.

How did you land in Kansas City after graduation?

I knew I wanted to be a part of creating strong, prosperous communities, and I knew that local government is where one can have the most impact in the shortest amount of time. However, I didn’t know which department or which position would be the best for me within a large city government.

After being chosen for the Cookingham-Noll Management Fellowship by the city of Kansas City, Missouri, I started working in the city manager’s office here. It allowed me the opportunity to rotate through six departments over a two-year period, helping me grow in ways I could not have imagined. From this experience, I learned the intricacies of city administration, researched issues that are being faced in cities throughout the country and have met connections that will last a lifetime. While I do miss Richmond, Kansas City has been exactly what I needed right out of graduate school.

VCU’s Center for the Study of Tobacco Products receives nearly $20M grant to predict outcomes of tobacco product regulations

A manvapes while hooked up to various body monitoring devices and a researcher takes notes.

The $19.78 million grant will be used to launch a five-year project focused on predicting the outcomes of government regulations of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

The Center for the Study of Tobacco Products at Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $19.78 million grant through a partnership between the National Institutes of Health and the  FDA Center for Tobacco Products to launch a five-year project focused on predicting the outcomes of government regulations of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

The center, which is part of the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is one of nine Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science across the country that provide research to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to ensure U.S. tobacco regulatory actions and activities are based on sound and relevant scientific evidence.

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VCU awarded Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award

INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine has selected Virginia Commonwealth University as a recipient of the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award.

The HEED Award is a national honor recognizing U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. VCU will be one of 96 recipients recognized in the November 2018 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education.

This is the second time VCU has been named as a HEED Award recipient. The first was in 2012, the inaugural year of the awards.

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Fun with forensics: Researcher, mentor, leader and colorful person Michelle Peace, Ph.D., stirs the pot

Michelle Peace, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’05/M), stands with VCU forensic science students, dressed in her signature bright colors.

Michelle Peace, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’05/M), stands with VCU forensic science students, dressed in her signature bright colors. Photo by Shane Woolf (M.S.’16/H&S).

By Erica Naone

Michelle Peace, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’05/M), wears many hats.

A well-known forensic toxicologist, Peace has traveled the world presenting research on groundbreaking subjects such as uses and misuses of electronic cigarettes. As an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, she is helping to train and nurture the next generation in her field. A sought-after leader, she served 2015-18 as president of the MCV Alumni Association of VCU and is currently the president of her professional organization, the Society of Forensic Toxicologists. Not only that, Peace also has garnered a reputation as a vivid personality with a colorful wardrobe, the life of the party and the owner of a free-spirited laugh that makes her stand out in any crowd.

Peace entered forensic science after searching for a way to marry two seemingly unrelated interests. She loved chemistry but knew she wanted to study it in a way that would have more immediate impact when applied. She also loved her time serving on the Student Hearing Board at her undergraduate institution, Wittenberg University, and was considering going into law after getting her bachelor’s degree.

Following a suggestion from one of her undergraduate professors, she visited a crime lab. “This sounds hokey,” Peace says, “but it felt like the heavens parted and the angels sang.”

Since then, she’s explored elements of forensic science over a far-reaching spectrum — everything from what can be learned from insects at the scene of a crime to the toxicological effects of Chinese medicinal herbs on the human body.

“When you have a case, you’re looking for something that is going to point you in a direction that will tell you the story of what happened right there,” she says. “Oftentimes, you have to look toward unusual things.”

Haley Mulder (B.S.’16/H&S; M.S.’18/H&S), a pharmacology Ph.D. student at VCU who has studied, worked with and been mentored by Peace, says, “Oh my God, she’s creative.” Peace, she says, comes up with questions about hot-button issues and encourages her students to explore them by writing grants and proposals. “She likes to joke sometimes that we’re stirring the pot with different conversations,” Mulder says.

In many cases, that pays off spectacularly. The lab at VCU’s Department of Forensic Science has been funded by two grants from the National Institute of Justice for its work on e-cigarettes. That money has supported nearly 20 students, and the group has made more than 40 presentations on the work and written seven manuscripts, with another five in preparation. In the process, they’ve analyzed many elements of how e-cigarettes actually work, what happens to e-liquids when they’re heated in the devices, what e-liquids contain and release into the vapor the devices produce and how e-cigarettes can be used as delivery devices for drugs other than nicotine. “We’ve been really, really productive,” Peace says.

Mulder says she was burned out when she met Peace as an undergrad. Though she loves chemistry, she says, she’s not a natural at the subject, and the hard work of learning it was grinding her down. She had come to accept that she might not be cut out for graduate school despite her dreams of pursuing a master’s degree.

Mulder planned to “get out and go work,” finding whatever job she could manage with her bachelor’s. Her encounter with Peace changed her plans for her life. Before long, she was talking with Peace about getting a master’s, then a Ph.D. This opens up more possibilities for Mulder to continue working as a researcher or to take leadership positions in her field with greater responsibilities.

“I’m a completely different person from before I started with this research group,” Mulder says. “It helped get me out of my shell.”

Sara Dempsey (M.S.’15/H&S), who studies pharmacology and toxicology in the VCU School of Medicine, also says she wouldn’t have dreamed of getting a Ph.D. without Peace’s encouragement. “She is a very intelligent woman and a great role model for women in science,” Dempsey says, “especially for those who want to be in the field of forensic science.” She credits Peace not only with teaching her about science but also about leadership.

Peace is no stranger to leadership — she helped build the undergraduate curriculum for VCU’s Department of Forensic Science, has served as the associate chair of the department as well as interim chair and has served as a volunteer in various positions on the board of her professional organization and the MCV Alumni Association of VCU.

The past few years, however, have brought intense and rewarding leadership challenges. Peace’s term as president of MCVAA was extended from two years to three because of changes affecting the organization during Peace’s tenure.

Peace says she’s proud of having led the group through hard conversations, facing difficult realities and, ultimately, changing for the better. While Peace was president, the MCVAA moved to an inclusive membership model that welcomes all alumni, eliminating the dues requirement. The organization also increased its transparency and added procedures to make nominating new board members and leaders run more smoothly.

“Michelle is going to be a hard act to follow,” says Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D. (B.S.’77/P; D.D.S.’83/D; Cert.’91/D; Ph.D.’91/M), who is the current president of the MCVAA. “At the same time, she has created a path to follow. She worked hard to create a relevant culture of alumni across the medical campus and the entire university who are actively engaged by giving time, talent and treasure. She was always at the table for discussion and decisions. She was the first to bring back past presidents of the MCVAA for a meeting of minds to discuss our rich heritage and our bright future. I admire Michelle and appreciate all her volunteer work. She did some heavy lifting.”

Colorful person
Peace works in an office decorated with her skull collection, but the room is in no way gloomy. Instead, she keeps her space vibrant with the same bright colors that characterize her wardrobe.

Despite how busy she is, Peace is an easy person to find at a conference. Mulder recalls many occasions when she spotted Peace in a crowded room because of either her bright outfits or distinctive laugh.

Each Christmas, the lab group takes the time to unwind with a visit to Escape Room RVA, an interactive puzzle in which participants work together to get out of a locked room within a time limit. Peace is a brilliant researcher, but Mulder says she doesn’t tend to focus on the deductive elements of the game. “She stands in the middle of the room watching everything going on, giggling,” Mulder says.

Peace says, “Yeah, I’m no good at those games, but I take them to that event to build teamwork and to observe individuals in the group. I have created opportunities based on what I’ve learned during that game.”

The loyalty Peace inspires comes through clearly even when she’s not explicitly in charge. Mulder says students call Peace “Mama Duck” because she’s often trailed by a line of grad students following like ducklings.

Dempsey describes the way Peace can find a few minutes for fun even in the midst of working long hours. “She is always on the dance floor at SOFT,” Dempsey says, referring to the annual conference put on by Peace’s professional organization. She says Peace will grab 30 minutes on the dance floor before going back to a meeting or work on a presentation.

Peace is planning Prince-themed fun at the next SOFT event, which will take place in the entertainer’s hometown of Minneapolis. “She’s telling all of us, get your purple dress or your purple attire,” Dempsey says. “I’m sure they’re going to play Prince songs. And I think she already has her purple outfit.”

Peace says “It’ll be a week of hard work, culminating in a really fun evening to remind us that we’re a family.”

That sense of fun is a key part of her approach to leadership, work and life in general. “We do this work because we want to support and build organizations and programs that are fundamentally good,” she says. “Most people stay with the work even when it’s hard because we’re having a good time while accomplishing something of value.”

Aside from purple clothes and dancing, Peace has been working hard to protect and secure a productive future for SOFT and the field of forensic science generally. As she did with MCVAA, Peace has led conversations about a strategic plan for SOFT’s future since becoming president. She has opened up discussions on diversity and heralded the value of research and the importance of mentoring young professionals. As with many things she’s undertaken in the course of her career, she seems likely to leave a memorable impression.

‘Without this scholarship, my life would be in a totally different place’

Three students hold a sign to thank donors at Thank a Donor Day

VCU students gathered on the Compass on Monday to sign posters, write letters and record video messages thanking donors for their support.

Giovanni Knight knows firsthand the importance of philanthropy. She has two younger siblings who have autism and their care is expensive. When Knight was looking to attend college, the financial burden on her family appeared too much to handle.

“When it came to funding and financing school, it wasn’t in the cards,” she said.

Undeterred, Knight applied for scholarships to offset the cost. She also started working part time after enrolling at Virginia Commonwealth University. Along the way, she started hearing stories about donors.

“I started hearing about all these people contributing to scholarships,” Knight said. “And I was like, ‘That’s pretty amazing.’ You don’t know me, you have nothing to do with me, but you decided to contribute to my education. I just really appreciate that.”

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Nonprofit CEOs who opt for lower pay lead more effective organizations, VCU research shows

businessman pushing golden dollar coin forward on floor in flat icon design with blue color background

CEOs of nonprofits who purposefully earn less than their peers tend to lead organizations with superior performance, according to a new study conducted by two Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business professors.

Serving Others at the Expense of Self: The Relationship between Nonprofit CEO Compensation and Performance in Trade and Professional Associations,” co-authored by Christopher S. Reina, Ph.D., and Joseph E. Coombs, Ph.D., was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs.

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What’s new at VCU for 2018-19

A grassy courtyard with outdoor seating stretches out behind the building at the new Gladding Residence Center.

A grassy courtyard with outdoor seating stretches out behind the building at the new Gladding Residence Center.

While Virginia Commonwealth University likes to commemorate its heritage, including throwing its own 50th birthday party this month, the university is most focused on its present and future. Every year, VCU introduces exciting new programs, people and places to the university and local communities.

Here’s a sampling of what’s new at VCU this year.

VCU schools of the Arts and Medicine launch physician-scientist-in-residence program

April 24, 2015, 23rd WISDM Leadership Conference_John E. Nestler

John E. Nestler, M.D., the first physician-scientist-in-residence at the VCU School of the Arts.

John E. Nestler, M.D. (H.S.’80/M; H.S.’83/M; H.S.’86/M), has been named the inaugural physician-scientist-in-residence at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. Former chair of VCU’s Department of Internal Medicine in the School of Medicine and a member of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Nestler will bring his in-depth knowledge of medical science, the local medical environment and clinical research to the School of the Arts.

The physician-scientist-in-residence program, one of the first residencies of its kind in an arts school, is part of an ongoing collaboration between the School of the Arts and the School of Medicine to help improve medical education and advance the clinical health and well-being in the community by addressing and solving problems through art and design.

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VCU professor’s Garry Winogrand documentary premieres in Virginia

Black and white photograph of a man and women driving down a street in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles,” by Garry Winogrand. (Photograph by Garry Winogrand, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona)

A Virginia Commonwealth University professor’s feature documentary on iconoclastic photographer Garry Winogrand will have its Virginia premiere at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Sept. 7 at 6:30 p.m.

Produced and directed by Sasha Waters Freyer, chair of the VCU School of the Arts Department of Photography and Film, “Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable” is the first documentary film on the life and work of the acclaimed photographer. An epic storyteller in pictures of America across three turbulent decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, Winogrand’s artistry encompassed the heartbreak, violence, hope and turmoil of postwar America.

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